- Interesting mix of genres…
- ...where you build factories and fight-off alien attacks;
- Many possibilities of optimization of production;
- Demanding gameplay;
- Massive amount of content;
- Modding support;
- Grayish visuals based on sprites;
- One of Steam’s indie hits;
- Support for 21 languages
Indie developers have proven many times that a huge budget isn’t mandatory in order to develop a hit that would win over thousands of fans – like Don’t Starve and Stardew Valley, to name only a few recent titles. The main factor responsible for this sort of popularity is, as I presume, the authentic passion that the devs pour into their games, as indicated by another – though not so hyped – Steam hit, Factorio. This may come as a bit of a surprise, but this monochromatic game has been occupying one of Steam’s top chart positions for months. High difficulty, a multitude of possibilities, and an interesting blend of genres is what stands behind this success. We gave the Czech game a spin to see whether it’s a well-oiled machine that is steadily headed towards a summer release or still needs some tweaks.
This article deals with factories and conveyor belts. In the game we will mine for coal and construct assembly lines. If you have a thing for engineering, love for filling out Excel tables, and a tickling sensation upon seeing a well-designed production line, then you’re in the industrial paradise – only a bit fumed. If this isn’t your cup of tea, though, proceed with caution – the only thing waiting for you is fizzling steam, wreaths of smoke, and a whirr of diesel engines.
Bob the Builder
Let’s start with the basics – Factorio offers a number of game modes. There is a couple of campaigns available, including one introductory, which serves as a kind of a tutorial (and doesn’t really do justice to the amount of possibilities this game offers, so resorting to the video tutorials is also a good idea). However, the core mode is the freeplay, which puts the player onto a randomly generated planet. The task is to build an enormous factory complex, fend off insect-like aliens, and ultimately launch a satellite into the orbit – this goal is what makes the hugely variable game consistent. We begin with only a handful of items and must first build a couple of mines, which will provide our colony with basic raw materials such as copper, iron, or coal. Initially, we will need only mines, boilers and furnaces that are fueled mainly with coal (wood will be useful as well). Later on, we can switch to electricity (which also utilizes the black gold until the invention of solar cells). When first ingots and gears appear, we can develop science, and hence more complex products: feed mechanisms, ammunition, rail tracks, trains, armors – the choice seems endless. The aim is to build increasingly advanced factories, items, and weapons.
Optimization is the key. I had the most fun in the game when coming up with production lines as efficient as possible. Even if great many hours are devoted to this purpose, there always will be something to improve. Sometimes there isn’t enough resources coming in, sometimes one of them has to be moved elsewhere, and there’s not enough room. Occasionally, the improved variants of buildings will require more space – the coal furnace is in 2x2 format while the electric one is 3x3, so if you don’t take that into consideration during the initial stages of design, you’ll be in for a lot of rearranging. Factorio is about improving, reshaping, and re-planning. In the meantime, new technologies introduce more possibilities. This may not look too exciting on paper, but in practice this game is awfully captivating.
Bob the Warrior
The factories are enormous; even in the beginning they occupy a couple of screens worth of virtual space. You need at least a couple of mines, a dozen furnaces, and even more machines which will manage the initial production. It soon turns out that in order to be able to develop new technologies, an ever-increasing number of factory complexes churning out new goods and demanding tons of resources and power is required. The map will be filled with different factories in no-time, each specializing in something else (one for processing ore, another for weapons and ammunition, a different one for providing “science points”). An important aspect of the gameplay is that our actions affect the environment. The factories emit pollution and fumes – if they reach insects’ nests, you’ll be attacked. Other times, you will be the aggressor, since some resources can only be obtained from aliens’ hives.
Stirring up a hornet’s nest... with a tank
The feeling of constant danger gives this production a survival game vibe. Without sufficient protection, the factories will be destroyed by the aliens; our character can die as well.
