My favorite thing about Ascent: The Space Game is its planetary rotation. It’s a small thing, granted, but the first time I sat still in my tiny, tin can spacecraft long enough to see Ceres slooooowly spinning through space… well, it was pretty
Ascent, a PvE-only space trading, mining, gas giant skimming, crafting, and combat simulator, is the work of one James Hicks, founder and CEO of Australia-based Fluffy Kitten Studios. I’ve been playing it for the past couple of weeks, and I’m here to tell you that what Hicks has accomplished thus far is fairly remarkable.
I say “fairly” because Ascent is an early access title that’s a tad rough around the edges. I’m not just talking about the visuals, which boast blocky, low-detail spaceships and the occasional planet that make 2003’s Freelancer look bleeding edge.
Oh, and that user interface! It’s a bizarre concoction unlike any other. It’s functional, but it’s also rife with menus hiding behind oddly placed buttons, and none of the elements can be repositioned or turned off for screenshots, immersion, etc. Finally, what’s with the goofy applauding audience sound effect when you finish a mission?
That’s about the extent of my complaining, though, because Ascent excels in the gameplay department. I like to think of it as Vendetta with planets or a kinder EVE Online, with much of the same open-ended sandbox charm but none of the metagame buttholery that keeps people reading about the game instead of playing it.
As Hicks told Massively in a 2014 interview, he’s making a PvE-focused space sandbox because no one else will, though he also told us that Ascent will eventually feature consensual PvP that doesn’t goad dedicated PvEers into the usual wolves’ den.
Much of Ascent’s early gameplay is mission-based. There’s a tutorial, and though it’s occasionally confusing – due mostly to the aforementioned UI – I recommend that you see it through in order to make a few credits and get a feel for which of Ascent’s various gameplay avenues you find most appealing. You’ll probably want to keep a browser window open while you’re tutorializing, both because the Ascent wiki features all of the missions and can help you stay on track and because there’s a vital map page that will assist you in planning optimal routes to and from various systems, space stations, and the like.
And here’s a quick tip while you’re jumping to and fro delivering grain or passengers or rare metals: Make sure your cargo hold is full of trade commodities before you launch, and always check the local station contract board for extra assignments along your route. You never want to travel on an empty ship, even if you’re still flying your starter runabout.
In addition to explaining basic combat, commodity trading, and mission running, the tutorial will also introduce you to Ascent’s version of asteroid mining, which is infinitely more interesting than its counterparts in EVE, Elite: Dangerous, and so forth. For one thing, the asteroids aren’t stationary, and your beam miner has a limited range, meaning that you’ll need to fly and mine simultaneously. For another, your yield isn’t guaranteed and is instead a product of how well you manage the beam’s temperature. Taken together, these variables make for an addictive minigame that’s both fun and profitable.
I should probably touch on Ascent’s control scheme, too. You pitch your ship “up” or “down” with your W and S keys, while A and D yaws left or right, respectively. Rolling is handled by Q and E, and the space bar acts activates your thrusters. The left alt key toggles your gravity anchor, which when disabled after thrusting in a particular direction enables you to zip along at ludicrous speed.
You can choose between first- or third-person flight, though I found it nearly impossible to hit enemy ships using the latter. You can swing the third-person camera freely about your boat by holding the left mouse button and mousing around, and it may take newbie space simmers some time to grok the fact that your ship can be traveling in one direction while pointed in another.
Mastering the grav anchor is something you’ll want to do if you plan on gas giant skimming, which is basically another form of mining that involves diving into certain bands of a planet’s atmosphere at high speed and emerging with a cargo hold full of hydrogen, oxygen, and various other gas harvestables.
What else is there to do in Ascent? Well, let’s see, you can build a planetary settlement and sell the goods it produces. You can also land on some planets, and the seamless transition between space, the planet’s atmosphere, and the ground is a welcome departure from the genre’s usual loading screens. I get quite a bit of gameplay mileage out of squeeing around planetary surfaces then zooming up into space, but that’s probably just me. You can climb out of your spaceship and walk around taking soil samples, too, which whets my appetite for the additional EVA gameplay that I hope to see as Ascent matures.
You can salvage ship wrecks, build personal space stations, dominate the player-run galactic economy or the local and ever-changing NPC markets. You can discover new star systems (there are purportedly 250 billion to choose from, each of which will boast your avatar name if you explore it first). And that’s just the stuff I’ve gotten to this week. Hicks and Fluffy Kitten are also offering colonization with player governments, “big ship broadside duels between cruisers,” and an extensive crafting system wherein “every ship, weapon, and utility module in the game can be manufactured by players and sold or used to customize ships.”
Oh, and you can paint, rename, and interact with all of your ships via a command-line-style computer interface.
Progression in Ascent is skill-based, with various activities rewarding skill points upon successful completion. Gas giant skimming, for example, grants you a skill point for your first scoop. After your second scoop, you have a 50 percent chance to gain another skill point, and after your third scoop you have a 33 percent chance and so on and so forth.
You can currently play Ascent for free, though you’ll want to look into purchasing the client and paying the monthly sub (it’s a whopping $2.97) if you want access to all of the game’s starbase, industrial, and combat module functionality. The community is a mixed bag. On the one hand, I’ve yet to see any sort of chat trolling, and most veterans will respond with helpful suggestions when asked. On the other hand, there’s been no real incentive to communicate with other players in my experience thus far simply because all of the needed info is easily accessible either in the game’s help menus or on the wiki, and I’ve yet to encounter a gameplay situation that I can’t manage alone.
Oh, and some goofball thought it was a good idea to name a star system GotAnyGrapes.
Ultimately, this is a terrific title. I’m loath to recommend early access MMOs, but Ascent’s breadth, depth, and general fun factor is forcing me to make an exception. If you’re a PvE type who craves an ambitious, feature-rich space sandbox – and you don’t mind dated visuals – Ascent will likely keep you happily engaged for a good long while.