Playing the Factorio Demo May Have Been a Mistake

I’ve heard about Factorio for years, it seems. There was always something intriguing about the screenshots, but they were never quite enough to draw me in. This past Friday I was browsing games on my wish list and noticed Factorio has a free demo! In 2020, that’s a notable thing by itself. The game’s developer has a hard stance against ever putting their product on sale, so the demo exists to offset that.

Considering that my intent to see what the game is all about ballooned into three hours of play time in one afternoon, I’d say the demo is going to pay off.

So what’s the game all about? You’re a pilot, or something, stuck on an alien world and you want to go home. Surrounded by the wreckage of the ship you crashed in, you must salvage what you can to build a new ship and leave the planet you’ve been marooned on. But it’s not quite that simple. At least not in the world of Factorio. Scrap isn’t good enough, you must harvest resources to build a shiny new spaceship!

Your first order of business is to manually harvest stone and iron to build mines and furnaces to refine the raw materials from the ground. This allows you to build mining platforms to harvest the ore for you. Next you need to recover scrap from your crashed ship and build processors that combine multiple raw elements into new components. Those components are used to feed research to develop other new products. And on top of it all, you must manage power sources and – of course – build a dizzying array of conveyor belts to connect it all!

If it sounds simple, it is – except that it’s not. Machinery needs power to keep running. If you notice your conveyor of copper plates is empty, the odds are that a refinery or grabber arm ran out of coal. Sure, you could collect coal yourself and walk your character over to refill it. Or you could build a hideously complex conveyor system to deliver coal to the copper mine and automate the process.

It doesn’t take long before you’re constantly zooming in and out, tracing the supply of iron cogs to see if they’re supposed to go to the science lab or the other manufacturing plant. And then you notice a grabber arm has ran out of fuel, so you reroute the coal supply. By then you notice there’s a backup of iron ore for some reason… and so on.

It’s likely that some people will find this all to be a lot of tedious upkeep. For me, it strikes just the right balance between maintaining what you have and needing to expand and change. The tech tree allows you to research new abilities and machinery that will help optimize your layouts. There’s seldom a moment when you’re just sitting and waiting for something to happen.

The demo, which is the game’s tutorial scenario, does a nice job of offering specific objectives and letting the player figure out how to meet them. Hand-holding is minimal, allowing for maximum creative freedom. It also allows for mistakes. I find the game’s trust of the player to be a refreshing experience when compared to so many of today’s tightly choreographed campaigns.

But it’s not just peace and optimization. The planet you’re on has fauna that wants to destroy your factories and kill you. They’re super mean. This is what happened to my first base in the tutorial:

Compare this to the GIF above…

The next logical escalation in this war is adding guns to the research tree, which Factorio does. Now my base is protected by automated turrets. TAKE THAT, EVIL SPACE BUGS!!!

Factorio has proven to be pleasantly surprising. I’m sure I’m going to keep playing until the demo ends and, at this point, I’m planning to drop $30 on the full game when it happens. Now if you’ll excuse me, I need to adjust the conveyors to optimize my coal distribution.

Battlefield 1 and the Pigeon of Doom

Remember that it is 1918. They didn’t have radios in tanks back then. And yes, they really did use messenger pigeons during The Great War. So given a bit of context, it’s not that absurd for a commander to send a message back to HQ on the foot of a pigeon.

It’s kind of difficult for me to know what to expect of shooters these days. Having grown up on the 2.5D shooters like Wolfenstein 3D, Doom, and Duke Nukem, I was able to watch the medium make a long and frequently awkward transition into rendering increasingly realistic 3D environments. Each year brings a new technological innovation that allows game creators to cram more visual fidelity into the worlds they create. 

The problem that creative works run into is known as the “uncanny valley”. The more realistic things appear the more people will see how they are, in fact, fake. This knowledge will gnaw at the subconscious of the person viewing the media, therefore undermining any kind of immersion that’s trying to be generated. The opening hour or so of Battlefield 1 is one such moment for me. 

Meet a soldier. I don’t know who he is, and I don’t know who he’s fighting for. The opening scene shows him resting in a hospital bed as a scratchy recording of “Dream A Little Dream Of Me” played over a war montage. This is the first thing that tripped my uncanny alarm. I got the impression the soldier was listening to the song in the hospital bed, having nightmarish flashbacks to his time in battle. Except “Dream A Little Dream Of Me” wasn’t recorded until 1931. World War 1 ended in 1918. 

It’s just a song, sure. And I get that the juxtaposition of the sweet lyrics are supposed to clash with the carnage unfolding onscreen. But this comes across as heavy-handed pandering rather than channeling the heart of what soldiers might have actually experienced. There are plenty of songs from that era that might have been a better fit for the moment. “I Didn’t Raise My Boy To Be A Soldier” by the Peerless Quartet, for example.

