ICARUS Review — Mission-Driven Sandbox Survival


ICARUS may have debuted as a bill of goods, but it is shaping up to be an exciting survival sandbox experience. A rich RPG customization system intersects with a bevy of game modes to provide gamers with a variety of building and adventuring experiences. Consistent updates and optimizations show that ICARUS the Game completes its mission and doesn't get left stranded on Icarus the Planet.

ICARUS, an ambitious new survival sandbox title from RocketWerkz and its game-runner Dean Hall (of DayZ fame) was released last December after 2 years of development and a marathon of 8 Beta Testing weekends, spread over 4 months. After that ordeal, it may surprise no one that a significant fraction of the gaming community felt as singed by the process and the resulting state of the game as the wings of its namesake, and they expressed that discomfort with mixed reviews.

That said, this week is the 13th straight week of new content, revamped systems, and truly massive lists of bug fixes and tweaks — it looks like Hall is playing for a No Man’s Sky outcome. Today, ICARUS plays much closer to a complete game, one that has been heavily influenced by its fans early in the process — since even before the betas began. Let’s take a look at how the game is shaping up.

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Every week, Rocketwerkz pushes another substantial update to help round out the initial release. Will the reviews reflect the effort?

In case you missed it, ICARUS is Dean Hall’s quest to elevate the survival sandbox genre with a session-based experience. If this sounds a bit vague, you aren’t alone. The concept amounts to co-op with a real-time mission clock (this is opposed to a simple timer that pauses when you exit the game to check whether or not the world has ended yet).

And, the studio has made it known that the “real-time” aspect for missions is not negotiable. If the timer expires, your character has missed the launch window and is doomed to perish. (Now there’s an original excuse for why you can’t turn in your homework!)

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UDA faction to the unsuspecting prospector: “We’re having a little problem with snakes”

As a player in ICARUS, you claim the role of a prospector assisting a cadre of factions from Earth with decimating the resources of yet another planet, Icarus. In the lore of the game, though, this is morally excusable because no human can live long on the surface of this terraforming failure. You earn in-game currency, called Ren, for doing the bidding-ahem… I mean, completing missions-for these factions.

However, what truly drives the advanced economy is the maddening rush to search for exotics. If a prospector can manage to find, extract, and return these otherworldly elements to orbit, exotics can be used to research and construct advanced gear and consumables that can be taken to and from the surface and significantly accelerate progression.

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The hypnotically iridescent glow of an exotics vein is the sole reason for this isolated arctic outpost

The ICARUS project has been as much a living, breathing and evolving thing, as the exotics-infected denizens of Icarus itself. Hall has said he is not a fan of games remaining in perpetual Early Access, but with major updates introduced every week ICARUS is a different game than when it was released in December.

For example, in some early and open exploration missions, you are now granted the “insurance” — once the mission timer expires, the prospector will be returned safely to orbit. Another major change was the improved support for solo players with the addition of a solo talent tree that diversifies the appeal of this game as an RPG.

One of the most requested and obvious features for sandbox games-a creative mode-brought a new game mode into the build, the Outpost. On this custom 1-square-kilometer map (or three, if you opt for the deluxe package), survival requirements are relaxed and there is no timer, so your creations can persist on the surface of Icarus forever.

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Outpost mode: a peaceful scene to build creatively, and a low-risk environment to test new updates like the revamped agriculture system

If the dangers you face on Icarus are not enough, higher difficulty modes for several missions were added, including “Hardcore” mission variants. This mode eliminates respawns, requiring a friend to revive you (a common option in survival sandbox games), and in effect creates a rouge-lite mode for solo players.

While you attempt to build a base for mining, production, and development, you are constantly savaged by a dozen different types of storms and harried by an unceasing wave of deadly predators. Survive these conditions long enough, though, and in rare moments of peace you will catch some screenshot-worthy planetscapes (that is, if your graphics card hasn’t melted yet).

Even though the flora and fauna used for the game right now might be stock assets, RocketWerkz didn’t skimp on the overall visual appeal of the handcrafted environment, immersive soundscape, and cascading lighting and shadow effects. Even getting caught out in the weather is awesome. Brave a flash storm or thread through a forest fire, and the unearthly pallor air and landscape reinforces the idea that you are not the one in control.

