Some might say that NASA's glory days are behind them.
The Gemini and Apollo missions of the 60's and 70's were astonishing, not only for their relative success but as outright technological achievements. Although we'll certainly travel to Mars and probably beyond, we'll never quite capture that raw thrill of seeing humans walking on a different world for the first time.
NASA appear to be keenly aware of this. Budget cuts have scrapped the shuttle replacement for the foreseeable future, so the government department has taken the opportunity to push space education towards a new medium. While US pilots and astronauts have been training on simulators for decades, Moonbase Alpha is the first game in NASA's Learning Technologies project designed for home use. Basically put, the project plans to reach out to a new generation of enthusiasts whilst promoting science, technology, engineering and mathematics in an interactive gaming environment.
To assist with this, NASA has had assistance from of the development teams at Virtual Heroes and Army Game Studio - two of the brightest stars in the serious game industry.
Coupled with graphics from the Unreal Engine 3 and online distribution from Steam, it's clear to see NASA are keen about establishing a presence in this area. Particularly as they've already gone on record by stating that Moonbase Alpha is the precursor to a NASA-based MMO.
Part training mission and part co-op brain teaser, Moonbase Alpha allows up to six people to join together to repair a meteor-damaged international station based on the lunar surface. After a brief summary of the situation, all players are free to start work on restoring the oxygen supply to the base in whatever manner they see fit, whilst keeping in contact using the in-game text chat.
Although maps vary in complexity, the layout is always the same - solar panels power tanks, which distribute oxygen through pipes, which are joined together by couplings, then attached to a power distributor and life support system, before finally passing into the base. During the meteor strike, various parts of this supply chain are damaged (the severity and location of the damage changes each time) and it's your responsibility to figure out how to get everything operational again before your rather meagre 25 minutes of backpack life support runs out.
You can repair couplings and solar panels using the welder, or you can simply swap out the damaged items entirely. Herein lies the complexity - in order to swap out a coupling, you'll need to use a wrench to unhook the oxygen pipe at each end, then again to hook up the new coupling. As you'll also need to retrieve the coupling from the equipment shed, it's much faster to simply repair any existing damage. Unless, of course, the coupling goes "critical" (explodes) thereby unhooking itself from the line and simultaneously rendering itself inoperable anyway, at which point you will have no choice but to replace it.
Get enough of these "critical" strikes, and your teammates will need to retrieve a stack of couplings and get to work replacing them pronto.
The process of welding repairs has it's own mini-game associated with it, consisting of a circuit board that you can trace (or "solder") ends of circuits together using your mouse. Each successful completion of this mini-game will take seconds off the total time require to repair whatever it is you're tasked with. Naturally, each level of minigame becomes harder and harder - the penalty for failure is both a lack of a time discount, and the demotion of your mini-game skill to the previous level.
Once the oxygen supply is established, you'll need to get it into the base past the power distributor and life support system. Unfortunately, due to a coolant leak, players are unable to directly access this area, and therefore must rely on robots to do the repairs remotely.
There are two robots on offer - one with an arm, and one equipped with a welder. Both are required to bring the oxygen supply online as fast as possible - one utilising the arm to replace circuit boards, the other used to effect welded repairs on the broken equipment. The robots are controlled through a console which you'll set up on the surface of the moon, and viewed in the third person as you utilize their abilities. You only have a certain level of battery power, so repairs need to be efficient, plus there's a range limit - any robot that strays too far will be locked out.
Wandering around the moon is made easier by the use of an auto-run option, as well as a space buggy that can accommodate your team. Movement is the key to success in this endeavour - the equipment sheds are located a fair hike from the equipment you need to repair or replace, and you can only carry one item at a time (be that equipment or tools) so knowing exactly which item is required in which order is crucial.
Sadly there's no real individual achievements (other than the knowledge that you contributed to your teams success) and the online leaderboards are starting to fill up fast with people posting seemingly frenetic times. You can compete across a LAN or solo as well, however as far as longevity goes, it's unlikely to keep you entertained past half a dozen victories and an half-decent completion time.
It's particularly difficult attaching a review score to this title, as it's not designed to necessarily entertain you in the way a retail game would. As there's no cost attached to it, there's really no danger in downloading it and trying it, although it is a little disappointing to see the lack of content on offer given NASA's involvement.
If the game had more variance in level design - and perhaps introduced new concepts that required resolving through a series of different challenges the further you progressed in the game - we could be looking at something much more likely to gain a cult following. As it stands however, it's a pretty tech demo with a couple of hours of enjoyment attached. We're not complaining though, it's free after all.