At the end of the montage the screen fades to black and some serious text tells me that “What follows is frontline combat. You are not expected to survive.” Well that’s just dandy! Missing from this grim piece of news is who I am, where I am, and why I’m fighting. A soldier nearby tells me that we need to “hold the line”. Because lines don’t hold themselves, I reckon. 

Fighting among a ruined village, I settle in and get used to the controls and information presented onscreen. The game is beautiful in a desolate kind of way. I’ve never seen a burned out countryside look this good! Eventually I work out that the soldiers with tiny blue dots over their heads are allies and I should shoot the soldiers without those dots. 

After a few minutes, I run out of ammo and then die. The screen fades to black and shows the name of what I presume to be the soldier from whose perspective I just played, and his birth and death years. “Karl Wilcox” 1900 – 1918″. The camera pulls back from the spot where Karl breathed his last, pans over, and zooms in on a machine gun nest near some trenches. 

I’m now manning a machine gun, mowing down enemy troops as they unwittingly get funneled into my field of fire. It’s kind of a fun shooting gallery! Eventually something next to me explodes and the machine gun falls over, rendering it useless. Now I’m holed up next to some allies in a burned out church, shooting enemies in the face with a trench gun. I run out of ammo. Again.

This goes on a few more times… 

…but there wasn’t much emotional resonance from any of these experiences. There was a brief section in there where I played the part of a tank’s gun operator, which was pretty fun. A man I presume to be my commanding officer shouted the phrase “FOR KING AND COUNTRY” at least once, so I think that I’m experiencing things from the Allied point of view. 

As the first mission draws to a close I’m enjoying the core mechanics and the slick presentation, which seems to be a bit at odds with the somber tone the game wants to present. The way the opening mission jumps from person to person suggests that the only way to progress through a mission is by dying. I tested this out once. Picking my shots carefully until I almost ran out of ammo, I was still alive. Feeling the odds tip against me, I ran away from the front lines back towards allied soldiers. I was able to hide for a bit, but nothing else in-game happened. Only when I ran out of cover and allowed enemies to shoot me dead did the game jump forward and begin the next story. Awkward?

At this point I’m sincerely hoping that the game goes into more depth in telling the individual experiences of soldiers who lived through the first World War. Thankfully, as the mission ends and I’m treated to a montage teasing, I presume, stories portrayed in the game:

Okay, now that’s more like it. ‘Through Mud And Blood’ is the first series of missions. Played from the perspective of a tank driver named Edwards, it’s your job to drive a tank named Black Bess through battle and keep her crew safe. 

As tank missions in war games go, this one is pretty typical except for the World War 1 setting. Shoot some bad guys, hop out of the tank to exact some repairs when it gets damaged, blow up the anti-tank guns, etc. The visual fidelity and detail really help sell the experience here. Hills deform under the weight of the tank. Buildings and walls are destroyed by explosions. There’s smoke, water, and mud; and all of it looks fantastic. 

Except that mud is very bad for your tank. Back in 1918, tanks were very new, and they didn’t know how to build them to not get stuck in mud. If you get the tank stuck you’re a sitting duck, practically inviting enemy troops to swarm in and shoot you through the view ports. So when it comes to dealing with mud, there are two options – Plan A: avoid mud at all costs. Plan B: send out a homing pigeon to call for an artillery strike of your immediate surroundings. 

Let that last sentence sink in for just a moment. 

Remember that it is 1918. They didn’t have radios in tanks back then. And yes, they really did use messenger pigeons during The Great War. So given a bit of context, it’s not that absurd for a commander to send a message back to HQ on the foot of a pigeon. 

That’s one deadly bird.

Your squad mates argue as to whether or not it’s a good idea to call for an artillery strike. Understandably so. If the coordinates are wrong, you’ll die. If the artillerymen don’t fire accurately, you’ll die. If the pigeon doesn’t make it back to HQ, you’ll die. This may have actually been a point of tension in real battle. After all, it’s hard to disconnect our modern perception of technology from what we think war might have been like in 1918.

Where Battlefield 1 jumps the shark is the way it portrays this moment in the game.

Well, now I can add ‘become a pigeon’ to the list of things video games have let me do. 

Battlefield 1 really, really wants me to take it seriously. But as you can see, I’m having some trouble with that. Can you understand why? 

Enter the Gungeon Makes Failing Fun!

Most of your enemies are bullets, and I mean that literally. Enemies are sentient bullets that move and fire guns. Which, in turn, send actual bullets in your direction. I couldn’t make this stuff up.

I don’t know if I have what it takes to beat Enter the Gungeon. It’s possible for skilled players to complete a run through the game’s six levels in under an hour. I am not a skilled player, at least not yet. A few moments ago, my sixtieth run at the game ended once again in failure. This time I was killed by the Bullet King, who I consider to be the easiest first-level boss. After reading the details on the game-over screen, I unconsciously tapped the button to immediately begin again. It’s a strange thing, because repeated failure doesn’t typically make games fun to play. And yet, after sixty attempts and twelve hours of play time I want to keep playing.

