By Terris Harned (NWOrpheus), Guest Writer
Ever since I first saw the Kickstarter trailer for the game Eco, I wanted to give it a try. The premise of a survival-style game where you are required to balance the ecosystem of a planet, while progressing technologically in order to save it from a meteor, appealed greatly to me. Although Eco is still in Early Access, Strange Loop Games has not disappointed with their offering.
The character customization is relatively limited in many ways. There are only 4 hairstyles – including bald – and 3 facial hair examples for the ‘masculine’ model. Yes, masculine. There are no male and female in this game, only masculine and feminine, which I personally find novel and an interesting choice. The current selection of clothing is rather limited, but more are expected in the future.
I repeat however that this is Early Access and, according to SLG’s Community Manager Shay McLean, there is likely to be more customization in the future. Unfortunately there is no timeline for that feature. On the plus side, the colorization options for clothing are in the millions of colors spectrum, offering you the rainbow slider and a hue selector.
When you start the game you have the option of choosing between joining a server or creating a new one. If you create a new server you can choose whether to allow friends to join, as well as the level of cooperation you want to instill in players. These cooperation levels dictate the speed at which you gain experience points, as well as the experience point cost of learning skills and specializations – more on those later. If you have high cooperation set, for example, players are going to advance very slowly on an individual basis, meaning that some people are going to have to supply food, others will chop trees, and someone else will provide stone. On a low or very low cooperation server, you generally won’t have to worry about each player having a narrow focus.
Once you’ve joined your server and created your avatar it’s time to get down to business! Thankfully, the game has a plethora of tutorials that flash on your screen to guide you on your path. This includes one that encourages you to spot the meteor that will one day collide with your homeworld, unless you can build the lasers to blow it to smithereens before it has the chance! If the tutorials aren’t quite enough for you, there’s also an excellent Getting Started guide on the Eco wiki page. You can also find tooltips for pretty much everything in-game. They’re even linked together so clicking part of one tooltip will take you to associated recipe or skill. The controls are fairly intuitive and transparent, with the tutorial directing you to most things you need to see, and a little experimental clicking of icons allowing you to find the rest.
In the early game Eco plays much like most other survival games. Gather resources, build a dwelling, manage hunger, etc. Unlike other survival games, however, Eco has no health bar. That’s right, none! Instead, you have a calorie and nutrition meter. Most actions, including running, consume a set amount of calories – this amount can be reduced by certain specializations, which are a type of skill. I’ll get to those soon, I promise!
There are two things that make Eco’s hunger system very unique. The first is the fact that it is broken up into 4 nutritional facets: fat, protein, carbohydrates, and vitamins. The second novel factor is that balancing these facets increases the rate at which you gain skill points. Thus, while you can simply forage tomatoes or huckleberries to fill your hunger meter and keep working, you’ll find yourself gaining skill points significantly slower than if you have a more varied diet. This makes farming for food an essential, but not critical, aspect of gameplay.
Skills: Yet another fairly unique and core feature of the game. There are a variety of skill sets, from mining to masonry to hunting and even forestry. Under most craft skills there are 3 aspects; crafting recipes, crafting efficiency, and speed. Gathering skills similarly have various ways to improve, such as increasing the amount gained from each harvest, or reducing the amount of hunger consumed when swinging a tool.
What I really think is a marvelous feature is the fact that you gain skill points over real-life elapsed time – even when you’re offline (this only applies to multi-player or dedicated servers.) There is an option for the server admin, set at launch, allowing you to gain skill points for each task completed. Most multiplayer servers seem to have this turned off, considering it a better option for single-player mode, since you don’t get that benefit of offline skill point gain.
Some of the other features of the game include an incredibly useful map, which assists in locating any resource the game has to offer, as well as displaying pollution and temperature levels in an area (helping you maintain the ecological balance and avoid rising sea levels). You can even set your main view to display this information as well.
There’s also an elaborate voting system that lets you create a leader for your society – in the future, you’ll have the ability to have more than one government – as well as setting laws and restrictions, such as disallowing deforestation in an area.
Joining a server is not one of my favorite parts of Eco. There are a boatload of servers, each with unique rules, different progressions into the game, various skill rate settings – and no way to sort them, other than searching by name. This can be a bit frustrating if you’re looking for something specific, though using the Eco Discord server – linked on the front screen of the game – can help greatly, as they have a #server-ad channel specifically for finding a server with your desired options. This is another aspect that Shay said would be fixed eventually, but isn’t the highest priority of the developers.
Once on a server, or on the Discord, you’ll find a generally helpful community, after all, the game typically forces cooperation. That being said, it’s probably a good idea to spend some time in single player navigating your way around the game before jumping online, as people inevitably get a little touchy when too many basic gameplay questions are asked.
Despite its cartoony graphics, I found myself immersed in the game, whether I was chopping trees or shooting turtles with my bow. I still chuckle every time my avatar yells “Timber!!!!” when felling a majestic fir tree. The music and birdsong in the background are a soothing enhancement, rather than an overwhelming distraction.
At thirty dollars, some might find this game to have a steep price point, especially for an Early Access title. Having actually bought my copy out of pocket, I can say it’s been very worth it to me. My personal system of judging is one hour played per dollar spent, and I’m already well past that point, despite having owned the game less than a week. It has more features and less bugs than most Early Access games I’ve played, and has only been on Steam since early February.
With more vehicles on the way (oh, did I not mention vehicles?) as well as enhancements to other existing features, this game can only get better. With a unique method of skill acquisition, innovative voting system, and positive community, I can see myself coming back to this game time and time again. Keeping in mind its Early Access status and improvements coming, I give Eco 4.5 out of 5.