Troy stared blankly at his two companions and said, “Yep, we’re stranded.”
Oliver looked nonplussed, maybe close to tears. Nate, however, looked from Troy to Oliver to the catamaran then, finally, out to sea. The wheels in his head were already turning.
The three of them had set out on their rented catamaran for a day away from the often taxing duties at the eXplorminate office. It was just supposed to be them, the open sea, and some well-earned relaxation on the USS Devil Dog. However, planet Antheia had other plans.
Without warning, a storm appeared before them. The merciless waves crashed our heroes into a nearby island. They now stood at the foot of a short beach, the catamaran’s mast broken, crimson sail snapping in the wind. Up the beach, a massive red forest beckoned.
“Let’s take this thing apart,” Nate said, slapping one palm on the useless catamaran. It was mostly intact after striking the beach and scudding to a stop, but one side was broken clean in two, the front half pointing accusingly toward the stormy skies. “We’re going to need shelter.”
“I think the storm might be clearing out,” Troy said, looking out to sea.
Oliver followed his gaze. “Maybe not,” he said.
“Here’s the thing,” Nate said. “We need to move inland. The forest should be good shelter, and we can set up camp there. Let’s salvage what we can from the catamaran.”
The three of them set to work…
We’ll get back to Nate and company soon enough. We don’t want to leave them stranded forever – someone has to edit this piece, right? First, though, let’s get some of the dry stuff outta the way.
After a long stint in Early Access, Unclaimed World is finally here. Developed by the very small indie studio Refactored Games, Unclaimed World is a sci-fi colony sim set on the distant planet Antheia in the Tau Ceti system.
The story of humanity venturing to Antheia is a simple one, and the premise for everything after. After a century-long journey from Earth, we landed on Antheia in 2238. Over the first few years, we lost our advanced Earth equipment to the elements, malfunction, and sometimes sabotage, but we eventually managed to stabilize our culture and look toward the future. Unclaimed World is, at its heart, a history of humanity on their new homeworld. How we choose to build and survive, and the relationships we build along the way.
Part of this faux-historical, story-focussed approach is evident in the maps. Unclaimed World doesn’t throw random, computer-generated sandbox maps at you. Rather, you’re given the choice of a handful of scenarios that take place at different times during the colonization of Antheia. Historical scenarios are an interesting way of handling map selection, but I feel like some of our readers might have preferred the pure sandbox approach. The hand-drawn maps are likely the reason for the decision to go all-in on scenarios, but perhaps randomized maps could be added in the future. The devs listen to their players and are very responsive.
When you load up a scenario, the first thing you’ll likely notice is the colorfully detailed world of Antheia. It’s an interesting place, rife with often-hostile wildlife, interesting flora, and animations that help bring the planet to life. However, you are limited to a single zoom level, which restricted my enjoyment of the world – I really wanted to zoom in and check out every detail – and hindered my gameplay – everything was so tiny! It is impossible to see every item hiding on the map, particularly at higher resolutions.
The music is also quite striking. Composed by Martin Hasseldam and Jesper Lundager, it easily and simply conveys humanity’s attempt to make a future on a foreign planet. The soundtrack is a digital lens through which Antheia is viewed. It doesn’t quite reach the majesty of the Sid Meier’s Beyond Earth soundtrack, but it still evokes that same hopeful possibility of life somewhere other than Earth. There’s also a strange Twin Peaks vibe running through a track or two – Badalamenti would be proud. Unfortunately, the soundtrack is also all too short, repeats often, and players may find that they quickly tire of it.
The first thing I noticed about Unclaimed World, aside from the art and music, was the lack of direct control. Almost everything is accomplished by dragging a box over a section of the map and then choosing an action for that selected area. Options include gather, scout, patrol, examine, hunt, and more. There’s no way to select a single colonist and send him to gather firewood. You have to draw a box around the trees in question, choose gather, and then choose firewood from the next menu. Then one of your citizens (if they’re not all busy) will head out to collect the lumber. It’s not a complex system, but it can often seem unintuitive and cumbersome.
“How the hell do we get across this gorge?” Oliver asked.
“I think there’s some rope in the supplies,” Nate said.
“I’ll have a look.” Oliver began rummaging through the crates of equipment they had packed before heading north.
Nate stood near the edge of the gorge. It was more of a chasm, a rift cracking the ground from east to west. It was only fifteen feet across, but it may as well have been a mile at this point. Didn’t matter. The fields flowing in the evening breeze upon the other side of the chasm – a clearing in the middle of the forest – looked like a perfect place to set up camp for the night. And night was upon them.
“Be quick,” Nate said, diving into another crate.
“Here!” Troy exclaimed. He had a coil of rope in each hand.
