October 23, 2014

Review: NASA’s Moonbase Alpha.

Game Logo. (Credit NASA).

Game Logo. (Credit NASA).

  It’s hard to weld in a spacesuit… This week, we take a look at Moonbase Alpha. No, this isn’t a resurrection of the 70’s TV series Space: 1999 re-imagined, but NASA’s new online interactive game. We’ve been playing it for a few weeks now since its release in early July. Just how does its authenticity, educational use, and just plain fun factor stack up?

Right off, I’ll admit that we’re not much for online gaming; I get beaten regularly by my computer at chess, mastered Age of Empires II on my Razor while sitting through endless streams of meetings, and wasted a mints worth of quarters playing Asteroids as a kid. That’s about the extent of my gaming expertise. The big old game called Life keeps us plenty engaged and busy… don’t expect to see any f- key tricks or game-speak babble here. But this is a science blog, and any and all things NASA certainly grab our attention.

The scenario set forth in Moonbase Alpha centers around a lunar base established in 2020 in Shackleton, a polar lunar crater. An asteroid strike has severely damaged the outpost, and your job as the astronaut grunt worker is to repair the system within time constraints. The asteroid strike scenario may be a bit farfetched, but not out of the realm of possibility and certainly not as out there as the Space: 1999 premise of having the Moon blown out of orbit. The game has different levels of the same scenario, and has options to play in a competitive (with time constraints) mode or free play. I would advise using free play mode the first few times around just to get a look at things. One astronaut can effectively repair the first level in the time allotted, but really interesting dynamics come into play when you puzzle through repair procedures with multiple astronauts.

How does the science and educational value of the game stack up? Well, the setting is based largely on the “Apollo on steroids” vision for lunar exploration that was recently shelved indefinitely. Our bet is that the game was in development before the demise of the Constellation program, and pushed through to its conclusion. The setting envisions a long term Antarctica research type establishment, with rotating crews much like the current International Space Station. The game does address some key issues to working and living on the Moon, such as oxygen production and energy consumption. The scenario is also a good problem solving vehicle and shows just how tough it is to work in the lunar environment. NASA has even gone so far as to “desensitize” the cursor controls to simulate working in a bulky spacesuit! This makes button pushing and interaction with the environment much more challenging… I find that my laptop touch pad is much better than my wireless mouse in this regard.

The layout and the graphics are first rate, and I think the proper illumination angle for the Earth and lunar environment is a nice touch… but hey, that’s just the astronomer in me. I’d probably make a terrible astronaut, as I’d be too busy stargazing to get any actual work done. Kudos to those men and women that can focus on the task at hand amid all that revealed glory…

An astronaut repair crew in action. (Credit NASA).

 Moonbase Alpha is free, (our favorite price) and available for down load from Steam. It works pretty smoothly on our Toshiba laptop, although I find I have to shut down all other applications to avoid lockup. I’d like to see some other scenarios laid out, such as emergency evacuation, exploration, or construction, but perhaps these expanded settings will come in time. The game does allow for quick judgment and maintenance skills… sometimes, for example, we’ve found it easier to simply let a badly damaged relay blow, saving us time unhooking the power cables for replacement! You can also drive the rover and enter the command post, but you can’t interact with the beefed up LEMs (we tried). The command post option is good in multiplayer mode, as one astronaut can oversee and coordinate the recovery effort.

Do check out Moonbase Alpha if you always wanted to be an armchair astronaut, or are just looking for a new gaming challenge. It certainly is more cerebrally challenging than mindlessly blasting zombies, and more noble a cause than heisting automobiles. Not all of us get to be an astronaut, but we can still play one online!

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