This is the end of attempt #60. I died after 6 minutes and 38 seconds, with 53 kills in this attempt.

Gungeon is a deceptively simple game. It’s easy to play, especially with a controller. Left stick to move, right stick to aim. Different buttons fire, reload, dodge, and use items. Your objective: fight through an enemy-filled fortress in pursuit of a powerful artifact. Every level of the fortress is filled to the brim with those who would do you harm. They all protect the treasure contained within: a gun that can kill the past. This relic can be used to make what was done, undone. Simply put, this gun gives the one who wields it the ability to erase their failures from the past. You control any of four characters, the Marine, the Convict, the Pilot, or the Hunter. Each of them has a past that must be erased; tragedies and failures that must be set right. Only the most haunting of pasts can possibly be motivation enough to face what lies inside the Gungeon.

I absolutely love the pixel art style of the game.

Most of your enemies are bullets, and I mean that literally. Enemies are sentient bullets that move and fire guns. Which, in turn, send actual bullets in your direction. I couldn’t make this stuff up. The simple controls allow you to devote your focus on the delicate and frenetic combat. Different classes of enemies have their own types of weapons and movement patterns. Some fire single, slow-moving projectiles. Others wind up and unleash a wall of bullets. My least favorite charge directly towards you and explode spectacularly. The hazards of the Gungeon prove that situational awareness is just as important as your reflexes. It’s a bad idea to be in corner when a Gun Nut unleashes a barrages of angry red projectiles in your direction.

Shooting at bullets is ridiculously fun thanks to the lighthearted tone of the game as well as the varied and frequently tongue-in-cheek weapon design. Every gun, and there are a lot, has different strengths and weaknesses. Many of them are utterly entertaining to use, even if they aren’t entirely effective. For instance, The Bullet is a bullet. It fires guns. That also fire bullets. It’s asinine in the most entertaining of ways. My favorite weapon so far has to be the Lower Case r. Instead of firing bullets, it fires out letters that spell out the word “bullet”. Score a hit on an enemy, and instead of an explosion you’ll see the word “BLAM!” in glowing orange text. The Wind Up Gun is a homage to Futurama. It’s a blue rifle that shoots green projectiles and plays “Pop Goes the Weasel” as you wind the crank to reload it. I’ve also come across weapons such as a camera, a garbage gun, an M1, a mer-shotgun (a shotgun with a mermaid tail that shoots deadly water), a dripping barrel that fires deadly fish, the Thompson Machine Gun, shotguns, and the Klobbe; a fantastically useless weapon.The glee of using some of these more than makes up for the untimely deaths I suffer when wielding them.

Look carefully. I’m not firing off bullets, I’m shooting off letters.

Knowing when not to shoot is just as important as accurately unloading a magazine of bullets, rockets, letters, or fish. Your primary defense against the enemy onslaught is the dodge roll. Timed correctly, it will vault you safely over nearly any glowing red orb of death. Used recklessly, it’s just as effective at placing you in harm’s way. Boss encounters are usually a battle against one large enemy that can literally fill a room with unfriendly fire. These encounters are slowly teaching me that it’s okay not to be firing at enemies all the time. Sometimes the best thing to do is stop pulling the trigger and focus on not getting hit.

This is what they call “bullet heck”.

Gungeon is a punishing roguelike experience. This means that each level is procedurally generated. While every floor of the Gungeon will contain similar elements, the level layout, enemy makeup, and item drops will be different every time. Roguelike also means that permadeath is the name of the game. Die on level three, and you start again on level one. Though I must note that you don’t start completely from scratch after every death. Through the course of the game, you encounter other characters in the fortress. Setting them free allows them to set up shop in the game’s central hub so you can interact with them before starting a run. They offer special items or other quests to complete in return for rewards. Defeating bosses will give you a glowing green currency that survives permadeath. This currency can then be used to unlock new weapons and equipment that will show up as drops in the Gungeon in future attempts.

This is not a game that’s meant to be rushed through. Nobody will sit down and breeze through to the final boss in an hour or two. Instead, Gungeon will sit installed on my hard drive for weeks and months. Over time I’ll chip away at it bit by bit, making one hard-earned step of progress at a time. I don’t know how long it will take for me to kill the past, but I know I’m going to have fun trying.

I’m dead. Doesn’t this look fun??

Exploding Gracefully in Multiplayer Homeworld: Deserts of Kharak

Thinking I had a decent grasp of the basics, I loaded up the game and headed over to the multiplayer lobby. After a short wait the matchmaking service drops me into an arena with a foe named Sinistro. He begins the match with some friendly chat, “So how many online games have you played?” Knowing that my newness to the game will be exhibited in how poorly I play, I tell him, “Including this one… One.” He responds with a greeting of welcome, capped off with a smiley face. I take the gesture of politeness to mean I won’t be destroyed instantly.

