It can often be quite difficult determining whether a game is the sort of thing one will enjoy or not. Two of the best ways of doing it are to either find a reviewer with decent taste (so really you should definitely accept my ratings as gospel) or to look at review aggregates, in order to see what the Hive Mind thinks. Looking at the Steam reviews for Factorio is how me and Tim started. “Overwhelmingly Positive” doesn’t really begin to describe the state of affairs of the game. Of 8100 reviews (at the time of writing), 100 are negative, providing what is damned close to a 99% approval rating. And then if you look at the top negative reviews they all start with something along the lines of “I love this game, I just have a niggle that is probably due to it being Early Access”.
And it IS Early Access. That was a large part of my initial hesitation in getting the game. There are way too many games which wear the banner of Early Access as an excuse for being completely unfinished and damned near unplayable. Despite that, it seemed to basically hit the ground running with close enough to make no difference 100% of people enjoying it. So me and Tim got copies and I’ll be damned if I’m not just another sheep following the herd because I also think it’s absolutely fucking fabulous.
If any of you reading this have also read my Minecraft review then you might know that I said that it was rather difficult to explain why Minecraft was so excellent to someone on the outside. It was a quirky, unfinished, indie game that involved making your own goals and your own objectives to make it as excellent as it was. Well, looking back now, I cannot help but think “oh my sweet summer child”. I thought we had truly hit the furthest outside the box of quirky indie-ness. From thereon nothing could possibly be more obscure. Well, guess how wrong I was because Factorio, by Wube Software and just released on Steam in February, is just another step higher on that indie ladder we know and love.
In Factorio, you build a factory. You automate the factory. So in essence you will have drills mining ore, which are transported to smelters to process the ores, and the refined metal is then sent to automatic “assembling machines” which make products. Then you can combine several different metals and/or products, in ever increasingly complex ways in order to get more and more refined products. For example, one can melt a copper ore into a copper plate, this in turn can then be made into two copper cables. Combine three copper cables with an IRON plate and you have an electronic circuit. Combine electronic circuits with plastic and more cables and you have advanced circuits. Those advanced circuits can be fused with steel and stone bricks and used to make electronic furnaces in order to increase the speed with which you smelt your ores.
So, you may read this and think “wow, okay, so it is quite complicated and involves a fair amount of set-up, but what is the goal?” Well, brace yourself dear reader, because the goal here is: to make your factory better.
Now, technically, there is an end-game of sorts. As you proceed through the game you use your materials and products to create science packs which you use to research things from a fairly sizable tech tree. These researches result in new products to make to speed up your factory, increase research output and build towards getting ever more complex products. At the end of this tech tree is the knowledge of how to build a rocket. Building the rocket itself requires tonnes of raw materials fashioned through half a dozen stages of processing into several different complex recipes, and you need 1000 of each of these end-game products, each of which takes a long time on their own to make.
However, much like the Enderdragon in Minecraft, to me this is more a means of learning the ropes of Factorio. It is something one works towards at first, but once you achieve it you realise that the actual purpose of the game is a little more meta than anything so simple as building one rocket. It becomes about perfecting your factory; about making production smooth and lightning fast, speeding up things one piece at a time until everything flows, well, like a well oiled machine. Using the above example, in the late game, circuits become used in just about every single recipe and so one has to have massive amounts of production of them. This may require vastly increasing the amount of copper you produce, and so you have to build numerous mines away from your base, and transport the ore via an automatic railway system to your smelters. You can also use the mid/late-game logistic system, where you can transport an item from on side of your base to the other by means of a tiny flying robot… And you can have hundreds of these robots zipping this way and that across your base.
It becomes a game about expansion, always you will need more of something or other. More ore. More smelters. More power. More robots. Every demand filled creates another couple in its place, until you realise that your sole purpose in the game almost seems to be to perpetually service and feed this monstrous and exponentially growing organism that is your factory. And I fucking LOVE it.
I love the problem solving aspect, where you have to think “well, I need this and this here, how do I do that?” and then I love the sense of achievement when you not only succeed in doing that but then getting it working smoothly. I love learning each new recipe and technique, from the the early mining utilising coal to supply everything, to later when you are drilling for oil to be pumped away and refined into petroleum products.
The game can feel frantic as hell at times, where you realise that nothing is working properly because you don’t have enough of one thing or another and so you rush to fix it. Worse, the map is filled with not only raw materials, trees and oceans, but the denizens of the planet are all hostile and attracted by the pollution generated by your factory. Worse, the more pollution you make, the bigger the baddies get and the more of them come, and so you have to set up automatic defences and walls and repair systems to keep from being overrun. Then you might load up a tank with shells and bullets and take the fight to those same aliens, exterminating them so that you may ravage the resources of the planet in peace.
