Game Review: Kerbal Space Program

gets to grips with rocket science and space travel

Kerbal Space Program - Jack2

Rating: ★★★★☆
Platform: PC, PS4
Release Date: April 27 2015
Developer: Squad

Sound the alarms, let the great Scott Manley descend in a trail of fire and get the President on the phone, pronto, for Kerbal Space Program has at last left the bounds of the upper stratosphere and achieved the tense orbital insertion that is Ver. 1.0. Of course, this actually happened a few months ago, but as we all know space (and coding) takes time, and even a game over four years in the making has enough tweaks to justify a flurry of minor updates in the weeks following the full release. Plus we’ve had exams and degrees to deal with.

For those unfamiliar with KSP, the premise is simple: get to space. Or, you know, don’t. Build a boat that takes advantage of the still terrible water physics. Build a car and drive off a mountain. Try to make a helicopter with only rover wheels and small wings. The game is a masterclass of sandbox simulation, with mechanics clearly weighted towards, but not exclusive to, rockets and spaceplanes. From an increasingly expansive set of parts ranging from tiny probe antennae to rockets who’s power “rivals that of entire small nations,” you must (read: can) construct a vehicle with some degree of spaceworthiness and blast off to see the universe. Once in orbit (and this is far from guaranteed, as users must content not only with thrust-to-weight ratios but also pesky things like aerodynamics and staging), a whole solar system curiously analogous to our own spreads out before the crew, presenting with it infinite opportunities for exploration and cosmic tomfoolery.

Piloting your ship, should you wish to put lives at risk, are the eponymous kerbals: little green men and women with only two qualities, courage and stupidity, in varying degrees. Their number seems to be infinite, but even so their presence in the command pod as it thunders down towards a moon’s surface at 500m/s because you forgot to attach parachutes raises the stakes a little.

In fact, moments like that are what makes KSP quite so enjoyable. Everyone who’s played for even an hour has a story of some spectacular failure, sometimes due to a glitch (these are thankfully less common now) and mostly due to human error. What is presented as a somewhat simplified space flight simulator is really a heady parade of inexplicable launchpad explosions, accidental stage separations, nail-biting docking procedures and long walks over a distant planet’s surface because the rescue mission overshot by a few kilometres.

KSP is more than just a highly-combustible sandbox, however. For those who want a bit more structure, the increasingly full-featured Career mode starts you from the bottom, with a patch of dirt for a launchpad and barely a penny to your name, and allows you to progress by getting money for completing contracts and collecting scientific data from around the solar system to research new and better parts. Some of us just want to be handed the keys to the space agency and try to reach the most distant icy rock we can straight away, but there is certainly something to be said for building everything up from the ground up in order to put a full working replica of the ISS into Kerbin orbit. You make your own story in KSP, and even the contracts have an air of being achievable by any means necessary.

Kerbal Space Program may have hit the 1.x release, but it is far from finished. The official word from developer Squad is that this step represents the inclusion of all the planned game mechanics, but there is much yet to be refined and included. Factor into this the truly enormous and impressively detailed mods available and the huge network of let’s-players, this game shows fewer signs of stopping than a runaway solid rocket booster in microgravity.

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