EA SCOUT the last line of defense for buying on Steam's Early Access
by Adam Nix
previewed on PC
Whenever I start playing a game with a sandbox environment, I am both amazed and overwhelmed by the endless list of contraptions I can create. What will I actually end up doing though? I have always found that the greatest difficulties with sandbox games tend to be getting involved enough to create something truly special. I've bounced off games like Kerbal Space Program and even more advanced portions of Minecraft because I did not want to delve into countless YouTube videos and wikis to best utilize the tools I am given. There needs to be something in between creating a rocket from scratch and being given a useless and streamlined approach to tools creations. Main Assembly attempts to do just this, while still providing an on-ramp to making some amazing, complex creations.
Where to Start?
In Main Assembly, players take on the role of a small, cylindrical robot wandering around a beautifully rendered world. The player can utilize a finite set of tools to create anything from cars and planes to a vast array of odd machines with three options of gameplay: Tutorial, Challenges and Sandbox.
For the beginner, jumping into the game’s tutorial is a great option. It functions as a pinewood derby simulator - and to be honest, it works. I found myself really enjoying putting together a goofy piece of junk that slightly resembles a car within just 20 minutes. It reminded me so much of the half-baked cars I made when I participated in pinewood derbies as a kid. It might not function as intended, but even that messed up invention provides me joy as it struggles its way through Main Assembly’s challenges.
The Challenges mode offers gamers more specific goals and less direction than the tutorials. They ask the gamer to think about how their car acts in certain situations. How will the physical makeup of the course interact with the vehicle? Should I make it heavier this time around? Will I need to add a booster or counterweights? These challenges are depicted through three collectible stars on each level. These stars will unlock new cosmetic items and car upgrades to use in future challenges, but the means to get them are rather boring. They tend to be timed challenges that are almost completely focused on general car physics and dexterity. For a game that taunts the idea of creating airplanes and rockets, it spends way too much time teaching you how best to steer and avoid obstacles with your simple pinewood derby car. It is only by the last eight to ten challenges that they really delve into the more interesting functionality they have to offer.
Enjoy the Sandbox
The most exciting part of the game comes in the sandbox game mode. Players can take something as simple as a white box and turn it into a car, airplane, rocket, or anything else they can imagine. Through an easy to use 3D vehicle editing interface and an intuitive programming grid, the possibilities are endless. Even within a couple hours of messing around with it, I was able to build an airplane of sorts. It might not exactly fly yet, but I am working on it. The biggest barrier to creating whatever you can dream up, will be the lack of guidance and tutorials for many of the mechanical items available. With enough time investment or some trial and error, you can figure it out, but the game’s early access status is most apparent by the lack of resources for some apparent neat tools.
This does bring us to the issues I ran into once I was free to create anything in these sandbox environments. There is a snap functionality that is used when putting together different parts of the car. Most of the time, this works just fine, but once my contraptions got more complex, new pieces I was trying to place would snap to the incorrect area of my vehicle. Sometimes they just refused to cooperate. The UI also lacks the ability to scale your pieces, which gets frustrating very fast.
Many of these issues should be forgiven in an early access game. Bad Yolk Games is very active in their community and working hard to get their major issues fixed - but for a game that depends so heavily on the building and programming functions to work properly, any issues here can be detrimental to gameplay.
We’re all programmers now
Even with the issues I found in the actual building of vehicles, I was extremely impressed by the visual programming interface. Main Assembly provides you with an entire sidebar of different items to add to a programming grid. These items are represented by blocks and each block has a node that can be connected to other blocks. in seconds you set up some finely tuned programs. It starts out as simply having a block for increasing and decreasing the power of your wheels connected to another block mapped to the W and S keys. The steering is set up the same way with the A and D keys. These are also easily interchangeable with controller input.
Things get more complicated as you add other pieces to your car. Interested in making a forklift? Connect the F key to a spring for lifting functionality. Wanna make a plane? Get some engines and joints that can tilt the angle of the plane's fins, mapping them to whatever keys you would prefer. As your creation gets more complicated, expect your programming grid to as well.
I feel like I only saw the tip of the iceberg in terms of what this programming interface can accomplish. I was able to get a better idea of how intense this really could be after checking out a couple of community hub projects on Steam. The community is already hard at work making amazing stuff from Word War II fighter jets to drones, but even at its simplest level, it is incredible how quickly you can become familiar and comfortable with its basics.
Lots of Potential
Main Assembly is very accessible for a genre of game that tends to toss that trait out the window, but it doesn’t have the robust set of tutorials and challenges needed to nurture its vast potential. I know the game will get there eventually, but as someone who needs that set of tutorials and general “hand-holding” for a sandbox game like this, I eagerly await the day where Bad Yolk Games has had the chance to expand on their tutorial offerings.
Until then, I'll be happy to jump back in every once and a while to make my janky pinewood derby cars and check in on the inevitably cool inventions the community comes up with. For the gamer who is used to working in sandbox environments without too much direction or is looking to steer away from their go-to sandbox game, I'd recommend giving Main Assembly a shot.
There are no guarantees - but we'd bet our own money on this one. If you're going to take a chance with yours, odds are good this one will deliver.