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Mornings after looting a cave can be pretty spectacular on Icarus

This immersive experience, and the challenge to take great risks for even greater rewards make each new ICARUS mission addictive and suspenseful. Every gameplay cycle, you descend to the planet surface in a rickety dropship with few pieces of equipment and consumables at most. Like in the most sandbox survival games, everything you build and the vast majority of what you craft and consume must be harvested, mined, hunted, grown, refined, or generated.

At first, you are worried about dying of thirst or suffocation. Then, about exposure in a horrific shamal or a blizzard. And then, about being mauled by a bear, boar, and wolf — together, all while encumbered by a pack full of ore.

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What breaks first, the stone wall or your skull? Not this time, Mr. Polar Bear

Does this need to rebuild from nothing with every mission get a little old? Some may say yes. In my experience, the missions vary the drop-site, environment, risk, and the objective plentifully. I could enjoy the challenge of figuring out what I really needed to bring, where it was best to build, and how much I had to develop to complete the objective and escape back to the orbital station as fast as possible, without succumbing to the raging planet.

ICARUS’s missions take you all across the 8km-by-8km game world (sadly, no procedural generation) with mission boundaries that limit the resources available to you and force you to consider constructing base locations in trickier places to complete the objectives quickly.

The technology tree is expansive, with around 20 workstations distributed throughout 4 Tech Tiers. The more advanced the technology, the longer it takes to gather the resources to craft it. This makes you start asking questions about what you really need to accomplish the mission and survive. Do you avoid the grind, or work to produce a few more of the support items?

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Locating exotics takes a lot of tech. Maybe I can convince my friend to do the base building this time…

The RPG aspects of ICARUS are legion. The Talent trees are large, spanning several skill, job, and weapon specialties. They blend stat boosts with unique skills, rather than separating the character traits and ability sets. (Check them out on IcarusBuilds.) In navigating the prerequisite chains, you determine both the strengths and capabilities of each character, with different job types leading to unique methods of survival in solo, or utility in a team.

Thankfully, ICARUS doesn’t trivialize character development and bury a select few useful weapon and job types in a sea of meaningless options. A lot of work seems to be going into balance. In the Discord chat rooms you’ll might find players arguing which is the better build for a mission: a lithe hunter archer, a gruff mining knife-wielder, a tanky farmer spearmen, or a heavy gunslinger.

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The right tool for the job might be the one that ends the fight before it starts

It should be said that the ICARUS building tile set is basic, but fairly complete. There are the shapes you would expect in any sandbox game in flavors, like thatch, wood, stone, metal, and concrete. And, as usual, each shape has variants for different windows, doorways, inward and outward-turning rooves, etc.

RocketWerkz does not seem to want to make the same mistake as other studios and take eons to implement half and inverted pieces. That doesn’t mean that they aren’t adding new elements: they have continued to listen to their users past the official release and roll out implementations of dozens of user ideas, tweaks, and fixes through their feature suggestions site.

Basic building blocks aside, like in many sandbox games, ICARUS’s aspiring architects assemble an assortment of amazing and amusing artifices. Furthermore, ICARUS community managers hold build events and regularly feature screenshots of user creations in the official updates.

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A stunning ICARUS Outpost build of modern-style house. (Credit: GHO5T, featured in ICARUS Week 5 update.)

With over 40 missions in this initial installment, the various difficulty levels, solo and co-op experiences, and up to three different Outpost maps for permanent builds… grabbing ICARUS for US$35 on the Steam Store nets you 100-200 hours of entertainment, easily.

Have you been playing ICARUS? What did you think of Rocketwerkz take on a survival sandbox game? Share your experience and your own questions with us in the comment section below!

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SurvivalSherpa is an avid gamer spending most of his time at the nexus of the survival, crafting, building, and role playing genres on any platform, especially to test indie titles in EA. AFK, life is about work and education in STEM fields, reading fantasy, and sipping great coffee in the Pacific Northwest.

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