Preview: Abiotic Factor

1 May 2024

By now PC gamers are used to playing something in early access, and some balk at the prospect since it’s not a finished project when it launches in that status. Still, it’s a chance to experience new concepts and ideas that the developers might be tinkering with during development. Well, not all of them are out-and-out new ideas. Some are twists on pre-established concepts, while others are a little more adventurous and try to make their own universe and story using tried-and-true gameplay methods. While most people think of Half-Life when they think of the concept of “a scientist with a gun,” being more of a crafting survival experience is something that wouldn’t see popularity until much later on.

Deep Field Games’ Abiotic Factor aims to take that “scientist with a gun” idea and adapt it to that survival crafting experience. The concept is nothing new, but there’s always potential for some level of shenanigans when you throw multiplayer into the mix. With this game dropping into early access on May 2nd, those shenanigans may very well drop with the amount of jank that one might expect from what amounts to a playtest you can buy.

Regardless, some games that release in this state still have the potential to be a pretty fun experience. Hopefully, the players who latch onto this will provide feedback that will benefit the developers in the early access period. Because of that status, this won’t be a full-on review of the title. While it’s commonplace to see games like this drop into this period, it’s hardly what I would call a finished product. Published by Playstack, Abiotic Factor will be released on PC via Steam Early Access on May 2nd and is the version we’re covering here.

Somewhere underground in the Australian desert, the GATE Corporation employs some of the best and brightest scientists they can find and brings them into their sprawling facility. With the promise of working on the cutting edge of science and research, it’s a pretty juicy opportunity for those who want to be in the thick of that. However, and predictably, your arrival at the research facility isn’t exactly met with fanfare or even enough coworkers to talk shop about the kind of research they’re doing. Instead, you’re tasked with finding out what the hell’s going on down here and slowly peel back the reason why things have gone south so quickly.

The story isn’t quite the main focus here but pulls just enough influence from Half-Life to use the “dialogue through normal gameplay” concept that its influence helped popularize. If anything else, it’s a carrot to motivate the player to play their way to the next beat. Because more often than not, you’ll be doing a lot of crafting and exploration to solve problems you’ll encounter as you play.

However, before you enter the GATE facility, you’ll have to spec out your scientist based on your playstyle. This is fleshed out with multiple classes and such as you’d expect, but once you’ve assigned your class and the points it gives you, that’s it. You’ll level up those stats through normal gameplay, but they’re set in stone once you start your playthrough. It’s not a concept you often see in first-person games, but it’s not an unwelcome addition given the aesthetics.

Whether you play alone or with friends, most of your playthrough will be spent solving problems and crafting with combat thrown into the mix. One example I ran into was trying to free one of my colleagues from the cafeteria, but I needed to craft a certain item to open the door. How did that get accomplished? I had to scavenge for items to build a crafting bench, find the appropriate items to craft the one I needed, and finally craft the item to free the guy. Scavenging items can take a fair amount of time to accomplish, and even things you can quickly craft on your own require you to keep an eye out for the appropriate items. While you will unlock more recipes to use as you play, I can see some people getting frustrated with how tedious it can be sometimes.

Because of the focus on crafting and exploration, this can add to frustration when it comes to combat. Early on, you’re using whatever weapon you can to ensure your survival. Table legs, simple weapons, and things like that aren’t always effective. But they’re better than nothing. Sometimes your best option is to escape, but that won’t always be effective. Some interdimensional foes can and will chase you around the facility (and elsewhere), and you’ll be easily overwhelmed.

Depending on your situation, this can be extremely frustrating. Especially when your demise results in the Minecraft-esque result of dropping items, at least the ones in your backpack. This means you’ll have to backtrack to recover your inventory based on the closest spawn point you passed. Sometimes I found myself getting caught flat-footed because the only thing I had on hand was a nearly broken table leg and some nets to catch and stomp small enemies. Once you can craft meatier weapons, it might be easier to swallow. But that early game can be rough.

You’ll also have to keep tabs on your character’s needs. If you don’t meet those needs, you’ll drop just as easily as you would in combat. This is just another thing to manage, and your character will frequently comment on their state as they enter it. Are you mildly parched? Better go find some beverage you can actually drink. Feelin’ peckish? Looks like you’ll have to scavenge your own food in some form or fashion. It’s a delicate balancing act, and trying to stay upright at all can be a challenge all its own. Not only are you trying to dodge attacks from interdimensional beings, but you’re also keeping those needs met more often than not.

While the current package isn’t awful, it still bears the rough marks of an Early Access title. There’s definitely some jank here, but it’s the kind of jank that some people could overlook because it’s still in development. Personally, I’m hoping that this will be ironed out over time. Because the gameplay shows ambition, it’s just not entirely cohesive enough for me at the moment.

I’m not entirely surprised that this game decided to lean in a more late-’90s PC game direction in terms of graphics, because it certainly looks like a game from that era. Character models are deliberately low-poly but still detailed enough that it’s not going to get in the way of you actually playing the game. The GATE facility is about what you’d expect a scientific compound to look like, but the other environments present here do help break up the drab underground environment enough that I don’t mind it. You won’t be wowed by the visuals, but that’s not the point. Since this is pulling from certain low-poly influences here, there can be some leeway in terms of graphical style. Environments, characters, and visual effects certainly understand that influence. But don’t expect any modern builds to struggle running this on most resolutions.

Most of the audio presentation seems to lean more in a quiet and moody direction. Music (early on, at least) is more used to accent certain situations, and most of the time you’re only hearing the dialogue of your colleagues and the ruckus of you doing what needs to be done to survive. I wasn’t looking to have a sweeping soundtrack or anything, but I can see some chafing at the fact that there isn’t more music. It fits what it’s pulling from, but sometimes the lack of audio annoyed me. The voice acting also leans towards the vibe that the original Half-Life also had, which was working within the confines of its time. This decision feels more like an homage to those early moments in Black Mesa, but it felt worth mentioning.

The overall presentation isn’t anything earth-shattering, but you can see that there was a decent amount of effort put into this to feel just unique enough that it could stand on its own. While I wish it was a little more fleshed out in the audio department, the visuals do enough to get the job done. It won’t be winning awards anytime soon, but this should hopefully improve over time as the early access process wears on.

If you don’t mind dealing with the weirdness that early access games like this bring with them, there is some fun to be had here. It’s geared towards being an experience best shared with friends, but players who prefer to play alone will find that they weren’t forgotten either. The state that Abotic Factor currently finds itself in does bear the mark of an early access game in active development, and I’m sure that aspect alone will be a deterrent for some players.

There is a playable game here despite how janky it will be when it launches into early access. Like any game that launches in this state, there will be a bevy of updates and such that will be patched in over time. However, any recommendation from people like me would come with the question “How much patience do you have for the early access process?” If you can shoulder the idiosyncracies of that process and overlook the weirdness, you’ll probably enjoy what Abiotic Factor brings to the table. It’s not everyone’s cup of tea, but those who enjoy these experiences will surely find something to love here.

Preview code provided by Playstack for PC. Screenshots taken by writer. Featured image courtesy of Playstack.