AtomP Game Reviews: Kerbal Space Program (Beta) , SQUAD (P)review

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By Tom Hooper aka Atomp

As a starting caveat, KSP (Kerbal Space Program) is still in active development and the version reviewed is not necessarily representative of the final product.

I spent a fairly significant chunk of my teens immersed in simulator games. (I know). It started with flight simulators and then developed on to the next logical stage; the space-flight simulator. One that absorbed a great deal of my time was Orbiter, a realistic space flight simulator. (Still available from The main issues with this, beyond its the inherently niche appeal were the almost vertical learning curve and the difficulty in creating your own spacecraft and launchers. KSP goes some way to filling this gap.

At the moment KSP is essentially a space-flight simulator but with the added element of a creation suite allowing the player to use modules to build their own spacecraft and launchers with the eventual goal of developing this into a space program management element. This means that it is possible to follow a space-race-esque development from small satellite launching platform designed to stick a Sputnik like chunk of machinery in orbit all the way to modular inter-planetary missions that might require multiple launches just to get the modules in orbit. Space is already cool, but the possibility to master it through gradually developing more and more sophisticated and efficient launchers and spacecraft makes it even cooler.

The first step in creating a spacecraft within KSP is to choose between the space-plane hanger and the VAB (vehicle assembly building). The space-plane hanger is a cool addition which was still in its infancy when I first tried the beta and has now developed into a fleshed out element of the game, allowing the player to create an aircraft capable of breaking atmosphere. The physics engine in the game allows this to function, even if it can be difficult when jet engines become a little less cooperative at high altitude and rockets become necessary. The alternative is the VAB which is a far more traditional approach to spacecraft, having them being built vertically in stacks of fuel and engines. The VAB offers a series of modules to start with, ranging from satellites and single-man modules to three-man modules and lander-cans. From this the player can start building up their very own staged launchers, balancing the weight and size of fuel tanks, engines and equipment to eventually produce a workable craft.

The workshop itself, in both the space-plane hanger and the VAB is fairly intuitive although at times it can be uncooperative. Hopefully some of these less cooperative problems should be ironed out by release, occasionally fighting a piece into place is a minor tarnish on a good editor. The editor allows the clipping together of modules, the setting up of staging allowing for finely executed alterations such as simultaneous fuel tank ejection and engine firing. The choice of parts is extensive, offering the player a great deal of freedom in designing their own personal Saturn V or Soyuz rocket. The simulation of landings is also provided, with Lunar Excursion Module (LEM) type legs available for moon-esque landings and parachutes for atmospheric re-entry.

This provision is twinned with the expansive solar system in which the game is set, with six planets and their moons to explore. This is no Star Trek warp-drive cop-out though, reaching these distant planets will take careful planning and payload management, as well as time. The issue of which is eased by the various levels of time compression that the game allows.

Beyond the creation of the craft, at this stage in game development, the solar system is your oyster. Launch multiple craft into orbit, perform intercept maneuvers and use the docking mechanism to create a modular space station or blast space probes throughout the system (although as far as I’m aware there aren’t any rebel bases to find) or focus on building a successful reusable launcher to make the launching of the prior two missions types cheaper and easier. The development team appear to be planning to complement this sandbox mode with a career mode where I would imagine budget and technologies have to be unlocked. Personally I ended up playing the game in such a mode anyway, with a progression that resembled the Soviet space-program, and a safety record to match… my modular space station is missing two photovoltaic panels for example.

Graphically the game is stylised towards a semi-cartoony look which ties into the general Kerbal theme upon which the game is based. This theme is entertainingly deceptive as beneath it hides the unforgiving simulation of newtonian physics and orbital mechanics. It’s Unity based, but seems to push the engine beyond anything else I’ve seen done with it. There are Windows and Mac versions available with Linux compatibility achievable through Wine, although this is far from preferable. What the developers have squeezed out of Unity is a seamless solar system of detailed planets and moons, capable of simulating countless simultaneous spacecraft, which is a worthy achievement.

The game is currently available for purchase through the game’s website, providing the latest release of the game and all following updates. There is a demo available in the form of a very old development version of the game which whilst having many of the basic functions becomes further from the current paid version with every release. The development process is reliable, but what’s even more impressive is the provision of APIs and the dev’s very real support for the budding modding community. There already exists a mod repository site with mods ranging from auto-pilot and pilot assist elements to packs of fuel tanks and thrusters: The game costs $23 (approx £15-ish), which is a very reasonable price for a game that can potentially offer unlimited entertainment in the right hands, and this will also help continue development.

Overall, KSP is enjoyable and most people will get some entertainmentfrom designing rockets to launch those little green Kerbals into space. Whether there is a prolonged enjoyment may rely on the player taking up the challenge of learning the physics, which is not an overly difficult task once the computer has gotten the maths out of the way. For those with an interest in space this is a must and for anyone else it’s certainly worth trying the free demo and probably a purchase.

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