The lights are on
Dismissing XenoMiner as just another one of the countless
Minecraft clones flooding the Xbox Live Indie Games market would be easy. But
this engaging new voxel game from Gristmill Studios doesn't just rise above the
sea of uninspired copycats; it differentiates itself from Mojang's indie hit with
a sci-fi theme and some clever tweaks to the tried-and-true gameplay formula.
Read our impressions to see what makes XenoMiner stand out, complete with developer
quotes that hint at where the title is heading next.
A Dangerous New WorldWhen you start a new game in XenoMiner, you wake up in the
wreckage of a spacecraft on a moon called Xenos. Like in Minecraft, this world
is procedurally generated and completely unique to your game.
In order to survive on your new desolate planet, there are
two gameplay mechanics you need to keep an eye on. The first is radiation; in a
reversal of Minecraft, night is the only time it's safe to freely travel across
the surface of Xenos. Once the sun comes up, the planet is bathed in deadly
radiation. You can tolerate a fair amount of exposure (Gristmill is still
tweaking how much) before succumbing to its effects, but in general you'll want
to find shelter as soon as it starts getting light out.
The other mechanic you need to keep track of is your air
supply. No matter what you're doing, you're always sucking down precious
oxygen, and will need to refill your supply by breaking down and converting ice
blocks. Luckily, strange tree-like ice structures litter the landscape,
providing the necessary resources to stay alive.
Still, these mechanics create more of a tense survival tone
than most voxel games, a feeling XenoMiner developer Jesse Nivens says the team
plans to foster in future updates:
"We do want to add more survival aspects to the game, and right
now our focus in that area is in adding aliens. We also want to improve the
survival experience by allowing the player to build shelters that can evolve
into something much bigger, and the first step in bringing that to the game is
with sealed rooms with breathable oxygen and environmental protection."
The Right Tools For
The JobUnlike other voxel games, XenoMiner streamlines the mining
process by providing players with an all-purpose Particle Information
Conversion Kit (P.I.C.K.) extractor. Instead of switching between multiple
tools for different ores, your extractor allows you to mine and place any block
type (though some of the high-end ores require upgrading to a better
extractor), and has a greater range than Minecraft's tools.
Unlike Minecraft's tools, extractors don't degrade over
time. Instead, they consume energy from your battery, which can be recharged
with solar panels. This provides its own unique gameplay mechanic, as solar
panels must be placed on the surface of the planet and have great vertical
range (you can be any distance above or below them and still receive a charge)
but poor horizontal range. You can boost your solar panel's signal by building
relays; build and place enough relays as you expand your mining operation, and
you'll never have to worry about your battery levels.
XenoMiner features a number of other unique tools, including
upgradeable environmental suits and helmets, gravity boots that allow you to
walk on any surface, and grav pads that send you hurtling upward when you step
on them. Creating items requires building a centriforge and upgrading it with AI
cores, which provides a deep and satisfying crafting tree.
Gristmill plans to add more crafting items to the game, and
recently announced that the first content update will feature retractable
doors, switches, and conduits. However, there's one more tool that vastly
differentiates XenoMiner from other voxel games.
Meet Your New Best
FriendWhen you start a new game, you'll find an abandoned alien
ship nearby your crash site. Inside of it is the most valuable item in
XenoMiner: a programmable bot.
Figuring out how to program the floating droid requires some
guesswork, but once you understand the hieroglyphs, you can write your own
complex macros and scripts. After that, you simply activate your little robot
friend and let it go; the bot automatically transfers the ore it mines to your
inventory, and you're free to go about your business.
After spending some time messing with the bot's programming,
I managed to come up with separate scripts for digging stairs, building towers,
and creating elaborate systems of branch mines – perfect for finding rare ores.
Having a programmable bot is like having a second miner at
your disposal, and XenoMiner developer Rod Runnheim says the team has more
ideas for them in the future:
"There is a whole family of technology to explore based on alien
technology. The challenge is to make it accessible, and introduce it in a way
that flows with the game. We have plans to introduce more bots, and not just
mining bots. We have also been exploring an entirely new alien technology that
is more advanced than the bots. Another of our devs has had marvelous luck with
an early version of that."
A Better BalanceAs a gamer who has spent countless hours exploring worlds in
Minecraft, I enjoyed many of the ways XenoMiner differentiates itself. The
all-purpose extractor simplifies and speeds up the act of mining ore and
building structures, and the crafting tree already has a satisfying number of
items to build. I also love the sci-fi setting, though XenoMiner's higher
resolution textures don't mesh as well with the blocky nature of voxel games as
Minecraft's charmingly retro visuals.
Additionally, with no multiplayer or enemy mobs right now, XenoMiner
feels as barren as you might expect an alien moon to be. Gristmill is working
to change that, however, and its first patch released earlier this month should
give players hope. It fixed a variety of problems players were complaining
about, including the rarity of ores, lag problems, and a field of view many
felt was too narrow. Listening to player feedback is an important goal for the
team, says Jesse Nivens:
"We love including our players in the process of developing
XenoMiner. From the day we published it we've been getting hit up from fans
around the world wanting us to add different features. Several fan suggestions
have been brought into the game, with more on the way."
If you're on the fence about giving XenoMiner a try, taking
the plunge won't cost you much; XenoMiner is currently on sale for 80 MS Points,
and Gristmill intends to continue updating the game for free. You can buy it
now from the XBLIG
marketplace, and get status updates from Gristmill's website.
Head on to the next page for the rest of our developer
interview, which reveals more Gristmill's plans for XenoMiner's future.
Email the author Jeff Marchiafava, or follow on Google+, Twitter, and Game Informer.