The enemies are growing stronger throughout the game; with each one of them killed, and each new development in technology, they pose a more serious threat. Fortunately, there’s no need to sit and wait for them to attack – we might just as well manufacture tanks and rocket launchers and be proactive. It surely isn’t a game for tree-huggers or fierce animal rights defenders.
Industrial cocktail of genres
By now, it should be more clear what this game is about. Factorio blends many features of different genres into a coherent and captivating production. What comes to mind when we play it?
- Tower defense games – because of the development of defensive infrastructure.
- Top-down perspective focused on the avatar – the game ends if he dies (like in Don’t Starve, although here you can just load a saved game)
- Trackage development needed to transport different cargos and the retro visuals remind us of Transport Tycoon.
- Two of the main campaigns that are based on modified rules and severe restrictions are just like puzzle games – each step has to be deliberately thought through.
- Designing complex production lines – like in SpaceChem.
Among the numerous simple games that are built around a single principle, Factorio contains a near-bewildering number of solutions that are often quite original.
A sea of possibilities
Now imagine that all that’s been said so far about the freeplay mode is only one of the ways to play this game. The other campaigns are basically different game modes that give it more of a puzzle game vibe. For instance, we play on a limited area, and the goal is to accumulate a given sum of money (which doesn’t even exist in the freeplay). Another way is to play in sandbox – there’s no main character in this mode, and all the technologies are available from the very beginning. There’s also the supply challenge where the objective is to produce enough resources in a given time – it’s an interesting alternative for those who get the basics but are looking for more thrill. Still, the freeplay itself can be modified in various ways – the amount of resources or the level of hostility of aliens. The difficulty settings can be raised or lowered according to one’s needs, which further benefits replayability.
The scope of Factorio is further confirmed by the fact that many of the game’s elements I simply skipped. For instance, you can program (!) a logic machine with a display, which will do basic math for you (something that Minecraft fans are familiar with). There’s also the map editor. And that’s not the end of the line for the devs: they’re planning to further expand the game with, for example, the ability to breed and examine the aliens, enriching the somewhat straightforward combat mechanics with RTS elements or food production; may they implement at least a couple of those ideas! Factorio’s life-span should also be effectively prolonged by the developers’ support for modders; the implementation of mods is really easy. There’s already a couple of hundred of those; they modify virtually all the elements of the game: additional campaigns, new technologies, buildings and vehicles. Some of them also improve the graphics, which are the game’s biggest downside.
Eventually, you’re going to run out of resources. While the fact itself is not an issue – the maps are infinite – moving from one place to another is not that simple... unless you use drones, which build (or rather copy) the structures that you had designed and erected.
No game is perfect. Factorio has two major drawbacks, the biggest one being the graphics. They’re based on sprites, which give the game a truly old-school feel straight from the times of Transport Tycoon. I don’t have anything against retro graphics, especially since they actually fit the game’s atmosphere, but Factorio just looks coarse and uninteresting; some games that are twenty years old actually look better. The color palette is dull, pixels are really huge if you zoom in, and the buildings aren’t too varied, so marveling at the effects of our creation isn’t extremely satisfying. That’s a shame, because if the graphics were half as good as the gameplay, the time spent with this game would have been much more pleasurable. So far, this game also lacks a true multiplayer – we are able to play online, but connecting to others is as old-school as the graphics: you have to give your IP and redirect the right port in your router, or alternatively make use of software such as Hamachi... Let’s just say there’s much room for improvement. Should the devs continue to optimize and tweak the game, with the help of modders, they’ll make a game that will keep fans of complex tycoons satisfied for years.
Factorio is among the most interesting games in the Early Access stage right now. People put it in the same row as Prison Architect or Space Engineers, and for a good reason. Who knows, maybe the Czech game will actually win a greater fanbase than these titles. Factorio provides so much content that, if we’re willing to let the graphics slide, it can already suffice for hundreds of hours of gameplay. It’s a Skyrim among complex tycoons.
Adam Zechenter | Gamepressure.com