Unfinished Business is NME’s new column about the weird and wonderful world of Early Access Games. This week, Rick Lane builds a factory in space in Dyson Sphere Program.
Dyson Sphere Program is Factorio on steroids, which is impressive considering Factorio is already bulked up like an Olympic weightlifter. Created by Chinese developer Youthcat Studio, this vast, celestial management sim takes the factory-building concept pioneered by Wube Software, adds a third dimension, and then expands it out to a galactic scale.
You assume the role of a slightly incongruous-looking yellow mech, who arrives in a randomly generated solar system with the goal of building a Dyson Sphere. For those who don’t know, a Dyson Sphere is a megastructure posited by physicist and cool name-haver Freeman Dyson, intended to harvest the total energy output of a star. It’s essentially a vast network of solar panels that encases the star like an eggshell, only infinitely more complicated than that analogy makes it sound.
Anyway, your job is to build one. As you can probably imagine, you can’t just rock up to the sun with a toolbox and a hard-hat and get cracking. Building a Dyson Sphere requires a huge number of resources, highly advanced technologies, and a sprawling industrial infrastructure to support it. In short, what you need is a factory. An extremely big factory. Which you must build from scratch.
At the outset, Dyson Sphere Program follows Factorio‘s template. A factory setup relies on several key components. Resource collectors mine ores and fuels like iron and coal the ground. Smelters turn those ores into useful metals by burning the fuel you’ve mined. Assemblers take those metals and other base components to create more advanced items. All these machines are connected together by conveyor belts and inserters, the former of which move items around your factory, while the latter insert and remove items from assemblers and other machines.
What makes factory games so compelling is their blend of creativity and hard logic, alongside their Russian doll-like sequences of puzzles within puzzles. For example, once you’ve got a basic factory going, your goal moves on to researching new technologies. Research relies upon Matrix cubes, brightly coloured sci-fi MacGuffins that are essentially physically represented research points. Matrix cubes must be produced by your factory out of items like magnets and circuit boards, which are themselves manufactured from other components.
There are multiple types of Matrix cube, each of which requires more advanced components which in-turn have more complex pipelines. In this way, Dyson Sphere Program‘s challenges stack and expand. Creating new items will often require you to rethink the layout of your factory, as you fathom how to get newly introduced resources like silicon and hydrogen to multiple locations, without interrupting the flow of other resources.
So far, so Factorio, although it’s worth noting that, even here, Dyson Sphere Program isn’t a complete carbon copy. The 3D world makes a big difference to how you can organise your factory, letting you overlap conveyor belts at multiple levels. It also makes some welcome tweaks to Factorio‘s formula, such as letting you adjust the length of inserters to suit your current layout.
But Dyson Sphere Program comes into its own the moment you leave your starting planet. After around a dozen-hours play, you’ll unlock a special drive for your mech, allowing you to seamlessly travel through your solar system a-la No Man’s Sky. Certain technologies require materials that can only be found on other planets, meaning you need to set up new factory operations on those planets, then connect them together by building Interstellar Logistics Stations, automated freight spaceports that move resources from one planet to another. Wonderfully, the flight paths you establish are fully simulated, meaning you can follow your spaceships around as they make their runs. It provides that same pleasure of watching the bustle of your city in a game like Cities: Skylines. But unlike Skylines, which generates much of its spectacle for you, here every input and output has been specifically allocated by you.
I have a few quibbles with Dyson Sphere Program‘s design, most of which revolve around your mech. Firstly, your mech requires fuel to operate efficiently, which must be manually topped-up, a needless complication in a game that’s already hugely elaborate. In addition, when you build a structure, it doesn’t appear in the game world immediately. Instead, the structure is moved into place by drones that detach from your mech suit. This looks neat, and adds some pleasing continuity between your actions and the game world. But it can also significantly slow down certain building projects. Constructing conveyor belts can be particularly tiresome, as every piece of the belt needs to be put down by a drone, adding minutes to a task that Factorio resolves instantly.
Still, these are minor gripes with a game that is astonishingly rich and comprehensive, even in its current Early Access form. The developers are far from finished with the design too. Planned new features include new planets, black holes and other spatial anomalies, alien monsters, and a combat system. Frankly, I’m not sure the game needs this latter feature, but if it’s as good as everything else that’s currently in Dyson Sphere Program, it’s going to make for a pretty special experience whenever the game emerges from its Early Access cocoon.