While it can be intimidating to play any game online against real people for the first time, real-time strategy (RTS) games have a reputation for being more intimidating than most. This is partly because the difference between victory and defeat in an online RTS match comes down to efficiency. Knowing what to do and when to do it are the keys to victory. There is little margin for error, and mistakes are punished. Despite all of this I decided Friday evening to play my first ever online match of Homeworld: Deserts of Kharak (DoK). The game’s developers were celebrating its one-year anniversary and broadcast an open invitation for people to come and play the game with them.

If you’re not familiar with it, DoK is a RTS game developed by Blackbird Interactive. It’s a ground-based prequel to 1999’s legendary space-bound Homeworld. The core elements of multiplayer matches are much like that of other RTS games, with a few special twists. Multiplayer consists of you and your army versus your opponent and their army. Each army has a “hero” unit called a carrier. The carrier houses resource processing, production facilities, and research labs. From it you construct new units and run your war campaign. Build an army and annihilate your enemy’s carrier to win the game. One of the fun twists of DoK is that games can also be won by what’s called artifact retrieval. On each map there are three central locations that house artifacts, glowing purple orbs of special significance that appear after a time limit is reached. If either player can retrieve five artifacts and transfer them to a designated extraction zone, that player wins the game. This is easier said than done since there’s only one type of unit, a Baserunner, that can pick up an artifact and carry it to the extraction zone. Baserunners are slow and fragile, and don’t offer any significant offensive or defensive capabilities. It takes skill and cunning to retrieve artifacts, but it can be done. To me, the thing that sets DoK apart from other games is its smaller-scale battles and highly strategic gameplay.

My home base is at the bottom in blue, my enemy up top in red. The artifacts are the three blue icons in a row across the center of the map. The two extraction zones are the right and left sides of the map.

Thinking I had a decent grasp of the basics, I loaded up the game and headed over to the multiplayer lobby. After a short wait the matchmaking service drops me into an arena with a foe named Sinistro. He begins the match with some friendly chat, “So how many online games have you played?” Knowing that my newness to the game will be exhibited in how well poorly I play, I tell him, “Including this one… One.” He responds with a greeting of welcome, capped off with a smiley face. I take the gesture of politeness to mean I won’t be destroyed instantly. Knowing that it’s my first online game ever, my opponent chats to check in on me a few minutes into our match. “Have you expanded yet?,” he asks. Expanded? Expanded what? I respond to confirm my ignorance, fully embracing the fact that I have no clue what I’m doing. Graciously, my opponent relays concise instructions about how to expand my resource gathering operation. More resources means I can build more units, and more units means I may be able to put up a fight. That makes sense. I do what he says. For the next couple of minutes I make a few groups of units and send them around the map to do their thing. None of them return to base. Each of them destroyed by my well-prepared adversary. For each mistake I make, Sinistro shares tips about how to do things better next time. He even lets me steal an artifact and blow up a few of his units so my pride has a chance to recover. But like the helpless mouse being played with by a hungry cat, I know my demise is coming. My expanded resourcing operation radios in a distress call, “Enemy units spotted!” I pan the camera over to it and see three dozen enemy land and air units pop into the edge of my sensor range. Explosions burst from every direction and my resourcing operation is laid to waste. Ninety seconds later my carrier explodes in a flash of white light, transformed into a smoldering pile of rubble. Game over.

See all of those ships with the red bars above them? Enemies! See the big ship with a giant explosion coming out of it? That’s mine… It’s not in good shape.

So went my introduction to the world of online play in DoK. My first match ever lasted twenty-three minutes and fifty seconds, though my opponent could have easily laid waste to me in half that time. Many thanks for Sinistro to being a class act and showing me the ropes!

My second and third matches of online DoK went much better than the first. I was able to play in team matches with employees from both Blackbird Interactive and Gearbox Software, as well as other gamers in the community. I blew up some enemy units. I recovered some artifacts. I didn’t die instantly. It was a good night. While my experience confirmed to me that the game is a blast to play, the bigger impression was left by the helpful and friendly community. They’re enthusiastic about a great game and very welcoming towards newcomers. Check out the links below if you’d like to check things out for yourself. If you’re looking for a smaller-scale RTS game to play online against some friendly folks, DoK might be the game for you.

NOTE: DoK has an excellent single-player campaign that shouldn’t be missed. I’ll be writing a feature about that sometime in the near future. 

Where to buy:

Steam – $49.99

Community Involvement:

Deserts of Kharak Subreddit

Unofficial Homeworld: Deserts of Kharak Discord

Screenshot Mini-Gallery