JCB Pioneer — Can You Dig It?

By Robert Zak on at

With a name like Joseph Cyril Bamford, he was destined for industrialist, entrepreneurial greatness. I envision old Bamford being born with locomotive steam blowing out of his ears, his fledgling brain's gears working like a digger engine. Yes, Joseph Cyril Bamford or JCB, as his globally-renowned British heavy machinery company is known, is a name that’s going places, and there’s no place more bold and daring than the harsh climate of Mars.

Yes, this is all a bit bonkers. JCB dropped us a line about their upcoming JCB-branded survival video game, and we simply had to take a look. Instant impression: JCB Pioneer is harsh. Mars has never been known for its rolling hills and gentle climate, but creating a simulacrum of the real thing wasn’t nearly hostile enough for developers Atomicom. During a presentation at JCB’s surprisingly-swish headquarters (I imagined a Mordor-like wasteland pockmarked with digger trenches, but would you believe they actually have a lake) Andy Santos, head of design and production at Atomicom, was keen to impress on us that JCB Pioneer isn’t aiming for those lily-livered massmarket losers — it’s “hard”, it’s for the “core” audience, it’s “niche”. Grr!

So where the thin atmosphere on real-life Mars makes dust devils and sandstorms feel like gentle breezes, in Pioneer this isn't nearly enough and so the mini-tornadoes are charged with electricity, while sandstorms viciously shred your shit up. Alongside those hazards, there are pockets of radiation, corrosion and meteor showers to deal with, their severity conveniently denoted by numbers in your techy spacesuit. Top it off with steadily-depleting oxygen and power supplies in your suit and (JCB) buggy, and you have an unforgiving experience that really is going for the hardcore survivalists.

Even if your eyes don’t burst out of your skull like Arnie’s in Total Recall, this is a hellish pseudo-realistic interpretation of Mars. But beyond the gritty reality of what the game currently offers, there are plans for a colony-building game and co-op multiplayer, which may make this more enticing than what was shown in my short hands-on.

My playthrough begins with awakening from a crash-landing. My suit UI loads up, and I scramble through a meteor-showered canyon to find a nearby hub where I can craft items, pick up my JCB buggy, and regenerate my suit and health. There's some crackly communication with a lady who gets me to collect various bits and pieces to get me back on my feet. Things aren’t terribly scenic at this point, with early missions leading me to caves and canyons surrounding the starting area. There are some sort-of interesting rock formations, and the magma flows through some interiors, but it’s not a landscape that takes your breath away.

More striking than the scenery was extent of JCB branding. Neither Santos nor the rep from publisher GamesCo seemed to know the story of how JCB came to be involved in the project, which was really unfortunate because it's kind of the whole reason we visited. But the ubiquity of the JCB logo around the home hub — from the vehicle (understandable), to the massive stamp on the side of the garage unit (ok), right down to the coffee mug (come on) — suggests that the company wants its investment to be hard to miss. Old Bamford would most certainly have approved...

Navigation is deliberately labyrinthine, with the compass-style objective marker doing little to guide me around the sheer rock-faces surrounding the contiguous craters, which are connected by barely discernible openings. This unforgiving topography, Santos tells me, is based on the southern hemisphere of Mars, which is more rocky and undulating than the vast plains of the north where the Curiosity Rover is located. “The ESA [European Space Agency] scientist, Dr. Maggie Lieu, pointed this out to us — it’s more hilly in the south, there are a lot of ravines and dried-out rivers there,” says Santos. “We want to create places that are a bit maze-like for the player. It’s part of the experience”.

I can’t say whether there is some forlorn beauty to be found in the arid Martian landscape, because I spent my entire playtime in a relentless sandstorm. This does matter, because the moment-to-moment grind of survival games needs to be broken up by times of joy: Rust and DayZ have their story-worthy scenarios that emerge through engaging with other players, No Man’s Sky (which bears plenty of similarities to this) has the discovery of rare, lush planets that you could happily call home. Santos reassures me that things do pick up in Pioneer. “Research shows that at different times of day, the sky on Mars can have different hues and stuff like that, which you’ll get to experience. When the weather clears, you’ll see lots of nice vistas when you get out of that initial starting crater, and we have the northern lights too.”

The plan with JCB Pioneer is to hit Steam Early Access "this summer," so given it's now the end of July you'll presumably be able to play this yourself quite soon. Early access, of course, means different things for different games. In its current state, Pioneer feels about as polished as a sack of Mars rocks. Invisible walls hinder my attempts to get over steep-ish slopes, or I slide in seemingly random directions off them. An ill-advised platforming puzzle early on, meanwhile, proved nightmarish through a combination of delayed jumping mechanics and harsh ledge detection, causing me to fall into a puddle of ‘Level 5’ irradiated gunk. All the missions (that I played) are about collecting resources. At the moment JCB Pioneer feels like a skeletal survival experience and, though that’s all fixable and forgivable, it's also in a genre that's currently over-saturated with offerings.

As is maybe too often the case with Early Access, it’s what is promised to come later that really holds most promise. Santos describes Pioneer as a ‘3X’ game — that’s Explore, Exploit, and Expand without their usual buddy Exterminate. The ‘Expand’ aspect will be realised by a colony-building system, whereby you collect materials and put them towards a base that will eventually become fairly self-sustaining. “If there’s a colony, that inherently means there must be people who’ll live in it, right?” I asked, having noticed that none of the footage of the game so far depicts any form of life other than the player. “Definitely we want to have that in there,” Santos says. “There’s a lot of things we have that we didn’t show in the early access build. It’s not because they don’t exist, it’s because they’re not ready.”

Hmm. Then there is the as-yet unseen co-op multiplayer, a remnant perhaps of Atomicom’s scrapped plans for JCB Pioneer to have been a large-scale online game, where a colony’s worth of players would’ve attempted to survive and colonise Mars together. The co-op mode, to be added at a later date, will include co-op missions, special vehicles controlled by two people, and the general joy of playing ‘survivor’ with your mates — and the game feels seriously in need of it.

When I ask about overarching narratives in JCB Pioneer, endpoints, or goals for the player, Santos laughs and says his septuagenarian mother, an avid gamer, asked him exactly the same questions. “To survive on Mars,” Santos says, adding the caveat “that’s where we’re starting out in early access. I think it’s best to launch the game ‘as is’ and find out what the community wants, because I think we can satisfy them with the features we’ve got down the pipe.”

It seems that Atomicom, which up until now has been focused on mobile games, is treading carefully with what may be their breakthrough on other platforms. “It’s a showcase for us as a developer to step up and say ‘We can do a big PC game’”, is how Santos puts it. He goes on to say that the developer wants to respond to the community before deciding whether the game will ultimately end up more of a 'survival' or 'colony-building' style of game. The developer's caution is wise given the scathing — if often justified — community reaction against games that promise the universe, yet fail to deliver.

You can be too careful, however, and Pioneer feels like a game in need of a vision. At the least it could use a focus: whether that's some form of narrative, or one of the future features such as living colonies, NPCs, multiplayer, even combat. On the other hand, Old Bamford didn’t start JCB with an massive bank loan that he spent on a vast factory. No, he made a hydraulic tipping trailer in a shed in 1948, and the rest is history. There's a lot to be said for starting simple. Perhaps a bit of OG JCB has rubbed off on Atomicom and, if this receives the support it needs in early access, that may be no bad thing.