Review copy provided by developer
I love Minecraft, but I have the same problem with it that I do with all pure sandbox games. I go into Minecraft with a goal in mind, something specific I want to build, and once it’s built, I’m done. I’m a goal-oriented gamer, and while I can come up with my own goals, my interest only lasts as long as those goals do. That’s why Eco seemed so interesting to me, being a very Minecrafty game with a very conspicuous goal. And it does both quite well, for as long as the ramshackle game built around it can hold up.
Eco places you on a lush little planet full of forests and oceans and teeming wildlife. Unfortunately there also happens to be a meteor in the sky that’s going to land rather destructively in 30 days. By cultivating the land, researching new technologies, and building your way from the stone age to modern times, you can save your tiny world from calamity. However, progress comes at the same price it does in the real world. Forests can be clear-cut to barren wastelands, furnaces can blacken the sky, and all your lovely wildlife can be hunted to extinction. There’s not much point to saving the world if you’re just going to destroy it yourself, so progress must be made carefully and responsibly if you’re going to succeed.
This real-world grounding is a cornerstone of Eco right out the gate. That 30-day countdown to the meteor impact is in real-time, for example. Thirty days after you start your world it will be devastated, so you’ll need to get right to work. The ecological simulation is detailed all the way down to soil viability for different crops, air pollution heat maps, and specific nutrition counts and costs for every food and action in the game. Do not let the blocky graphics fool you, because if you thought feeding yourself in Minecraft was a pain, Eco expects you to prepare a whole menu for yourself while monitoring your impact on the flora and fauna. There are a dizzying number of moving parts here, and while you don’t need to recognize them all to get started or even succeed this sort of detail is integral to the game experience.
Even the basic mechanics of felling trees and building structures are blown out into complex processes. If you want to build a log cabin, for example, you obviously need to chop down some trees. But when the trunk hits the ground it needs to be chopped into smaller logs that you can carry. These logs need to be carried to a crafting bench (or stockpile connected to a bench) and hewn into usable logs. These, at last, can be placed as blocks to build your home, except anything larger than a tool (like blocks or stones or logs) goes into a special holding slot that can only hold ten or so of that object. Extrapolate this out to the many kinds of bricks and tiles and materials that make up realistic-looking structures, and you can see how much more involved building a simple house is here than in comparable building games.
It’s all in the name of progress, though. Important stations for cooking or crafting or research must be placed in an appropriate room. Ultimately all the fiddly rules and crafting in Eco gives it a genuine purpose and a nod towards realism, something that loads of people have modded Minecraft heavily to achieve. Plus there are vehicles and complex machines to look forward to in the later stages of progress, along with some rather revolutionary ideas like a web-based law system that uses a basic scripting language to let you set laws for your world. You can also track economic exchanges once you develop money and the means to build little stores, so those with the patience to build up their society will find a very deep and detailed simulation to kick around in.
You can attempt to stave off the meteor yourself, but honestly Eco isn’t really designed with that in mind. Skill gains (for research and crafting) are scaled for a single player if you start an offline world, and with enough patience you can tech up on your own to victory. It’s just going to be a long, tedious road of swapping skill points around and building an entire compound of smelters and sawmills alone. Fortunately the game has a very active community right now, and players are quite welcoming and willing to help you understand what you should be doing. Many servers turn the meteor off entirely and set alternative goals for their worlds, so if you’d rather build a great society than battle a rock from space you have that option as well.
There’s a lot of promise in Eco already, and loads of systems to dig into and master, but not without their drawbacks. Like many Minecraft-ish projects this one is significantly unpolished, with long loading pauses and hitches when interacting with the world. New terrain is extremely slow to load so don’t expect any stunning vistas until you give the game a few moments to catch up to what you’re supposed to be seeing. There are plenty of conspicuous bugs too, like some spots where blocks won’t place properly and instead will stack infinitely on a pre-existing block. And despite the handy tutorial missions there are plenty of features that are never explained and must be sussed out on your own, like how to link storage to benches (which is essential for crafting with larger materials).
Eco is a rough product right now, but one with plenty of depth and opportunity for those willing to work for it. It’s very much a game made for folks who couldn’t enjoy Minecraft without mods, folks who needed that additional complexity and purpose to build with. If you’re not ready for that kind of commitment it might be better to wait this one out until the edges are all smoothed out, but there’s plenty to dig into now if you’re so inclined. With loads of features and technical options to developing your world, to say nothing of an actual purpose to your work, Eco is definitely one of the more promising sandbox builders out there.