The game actually makes one finally understand how the environment of our planet got to where it is today. Early game you might worry that your pollution is attracting too many biters for your one or two turrets to deal with, but then when you have your defences perfected you find yourself carving chunks out of the landsape, uncaring of pollution, all in search of more ores. Trees? Trees may scrub your pollution but they are also in the WAY! They must all go! Using coal to power your electricity generators? Well, each steam engine gives you far more power and are easier to make than the clean solar panels, MORE STEAM ENGINES!
At other times though, the game can actually just feel incredibly relaxing. During some of the moments when everything is more or less running smoothly, when there is no immediate PRESSING demands (for there are always some ways to improve something somewhere), it is immensely satisfying to zoom out and just watch your production lines whiz this way and that, with robots flitting overhead on their individual mysterious errands. Trains coming in and out, sometimes on the same line, waiting patiently to come into the station to be unloaded, because of the railway signals you spent several hours learning how to actually use. It also just works and you can sit there and feel smug and smart. And I say this coming from a perspective where I KNOW that I am definitely on the lower end of what has been achieved in the game. Some of the factories and rail networks and interconnected things which have been achieved by some people are just beyond my comprehension.
What are the negative sides of the game? To be objective, I have to admit that there are one or two which I can accept. However, it has to be said that a large number of these things will definitely be fixed by the time the game reaches a completed state. For example, the tech tree is a little tricky to navigate as it is not structured in any obvious flow-chart manner but rather just has every possible technology listed in order, with no real sense of which should be researched next. BUT, according to the devs, this is one of the things which will be completely overhauled in the coming updates.
Other issues include the end-game content itself. While for people like me and Tim, the simple goal of creating that unachievable “perfect” factory is goal enough, but for some there is the need to have something to work towards. Indeed the top-rated negative review on Steam says the same thing. It is definitely true that come late-game one does run out of goals. Once you have created one rocket you are then left with the prospect of just making more of them, and increasing the speed of creation, but this is, understandably, not enough of a goal for some people. An improvement or increase in the quantity of the end-game content might be something which would be nice to see down the line.
A few of the systems of the game could possibly use tutorialising, for example the train and logistic network. Learning how to use them from the Wiki and YouTube is perfectly manageable and preventing that might upset the purists who like the challenge, it is just that for a broader audience I know that a tutorial of these more complicated aspects would not go amiss. Targeting enemies can be a little frustrating in choosing your targets, but really now at this stage I am trying to find the smallest possible niggles to comment on so that I am not just saying “go out and buy this game you fool!”
A few other aspects of the game to comment on. First off, the multiplayer is fantastic. There are a few Steam reviews which bizarrely seem to suggest that setting up a multiplayer game is difficult but honestly, it didn’t feel any harder than many indie games and simply tends to require directly connecting to a friend. I suspect the reviews might instead be focusing on active servers, which is an entirely different kettle of fish. For me and Tim though, it was an excellent experience. At this stage in time I have approximately 60 hours spent in the game and over two thirds of that was spent across several different new worlds with Tim, each with a faster start and more efficient factory than the last.
Finally, one of the best aspects about a game like this where the devs seem to have a very active role in the community and enjoy hearing as much feedback as they can get, the modding community is already going strong. The train system which the game now relies upon for obtaining distant resources to fuel your factory actually started life as a mod (as I understand) and so it is possible that some aspects of the mods we see will eventually be incorporated into the main game, making it a much richer and broader experience.
For example, me and Tim after finally building our first rocket, started a new map, this time using one of Factorio’s most popular mods “Bob’s Mod” essentially completely overhauls the game adding a dozen new ores and hundreds of new products, essentially turning an already complex game into “Expert Mode”. It’s absolutely incredible.
As a final note, because the game IS in Early Access, by our own rules we cannot give it an official rating. However, allow me to say this. While there may be games I’d rate higher in recent years, there has not been an indie game which has truly grabbed hold of me like this since Minecraft. Over the space of the past month I have poured 60+ hours into the game with no intention of stopping and this is all for an unfinished game which costs £15 on Steam. For a game like this to so reliably result in so many happy hours of gameplay for so many people, I honestly cannot recommend it enough to absolutely anybody who would care to listen. It promises to absolutely be one of the most stand-out games of this whole year.