Mass Defect: Making Space Mistakes in Rodina
In Space, No One Can Hear You Redecorate Your Two-Story Ship with Flowerpots and a Double Bed
There's a serenity to watching a blue sun rise over a planet I'll never leave. My ship is a flaming wreck streaking through the great black above me, no doubt peppered with holes from the xeno assault that left me stranded here. I’ve got a gun, a fire extinguisher, a backpack and a dream. What I don’t have is a way off this planet.
Let’s rewind a bit to before I was left alone on the rolling wastes of Jarilo. Rodina is an exploration-focused space sim that hit Steam Early Access all the way back in the darkened period of 2014. It’s a relatively sparse affair, released at a time when No Man’s Sky was still a distant phenomenon, Elite Dangerous was gearing up for not-quite domination and everybody was talking about Star Citizen. Compared to those three, Rodina is more physics sandbox than proper simulation. Visuals and audio are simple and stripped-back and very little about your purpose is signposted. You load into the game without fanfare and set about your planet-hopping. In my case, I spent ten minutes walking in the wrong direction before noticing the waypoint indicating where my ship was.
I make for the nearest asteroid and very haphazardly spray down an enemy ship. The combat is tricky using a mouse—I have to account for a lot of drifting and inertia, wrestling with a giant lump of metal hurtling through space as enemies flitter nimbly along my periphery. There are guided missiles, but those come in limited supply, so I rely on my trusty cannons to take down my first foe. With the adversary reduced to a flaming wreckage streaking across the horizon, I touch down next to a structure that looks as though someone tried to make a skull fort based on a Xenomorph. It's relatively small, but inside I find a hole to a basement—a basement full of creatures that don't wait for me to get my bearings before unloading their blasters. The game quickly transitions from an open-air space shooter to a Doom-like strafe 'n shoot in tight quarters, and I catch myself in my own blaster's radius more than once.
I breeze through most of the enemies, as well as most of my own health, before reaching a room with a bigger, yellower Xeno strutting around. Within seconds of spotting me, he's taking up so much of my field of view that I'm having a hard time figuring out which direction I need to run to get away.
And he's got a flamethrower.
My first experience with death in Rodina is quick and confusing, but I'm loaded back in at the entrance with a plan in mind. By dancing back and forth in the doorway, I can make the AI get hung up like Geralt of Rivia trying to mount a ladder. What’s more, they don’t think to stop and shoot amidst their navigational confusion, and the tricky yellow bastard is reduced to an over-equipped Roomba. I find little in the underground ruin: some missiles, a few data archives and an encryption key. Feeling rather downtrodden about my first sortie in enemy territory, I turn my gaze to the stars once more.
Atmospheric entry is hard enough; a delicate balance between speed and angle that will start fires if I’m too reckless. Getting off planets isn’t much easier. I get a fair distance off the ground, engage my limnal drive (Rodina’s supercruise equivalent) and… pop a hard 180, slamming into the ground before I can react. Another reload.
The second enemy ship I encounter is tougher than the first. It zips around me faster than I can drag my reticule, and I waste a lot of the fight—and my hull—firing off into the depths of space. Before I know it, I'm kicked off the control console and left to fend for myself on a dead ship. I do what any sensible space explorer does: I shoot myself out of the airlock and attempt to reach the nearby asteroid by shooting my blaster in the opposite direction. I have no idea how physics work, but it’s worth a shot. After a minute or two of questioning whether the asteroid was getting bigger or just rotating, I reload and have another go at ship #2.
So far, it's a modest experience. Sound effects are minimal, making space travel a sombre musical meditation. Surface exploration is also largely thin, with none of the procedural elements that make No Man's Sky so expansive. That's kind of Rodina's shtick, though. It puts the little mechanical and physical interactions front-and-centre. Combat is a bullet hell dance, my ship a maze of interconnected corridors and control consoles. No Man's Sky is about stories of discovery, Rodina is more about those moment-to-moment tales of alien shootouts and risky manoeuvres.
At this point, I figure, who needs planets, right? I mark a type of icon I haven't visited yet and engage the limnal drive once more. I find a large, silvery chunk of weird angles and flat surfaces. After a few potshots to test whether it's some kind of mineable asteroid, I spot a small, easy-to-miss gap on one of the shape's edges: it's a ship. Like that scene in Interstellar, I carefully line up my own silvery chunk of weird angles and flat surfaces with the mystery gap and hit the brakes. A small leap across the void and I'm in a red-lit airlock.
The interior is, layout and alien residents aside, identical to my own. I give an unfamiliar blue Xeno my spaceman's welcome and open what few doors the single-corridor junker has: three bathrooms, two bedrooms and no sign of a bridge or anything to indicate that I haven't just docked at a semi-detached in Beckton. These Xenos are either prospective realtors, or they've hijacked Rodina's comfiest non-transport.
Conceding that the free-floating residence has little to offer me, I head back out to the airlock to find that my ship isn't where I left it. Rather, it's floating about 100 metres above my parking spot, and it's spinning on one of its axes. I can still see my own airlock, but if I sit here pondering my velocity and thrust and whatever else astronauts think about, I'm going to find myself stuck on the universe's loneliest Premier Inn. I hit space, launching out into the murky expanse. I hit it again for a brief jetpack burst, tweaking my trajectory. I take my hands off the controls and watch as my character lands nimbly in the welcoming grey of my own entry hatch.
I eventually figure out that the game is, in fact, guiding me to certain places to follow a light upgrade path. Low over the surface of an icy planet, I win a dogfight against ridiculous odds. Touching down, I find my objective jammed underneath one of the wrecks I just made. I try my blaster. I try missiles. I try ramming. Nothing will budge the flaming hull, and I'm left stranded mid-story once more. At this point, I thought things were as bad as they were going to get, but the cinematic “bwaaaam” of combat music alerts me that more Xeno ships have arrived. I turn to face my ship just in time to see a salvo of rockets plough into the roof, followed by the alien ship itself. There's no sound, no big explosion, just unstoppable force meeting immovable object and bouncing wildly off in opposite directions. The Xeno ship skims the ground a few times before burying itself into the side of a hill and exploding, while my trusty vessel comes to safe stop a few extra miles away.
Rodina's a strange game. Brimming with lore, without enough gameplay to propel me from planet to planet. The game has an awful lot to say, but relatively little to do. I found plenty of archives from the galaxy’s most annoying blogger and even more Xeno ships willing to riddle my ship with unwanted holes, but I never really felt like I was doing much of significance. There’s a scarily in-depth ship editor and a lot more planets to visit, but at this point I’m not sure what I get out of that.