Be an astronaut hero with NASA's Moonbase Alpha game

Multiplayer game lets anyone go on a virtual rescue mission

Suit up, astronaut! Yes, they may have to let your spacesuit out a bit, but that doesn’t matter. NASA is looking for astronauts, and having just returned from the brand new moonbase deep inside Shackleton Crater, I can say that there’s a lot of work to be done, lives to be saved, and glory to be won.

Although landing on the real moon may be a ways off, we can all experience the joys and danger of space exploration with NASA’s new game, Moonbase Alpha. This is no little Lunar Lander game either. Moonbase Alpha was created by the same people who made America’s Army. In fact, the Army Game Studio produced Moonbase Alpha with development by Virtual Heroes, a division of Applied Research Associates in Research Triangle Park, N.C. The game is available for free on Steam, the premier distribution site for PC gamers. It was fun to see the NASA game downloaded using the same system I use for Mass Effect, Modern Warfare and Splinter Cell, even if it came with a warning that “this software is property of the United States Government.”

The game itself is fully in 3D and looks exactly how you would imagine the moon would look. There is even that low-gravity effect that makes it seem like you’re walking in slow motion, though you can jump pretty far.

Right now there is only one mission, but it can grow or shrink in size and complexity to provide some variety. NASA says that more missions may be added in the future, depending on the popularity of the game. Larger games can be played by more than one person at the same time, which makes it kind of like a moon-based Massively Multiplayer Online game.

Here's the scenario: An asteroid slams into your oxygen processing machines at the start of the game. The impact shreds power cables busts solar panels and fries circuits, which leads to the people inside the base starting to run out of air. You have to fix the problems, and fast. In 25 minutes, it will all be over. You have a variety of tools available for this purpose, including robots you can send into hostile areas and hand-held implements (welding torches and wrenches for example) for close-quarter work. .

In multiplayer games with large maps, up to six players can try to tackle the problems, with teamwork making or breaking your efforts. There is even a command center module that one astronaut can commandeer; the module will let them remotely drive rovers to speed repair teams of players to hotspots. Working together with others reminded us of more traditional MMOs, only without the monsters. Groups and individuals are scored and ranked on leaderboards based on how quickly they get the oxygen processors back up to speed. Of course, if your entire moonbase team suffocates, you get no points.

The fact that there are so many people playing bodes well for NASA’s new game. A couple of days after launch I found more than 30 active servers filled with players looking for teammates. Jumping into a game was easy, and everyone I encountered was friendly. Quite a few of the players seemed to be engineers in real life, since they knew some tips and tricks about how to get things working quickly, or perhaps they just played the game a lot.

The game provides a smaller, less complex map so you can play solo offline. You can enjoy that by itself or use it for practice before trying to jump into a larger online game. After all, nobody wants to be the newbie who brings a wrench to a welding job. I would recommend new players try this at least once to get familiar with the interface and the challenges before offering your services to a team. There are virtual lives at stake.

As a proof-of-concept title being distributed for free by NASA, Moonbase Alpha is pretty good. If NASA wants to keep its community of players happy, the agency should rush forward with some new levels and different missions before that excitement cools off, which happens like lightning in most MMO communities. I for one will be waiting.

About the Author

John Breeden II is a freelance technology writer for GCN.

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