Category / Reviews

Like spaceflight? Like cartoon explosions? Do I have a game for you! March 28, 2012 at 12:00

I don’t have a heck of a lot of time or spare cash for serious hardcore gaming lately(Even though someone decided to buy me a Minecraft license recently).  Keeping the Counterstrike twitch reflexed honed is something I just can’t do, so I’ve ended up drifting into a lot of indie strategy, puzzle and the occasional action game.  Many of them are rather inexpensive, but one shouldn’t parse that as “cheap”.  The Humble Indie Bundle has been getting a lot of my gaming cash, the value and concept can’t be beat.

One that’s not part of those deals, but has gotten a lot of my time and has provided a TON of entertainment is Kerbal Space Program.  The game’s concept is rather simple.  Take some rocket parts, most of them dodgy, and build a spacecraft capable of getting the little green Kerbals into orbit, and then eventually to the Moon.  If you fail, there’s explosions and parts flying everywhere, sometimes to hilarious ends.

Contrast this with the hardcore spaceflight simulator Orbiter.  A game that’s so focused on the realism of spaceflight that sound is a 3rd party add-on because the original developers never thought sound support was important. A game with a learning curve so steep, going out in the backyard and building your own Saturn V looks attractive.  I do love it, but it’s not for the casual gamer, it is Serious Spaceflight Simulation, and it really isn’t intended as a game, per se.

Enter Kerbal Space Program (KSP).  It’s really structured for casual gameplay, but the sandbox nature of the spacecraft builds leads to some folks trying to accomplish some rather serious goals (geostationary “satellite” placement, for example).  It uses a somewhat Newtonian model of physics, so running the math about orbital mechanics on paper (or in your head, if you’re so inclined) works.  There’s a built in orbital display showing your craft, it’s path and orbit, and other objects in space that are still orbiting for those not so mathematically inclined.  Control is largely manual and seat-of-the-pants, though there’s autopilot and auto-launch mechanisms available via the plugin system (more on this in a second).

The game is currently under active development, 0.14 being the latest release, and the first release that requires that you pay for it in order to get it.  Prior releases are still free, the developer has committed that this will be the case going into the future.  This being said, 0.14 was a major release for KSP, and adds one very major, long-awaited feature to the game, persistence.  Whereas prior releases had you have your spaceflight from start to end in one session, with only one spacecraft in orbit at any given time, 0.14 features a persistent world, one where orbiting craft (and space junk!) stay aloft between exits.  This also means that you can have multiple launches and crews now.  There’s something fairly awesome about landing one craft on the Mun (the in-game name for the lunar body orbiting the planet), and then launching and landing a second craft near the first.

There’s another new feature, plugins, also major, but it’s still really in an Alpha state, so I’m not counting it as release material yet.  But!  Even with barely any documentation, the community has written some really awesome plugin modules for the game!  Missing autopilots, orbital rendezvous computers, automatic staging, it’s been really impressive the functionality the users of the game have written within a week of the plugin API being announced.  I highly recommend the MechJeb plugin, if for nothing else than the expanded instrumentation it gives you.

This brings me to the community aspect of this game.  It’s had a very active community presence since Day 1, probably due to the discovery of the game by the Something Awful Games forum folks.  Community-produced spacecraft parts have been plentiful and well received.  Because it’s so early in the development, sometimes the learning curve gets a little steep for some of the more advanced aspects, a read-through of the site’s message boards is highly recommended.    The boards are quite active and quite helpful with getting into the game.

Future game support will include an in-game funding model, where you get increased funding for reaching certain goals successfully, and every part having a cost when you build them.  $15 is currently what the game costs at the store, and for the moment, entitles you to free upgrades for life.  I’ve certainly gotten my money’s worth in a fairly short time, and if playing with a cute simpler spaceflight game is your thing, Kerbal Space Program is the ticket.