Klei Entertainment - the studio responsible for games like Don't Starve - has been working on testing strategy fans with Oxygen Not Included for a while. The colony-building game has been in Early Access since 2017, but two years later, we're treated to the full release this summer, and we've been getting stuck in ourselves to see whether we've got what it takes to keep our crew alive with limited resources.
On our first run we were really fumbling around, so much so that we managed to dig ourselves into a position where we couldn't access everything we'd already built (it happens to the best of us, especially in the 2D world), and on our second run we learned a bit, making sure we could access everything we needed to. That is, until we dug into the bottom of an underground lake and managed to flood our fledgling colony before it had even started. Nightmare.
But that's the beauty of the first few hours with Oxygen Not Included, because there's an inner monologue saying "I'd best not do that again" or "I'll do this differently next time". What's more is that, since it's been in Early Access so long, there's already a community built around it, and one trip to YouTube or Google gives you the answers you need to your conundrums, and some pointers for how to improve.
After the first few hours we really found ourselves getting to grips with the game, especially with the little hints and tips boxes on the top left, and that's when the fun really started. That said, there are some bits were extra clarity or tutorials could have been provided to make things clearer, because for the longest time we couldn't figure out why we were unable to sweep up certain items, for instance. With so many systems at play, just a little more explanation in certain areas wouldn't have gone amiss.
And trust us when we say there are a lot of systems, which are all interconnected. There are several parameters you need to pay attention to when building your colony - from temperature to oxygen, food, stress, germs, and more - and all of these impact one another. You won't be able to build a good colony without finely balancing these elements, especially oxygen (which isn't included, if you hadn't heard).
The ways all of these work together is incredibly detailed, and one example of this is the fact that oxygen rises while carbon dioxide sinks, so having tall rooms meant our workers often ran out of breathable air performing tasks on the floor, as you can see in action in the livestream replay above.
As with any game of this sort, progressing into the later stages see new challenges emerge, like moving into new biomes and discovering hazards like gases and hotter/lower temperatures. These need more technology to regulate (using airlocks to keep gases in or out, as well as heaters and ice machines, for example), which in turn needs more research, and just like in games such as Civilization, the more you research the more tools are at your disposal, meaning further opportunites to succeed... and fail.
Progressing also gives you new means of satisfying your basic needs as well, as you can upgrade your production of mush bars to meaningful food, especially if you've got the right ingredients, and turn an outhouse and washbasin into healthier and more aesthetically-pleasing options. That's more important than it sounds too, because your duplicants (the guys in your colony) get stressed and unhappy from a variety of factors, including whether or not the place is looking lovely.
These duplicants can be customised, including custom names and hats, and each has their own positive and negative traits. These duplicants can then be upgraded when you earn skill points, making your colony more efficient as each member starts to specialise. You can even earn more of these little people with drops that give you a choice of new duplicants or supplies at regular intervals, keeping your momentum going and allowing you to expand.
While most of the tasks you decide are automated, with each duplicant getting round to it when they have time, you do have a certain level of micromanagement at your disposal as well. A detailed priorities screen allows you to tweak what each duplicant does, and you can manually assign priorities to certain tasks if they need doing ASAP. You can even decide the routine for your workers, moving work hours and/or free time around as you see fit, or totally go all out and slam the red alert to get things going in an emergency, with your duplicants rejecting their basic needs to get to work.
Elsewhere in the UI you also have overlays like oxygen and temperature to see where the map can get problematic; achievements for your colony as you hit certain milestones; and deep insights into each block when you click on it, so you can really spend hours sifting through information to try and get everything right. The 2D, cartoon visuals disguise the intricate machinery going on under the surface, but it never loses the personality it has from the cute little characters running around on screen, similar to what we've seen in other games like Theme Hospital or Fallout Shelter. That's why it's even more heartbreaking when one mistake brings your colony crashing down.
Oxygen Not Included is undoubtedly a very tough game, but one that rewards you for your time. Like the best strategy games, you can feel yourself learning from your mistakes and getting better with each run, and while you're constantly juggling the tasks at hand, it never feels overwhelming. The odds are never impossible, and it's a rewarding game that constantly pushes you to adapt with all of its parameters, which gives the greatest sense of satisfaction when your duplicants are scuttling about the screen like an ant farm keeping all the gears turning in your empire.
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