Kerbal Space Program
Few games choose to tackle space as a civilian endeavour, seeking excitement instead in vast space battles, masterpieces of distant-future ship design, and discovery of fascinating new life forms. Despite having no aliens (besides the Kerbals themselves, the titular Minion-like protagonists), no lasers and with ships you piece together yourself from makeshift parts, Kerbal Space Program manages to provide a wholly unique and rewarding game-play experience.
The premise of the game is simple, but ambitious: from humble origins you progress from creating your first atmospheric rockets out of scrap to constructing bases on distant planets. You achieve these ends using the game’s detailed and comprehensive ship designer. It’s intended to be simple and intuitive to entice you into designing your first vessels. An extraordinary level of micromanagement is possible eventually, with some aspects only relevant once you’re gearing your ship for extra-terrestrial atmospheres, or gated behind in-game research.
As with copious other sandbox titles, the hallmark of Kerbal Space Program is creativity as opposed to graphical fidelity. Nevertheless, the ship designer, where a substantial proportion of game-time is spent, looks quite impressive, and up close the ship parts are finely detailed, right down to serial numbers on parts. The sudden generation of objects and application of forces upon them strains the game engine at times, with large rockets swaying on the launch pad like trees in the wind unless you overload them with structural supports. Overall though, it looks better than expected, and graphics quality is but a minor priority in sandbox games.
Sound likewise is decent, but aside from noticing small details like how the music changes when you enter orbit, it’s simply background. Occasionally, exploding parts, like discarded boosters caught in a ship’s backdraft, will produce an odd audio reverberation, and sometimes it sounds as if something fell off when in fact the rocket is perfectly fine. Admittedly, this could be intentional, as it certainly suits the slap-dash approach to reliability the game tries to suggest. However, fire up a dozen rocket boosters at once and the visceral roar will quell any issues you have over sound effects.
Kerbal Space Program’s biggest strength lies in how invested you become in every task. Landmarks like achieving your first stable orbit feel rewarding and are a step towards ever more complex missions. Such scenarios are finite in nature, growing more sporadic as missions take place further and further from your home planet. The game compensates for this; as the player is always pushing towards the next achievement, flaws in rocket designs organically produce missions of their own based on the player’s mistakes. If an astronaut gets stranded attempting to reach the moon, for example, the player is able to decide whether to abandon them to drift forever in an eccentric orbit, or put the moon mission on hold while they plan a rescue mission.
That said, the game has its flaws. Google is often more effective for discovering the controls and the basics than the game itself: the keybindings are available to view or change in the game’s tutorials, but bewilderingly, removed from the menu in the game proper. Progression is flawed too, with essential parts distributed seemingly at random through the game’s tech tree, drip feeding essential components over the course of several hours to construct the most basic jet, for example. A lively and well supported modding community can overcome the latter issue, but much like Skyrim and other mod-friendly games, many of these player made mods can unbalance the game.
Finally, and perhaps surprisingly given how entertaining Kerbal Space Program is to play, it proves a powerful resource for learning, to the extent Squad have released a specific version, KerbalEdu, for schools. Planes need to be aerodynamic and capable of generating enough lift to fly, while rockets need to provide enough force at each stage of their launch to propel themselves into orbit. Travelling beyond the homeplanet requires careful use of limited fuel and eventually slingshot manoeuvres like those used to propel the Voyager probes towards deep space.
Frequent and humorous efforts within the game try to suggest otherwise, but Kerbal Space Program is an intelligent and inspirational game. Despite its sandbox design, it always provides a clear, but challenging way to progress. Yet, underneath the fun and adventure is a wonderful physics simulator, one which depicts the laws of physics with enough accuracy to help understand the fundamentals of space exploration.