“I think we can probably make a rope bridge if we can somehow get it around that tree,” Nate said, pointing toward the opposite bank.
“Agreed. Let’s do this quick, I can barely see…”
First, a colony has to be able to support itself. If your people don’t eat they eventually starve or, if they’re smart, they wander off to join a better settlement – or at least one with food. Creating a campfire and cooking a few berries is easy, but your colonists will need a more sustainable food source in order to survive and to keep the colony growing. To this end, colonists can fish, hunt, or farm. But not until you’ve created the necessary tools and settled your people into a routine.
Routines are controlled using the Production Management window. There, you can set up a recurring task, known in the game as a standing order. For instance, you’ll want your cooks to keep the camp fed around the clock, so it’s good to have them keep a certain number of meals on hand at all times. That way, when your colonists are hungry, they can just pull up a seat by the fire and have a plate. It’s simple at first, but as your camp begins to grow into a settlement – with more mouths to feed and more tasks to accomplish – organizing these tasks can be a bear. To help organize the tasks, you’re given a priority system, allowing you to set the importance of every task to either low, medium or high. You don’t want your workers slaving away at the kiln while they starve to death, right? Nevertheless, it feels like there is a lot of micromanagement needed to succeed, though I never lost a colony to starvation. Not unintentionally, anyway!
Unclaimed World revels in these details. The developers have stated that Paradox games were an influence on them, and it shows. The production menu is an extensive list of current and future production. And I do mean extensive. There’s an option to show each and every producible item in the game, and the list seems to go on for miles. And it’s not a simple, linear list. There’s a line of technology needed in order to discover and utilize materials and tools that allow you to then create more advanced structures and tools, which can be used to create more advanced… Well, you get the point.
As an example, let’s take on the creation of mudbricks. They are fairly easy to create, but the materials required and the steps taken to create bricks from clay and firewood is quite involved. First, you have to build a kiln. You gather clay and stone, then construct the kiln in your camp. You might think you’re ready to make some mudbricks in your new kiln. Oh no. First, you have to decide how many bricks you want to create at the same time, then build a matching number of mudbrick molds from sticks laying around. Then you gather both clay and firewood, create wet mudbricks from them, and then, finally, you’ll fire the wet mudbricks in your molds to create the final product. You can also construct more kilns and more molds in order to further increase production, assuming you really need bricks for camp or, more likely, for trade with other colonies.
Sound complicated? It can be. The interface, while powerful, can be clunky. The learning curve is high. I still feel a little lost after 20+ hours. Creating your kiln, gathering what you need for your bricks, and eventually firing them can look like a colorful spreadsheet with various pinned item windows and production requirements and gathering grids all over your monitor. You do have the option to automate production of certain goods, as I mentioned, like food or manufactured items, in order to create a steady supply, which eventually limits some of the micromanagement.
“Pfew, we made it,” Oliver said. He flopped into the high grass.
“Careful,” Troy said, pointing at the high, thick grass all around them. It undulated under the dark sky, whispering and hissing in the night. “You have no idea what the hell’s in there.”
“I don’t care,” Oliver replied with a deep sigh. “It can have me.”
Nate finished dragging the last crate next to the others and let it thump to the ground. “We rest for a few, then we set up our shelter.”
“Those things are easy,” Oliver said. “We used to take them on camping trips.”
“Aye, they go up fast,” Troy said.
“Good, I’m beat,” Nate said. He’d spent more time at a desk than outdoors and much of the gear was foreign to him outside of basic recognition. He might be the natural leader of the three but he’d have to make use of their skills and talents in order to keep them alive.
They stared quietly out into the night, still able to hear the sea to the southeast. Out there, somewhere, their catamaran lay broken and dead on the shore.
“Okay, let’s do this,” Nate said.
Not only is the hard science of materials, tools, and resources a consideration in Unclaimed World, but the smart leader has to take into account the skills of his people. Just like Nate! Every person in your colony has a character page. On it is their name, age, sex, morale, current task (or lack thereof), and also a very long list of skills and their individual ratings. Some people will be great hunters, others won’t be able to find the pointy end of a spear. Some will be able to cook up extravagant meals with ease while others – like me – won’t be able to boil an egg without burning their face off. And if you covet that family of chemists up the river because your hunters are knuckleheads? Hire a barge and attempt to bring them to your own colony.
It’s easy to see, at a glance, how the colony as a whole is doing. Your colony is rated in three general areas: Food, Security, and Comfort. The percentage for each is located at the top of the screen, along with an arrow indicating whether that category is rising or falling. There are also graphs for each category that give you an idea of why you’re doing well – or not.
You can issue more advanced policies in each category as your ratings increase. These policies can advance your technology in that category. Better Food policies increase your food production and efficiency, Security lets you advance from spears to rifles and more, and Comfort allows your people better homes and more free time.
