Early Access Preview: Hellion
Steam is in the midst of an absolute boom of space sim games, though the vast majority of them have some elements of fantasy to them, or aren’t quite as realistic as space geeks want. One game that looks to deliver an engaging and more realistic space survival experience is Hellion from Zero Gravity Games. The game is currently in Early Access on Steam and we’ve put it through its paces – here is our hands-on preview.
Hellion is an open-world (or universe, rather) survival space simulator, set in the farthest reaches of space that you could possibly imagine. The obvious main objective to this game is to survive at any cost, which isn’t as easy as finding a weapon and holding out in a base. You have the endless vacuum of space to contend with, along with the maintenance and upkeep of the various ship and space station systems. Both of which can be fatal if not handled properly, and both are not at all forgiving.
Upon starting the game, you’ll be prompted to choose a server from an almost limitless selection. Your choice can be made from the plethora of official hosted regional servers, or privately owned servers hosted via one of the chosen partnered server providers. For the majority of our playtime with this game, we stuck with the official hosted servers, as there wasn’t too many located within reasonable Australian latency limits. Once you’ve selected a server, you set your character name and off you go.
After picking a server, you’ll be given the choice of which mode of spawn you’d like to take. You can start fresh, spawning on a single space station module, continue your progress from your last known game for that server, spawn in a random space station with a pre-built structure, or join a friend after they’ve sent you an invite.
You assume the role of a generic, featureless space person whom awakens from a cryogenic stasis module to space station that is in need of repair and maintenance. The operational state of the space station is randomized with each spawn. Things like carbon filters, air filtration systems, chemical injector, and more will have varying states of effectiveness when you step out of the cryo pod and it’s your job to make sure the station is running at peak efficiency. Scattered around the main chamber of the station are a two crates containing replacement modules for the systems that may need repairs. Once again, the items contained within these crates are completely RNG, so you may find that you have no CO2 filters to replace your busted ones (or sometimes lack thereof), forcing you to go out into the vacuum of space to scavenge what you can.
I’m a bit on the fence when it comes to the randomness of the equipment provided. In one hand, no fresh game is ever the same, so you can’t methodically zip around and the usual before popping out for a jolly ol’ gander in record time. But in the other hand, having a random loot table of parts in varying conditions (some of which are worse than the installed ones) just makes no sense to me, and is somewhat frustrating when you go to find that spare CO2 filter to replace to find that you’ve either got a busted one or none at all.
Once you’ve checked all the various systems for life support and power, it’s time to put on your trusty space suit and jetpack and head out the airlock. Now, depending on what mode of spawn you picked, you may find that getting to the airlock is easy or somewhat difficult. For most of play time, we spent it in fresh mode due to some frame rate issues in the random spawn mode.
You equip your gear and head into the airlock, where zero gravity takes its hold.
Hellion features realistic Newtonian physics, so it doesn’t take much force to move mass with increasing velocity. The space station you spawn on doesn’t have a pressure adjustment module, because it’s floating outside, so you’re forced to manually open the airlock door. When you do this, the entire space station will be depressurized causing that vacuum effect where things get sucked out into space. It took me many attempts of opening the door and getting sucked out before I Googled some videos on what to do, before I learned that you can hold yourself down to one of the walls as you open the airlock until the chamber is depressurized. After which, you can go outside.
Upon exit of the airlock, you’ll see two objects floating in space: a space ship, and the aforementioned airlock pressure adjustment module. The ship contains the necessary randomized parts you need to get your space station running at optimal efficiency, whilst the air module has what you need to stop the entire station getting sucked out of all the air. You have limited oxygen in your tank, and limited jetpack fuel, so you have a choice on what you want to prioritize.
You’ll bust out the airlock, and using realistic space physics, you make your way over to either the ship or the docking module whilst carefully piloting a dude in a jetpack, applying enough force to move you forward without sending you out of control. The zero gravity and Newtonian physics are really fun to play in. Imagine playing around in your favourite FPS game of old, with gravity cheats turned on. Jump, and you fly as high as you can. Think of that, but in all directions. In playing Hellion, I’ve learned to not be so hamfisted when trying to move my character around, exercising incredibly precision when trying to get to my objective. It’s both fun, and incredibly challenging.
The object here is to get one of those things back to the main base. Either scavenge the parts needed to get the station working from the ship, or bust over to the airlock module and pilot it back to your main base to lock it in place. The latter is the hardest of the two, as you need to locate the controls on the external side of the module and pilot it back to the station whilst compensating for the Newtonian physics. Seriously, one slight overpowering thrust in the wrong direction, and you’ll spend a minute or two trying to adjust the module back on course. At the time of writing, we haven’t yet successfully locked one of the modules to our space station. The learning curve is steep, man.
Whilst the game has a really steep learning curve, it’s still a load of a fun and looking at it restrospectively, the learning curve is one of it’s biggest attributes so far.
While most of our playtime was in fresh mode, we did check out the random station spawn mode. I was lucky enough to have two other space comrades spawn with me, but the framerate was really terrible due to the complexity of the space station, so I didn’t stay too long. My poor GTX 1070 couldn’t quite cut it. Before I jumped back into fresh mode though, I did find the airlock and forced it open, causing the entire space station to depressurize and kill everyone. I’m a jerk like that, and I couldn’t stop laughing.
Right now, the game only has half of the planned features implemented. You can check the progress of the implemented features by looking at the Development Roadmap on the Hellion website.
I could write paragraphs about the visual aesthetics and sound quality, but realistically, the main focus here is the gameplay. Visually, the game is very pretty. The visual aesthetic reminds me somewhat of Doom 3, without the demons and all that funky jazz. There is a nice use of shaders and crisp textures, and a great environment that helps build immersion. Sound-wise, there isn’t too many sound effects used or ambient music as such, but the sound design is perfect for this sort of game. You’re in space, where no-one can hear you scream if you tried.
For what it is right now, Hellion has unlimited potential. It’s already off to a great start, with the core mechanics of what you’d expect in a survival crafting game, set in space no less. The thing we liked most about Hellion, and we’ve said this plenty throughout the preview, is the use of Newtonian physics. It feels realistic enough to immerse you into the avatar you’re throwing out the airlock, and is incredibly challenging to master when loading up the game for the first time. It’s a game of balance between force and control, to maintain velocity and direction to where you want to go. If you overshoot, well… you’ll spend what feels like a lifetime correcting your mistakes. Kind of ironic, really.
There’s enough tasks in the game right now to jump in and get involved with the community as the game develops over time. The difficulty is offset by the skill of the player, which will come as time passes.
We do have some feedback we’d like to provide on the game in its current state. The game needs some sort of tutorial system. I’m not saying it needs to hold your hand through every little thing you do, but I’ve spent hours trying to work out what I needed to do after replacing the parts I could. Part of the gameplay is learning by doing, but that doesn’t mean should go in without a clue, and even less so that I shouldn’t have to go to YouTube of all places to learn from gameplay videos from other people.
As the game is in early access, we feel it isn’t appropriate to put a score on this. As such, we’ve written this as a preview with the intent to publish more on Hellion as the game progresses in its development.
But for some final words: if you’re looking for a new challenge with brutal gameplay that isn’t doesn’t forgive you for your mistakes, set in a survival space scenario, then check out Hellion. The learning curve is steep, but rewarding if you can master it. It’s available on Steam right now for $24.99 USD.