Speaking of spears and rifles, Antheia is an often hostile place. The wildlife doesn’t always want you around. Combat is handled indirectly, like anything, but it’s much better than it was for most of Early Access. It was atrocious for the longest time, requiring unintuitive manipulation of various indirect commands in order to get your people in the right place and attack areas together instead of wandering in piecemeal. Just how the predators like their humans – one at a time! Recently, though, a simple slider was added to the Attack option. This lets you choose how many colonists will travel together to assault the same area. So much easier! Unfortunately, as ever, the action is small and uninteresting at a distance, but the meaning is still discernable. Have I mentioned I really miss the option to zoom in? The animations are excellent but often wasted because they’re so tiny.
But let’s get back to our intrepid reviewers…
Dawn broke over the trio’s camp, bringing fair skies and a cool morning breeze. Nate stood over near the rope bridge, looking downhill through the forest and across the short beach to the calm surf. Oliver and Troy were stirring behind him. Nate could hear them moving about, speaking in low tones. Nate had woken well before dawn. They weren’t home yet, but he knew he had to get them there.
The night had been touch-and-go. Oliver had spotted glowing eyes in the darkness to the northeast. He’d also heard a growl or two. Eventually, they all heard the low growling. Spooked, they had quickly slapped together three spears from sticks and stones. A one-hundred year trip from their homeworld and this was the best they could do on short notice.
Nate was chuckling to himself when Oliver and Troy approached.
“Watcha doin’?” Troy asked.
“I think we need to build a signal pyre,” Nate said.
Nate and company have been living out the first tutorial, lost on an unnamed island in-game, but we’ll roll with Gilligan’s Island.There are three tutorials in total, teaching the basics of Unclaimed World. The second and third tutorial are more open-ended, allowing you to take the scenario beyond the educational menus. On top of this, there’s one scenario and four other open-ended maps of varying sizes. In all, there are only eight maps, ranging from small to large, and although I think the game would benefit from a random, sandbox option, there’s plenty on offer to keep players happy for some time. I mostly played on the large Tau Ceti map, enjoying its more open-ended nature.
All of this is barely scratching the surface of Unclaimed World. Seriously, I’ve played a little over twenty hours and I still feel like I’ve only discovered a little of what’s possible. It’s a smart game, with a lot under the hood. Think Dwarf Fortress but leave the ASCII at the door. [Seriously, leave it at the door – Nate.] Unclaimed World is complex, in a good way, but sometimes the interface seems to be doing its best to wall off the fun. It can also be a very punishing game, particularly on the higher difficulty levels. Forgot to prioritize your production properly? Oh, too bad, you’re out of mudbricks and you just ruined that trade route. You hunted the local creatures into extinction and now your people are starving? Sorry for ya, they’re hopping on the empty supply barge and heading upriver. It’s tough to balance everything in the colony, but Unclaimed World is deliberate and slow-paced, giving you the time to make the needed decisions. It can be a lot of fun, but it can also be a lot of work.
The three survivors sat back in the high grass, watching the massive red leaves burn upon their newly built pyre. The fire had actually turned out quite well, considering their circumstances and the tools available. The smoke rose thick and billowing in a solid column into the evening sky. Nate, Oliver, and Troy glowed with pride and confidence – they had enough food and supplies for a week, and plenty of fuel to keep the pyre going well beyond that. Things were looking up.
“So that’s pretty cool,” Troy said.
“Won’t be long,” Nate replied, grinning.
All three of them nodded silently and stared into the flames, smiles on their faces.
TL;DR: Unclaimed World is an intriguing colony sim. On the one hand, I really love the detailed setting, the music, and the idea of creating a colony from scratch. At times I felt connected to my colony and ready to lead my people into a new future. Unfortunately, a lot of the fun is lost in the details, and even mundane tasks can seem monumental thanks to the unwieldy interface. An interesting take on the genre, Unclaimed World is smart, complex, deep, and deliberate, even if it doesn’t always grab me for hours on end. I’m curious to see what Refactored does with it in the future.
You Might Like This Game If:
- You enjoy managing people and utilizing them to their fullest potential
- You love micromanaging everything your people do
- You’re not averse to spreadsheets and a complicated interface
- You enjoy the fiction of making your way on a new planet
- Survival sims are your thing
You Might Not Like This Game If:
- You don’t want too many details blocking your fun
- You want direct control of your people
- You absolutely hate spreadsheets and drop-down menus and long lists
- You have a monitor with a high native resolution
- You abhor micromanagement
Chris received a review copy of Uncharted World and has played 20+ hours on an Intel Core i7-4790 CPU (3.60GHz), 12GB RAM, nVidia 4GB GTX 745.