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To the Moon and Back-Kerbal Space Program Review
The Nitty Gritty
Game: Kerbal Space Program
Release Date: April 27, 2015
Price: $39.99 on Steam at the time of this writing
The first few hours I played Kerbal Space Academy were delightfully infuriating. After I half heartedly paid attention to the sparse tutorials, I went in full throttle to the career mode. I felt I didn’t need a whole lot of help. I’ve seen Apollo 13 countless times, I’m able to play Space Oddity on the guitar (and even encourage those listening to clap when appropriate), and I could recite a vast majority of the dialogue in all the Star Wars movies. I felt ready. I mean, how hard could it be? It’s not like it’s rocket… OK, let’s start over.
My mission was simple: Launch a ship into sub-orbit. To launch it meant that I had to build it with the technology available, which at the time wasn’t terrific. There were a few booster rockets, a command module that looked like a metal mushroom, an engine that burned fuel like a worn out pickup truck hauling a doublewide mobile home up a steep hill, a parachute found by the side of the road, that sort of thing. I had the tools, I had the will, and I had the innocently charming smiles countless Kerbals willing to take a ride in that monstrosity. It took a few tries, but I achieved my goal, though not after mercilessly roasting a few Kerbals in the process. I felt empowered, even smart. After all, I was a rocket scientist now, albeit an extremely unethical one.
Available from the Indie developers at Squad since 2011, Kerbal Space Academy has finally been officially released. I avoided the beta process purposefully, as I wanted to make sure I had an untainted view of the actual release of the game.
The game's setting is the planet Kerbal, where joyful little Kerbal folk are reaching for the stars. Those adorable little humanoids resemble that of the Minions of the Despicable Me franchise, never ceasing to smile regardless of the outright danger they face while I assemble various rockets and space ships for funsies.
There are three modes to the game: sandbox, science, and career. Since career was a hybrid blend of the other two, I focused primarily on that mode, as it requires you to make do with the limited resources and technology you have.
On the surface the career mode part of the game is fairly straightforward. You are assigned sone tasks, make various spacecraft based on the technology you have, you test it on unwitting Kerbal astronauts, you refine the missteps you made. If you complete the task, you are awarded money and science points to give you better technology. That's it. Seems easy on paper, almost boring. I promise you, however, it is anything but.
There is an amazing sense of accomplishment when you finally figure out how to do something. Being able to consistently launch a vessel into orbit, or get a completely working airplane to fly as it should takes a refined prototype, where trial and error is the only real way to know if something will work. It’s the “getting there” where the most fun is to be had. Your brave Kerbals will let you test any piece of crap design you come up with, even if it means getting blown up into countless Kerbal bits in the process. At times I felt like a bit of a mad scientist, learning the “what-ifs” on these silly cosmonauts through wanton destruction of both life and equipment.
As I continued to play however, I found myself actually caring to keep these brave Kerbals alive with my cruel and unusual experiments. As I built larger and more powerful spacecraft, I thought “It will fly, but will it keep Jebediah Kerbal alive?” The answer to that question is what makes this game so memorable.
Random case in point: I was just beginning to master the concept of orbiting the mighty planet Kerbal. I was tasked with bringing along a tourist to fly into orbit with my pilot, and get paid. “No problem,” I thought. “I’ll just attach a dash more rocket fuel along with the extra command module for my guest.” I made my alterations quickly in the Vehicle Assembly Building, a fairly intuitive and simple tool for building your rockets quickly and (relatively) painlessly. Within a minute, I was up and running on the launch pad, confident my minor tweaking would award me some well-deserved recognition and finance. I pressed the spacebar to begin my launch sequences. As my craft careened off into the final frontier, I watched the images of my pilot and my guest reacting to the G-force. My pilot was smiling with shit-eating glee. My tourist was visibly terrified. Once high enough, I pitched my vessel to get into a low orbit. My fuel was on the low side, but no matter. If I failed to hit orbit, I could always try again with a little more fuel to my setup. And then it hit me. Did I add an extra parachute for my new friend? I did not. I panicked. One parachute for two pods was not going to be enough. But maybe, just maybe if I can land in one of Kerbal’s vast oceans, it would be enough to keep them both alive. I clicked over to the map screen and see my trajectory. The current path was land, but very close to a coast. If I burn just a little more, I’ll make it safely to water. Just when I click back, however, the fuel was gone. I quickly jettison everything on my craft except for the pods and hope for the best. My pilot and guest were oblivious. They were both smiling now, looking at the great beauty of outer space. I watched as the altimeter ticked down to sea level, as the pods burned back into the atmosphere. I was so close to the water now, I felt confident I would make it. I opened the parachute. Then, my worst fear was realized. The craft landed on the beach, mere feet away from the water. The lower module was crushed, my guest completely destroyed. My pilot made it though. For that I was thankful. After all, I was certainly going to try again. But not after I added another parachute for the next brave tourist.
That was just one launch. One launch of hundreds. The freedom and lack of a driving story make these moments both plentiful and memorable. Keep in mind, this was just one early example. As your technology progresses, so too do the aspirations. A satellite might come next, then maybe a moon orbit, then a landing, then the outer planets in the solar system itself. Once you pass one glorious hurdle, another stands in the way. The experiments begin anew.
The game is not without some glaring issues, however. The tutorials, while informative, lack teaching all the core game mechanics. I get that most of the fun is learning the hard way, but rather than fight against your own ignorance of how rocket science actually needs to work, they could have used more here. Luckily, the game’s community is nothing short of stellar, and the amount of YouTube videos and guides are out there to help you with the some of the rudimentary how-to’s not covered by the training missions themselves. I have also heard that the mod community is fantastic too, though for the purposes of this review, I have ignored them completely, as that it could easily skew my thoughts of the game in its most vanilla form.
There are some bugs throughout too, as well as a couple of type-o’s in the text. Some bugs are tiny and insignificant, others a little less so. For example, the design functions in the Vehicle Assembly Area are a matter of unwarranted frustration. There are odd issues with making rockets fit just right onto each other that don’t always work (the radial decouplers are definitely the biggest offenders) and one pixel off could mean your rocket spins out of control on liftoff. When your precious little Kerbal’s lives are on the line, it gets pretty frustrating having to deal with how precise your mouse hand needs to be. There is an option to revert your current flight back to the drawing board for these infuriating faux pas, but where’s the fun in that? It would just be better if there was an easy tool to get it right the first time.
The graphics are also a little lacking. There are satisfying explosions and Kerbal animations, but the planet itself seems to be very basic and sterile, even for a game that is not trying to break any boundaries in that department. It seems that the only land that is settled is the space program itself, and that the rest of the planet is completely devoid of, well, anything. It seems like a small thing, but immersion is always an important aspect to any game and I was disappointed I couldn’t parachute into a city or something equally hilarious.
Don’t get me wrong, though. These are small issues to an otherwise exceptional game. I can’t believe the hours I have already put into it, and how much I think about it when I’m not playing. I find myself asking “well what if I moved that one engine around to the other side?” a lot while I’m doing something else. It takes a special kind of game for my mind to allow for that kind of commitment.
You also learn actual science. During these experiments and discoveries, you begin understanding the concept of gravitational pull, the difference between an apoapsis and a periapsis in an orbit, the importance of taking enough fuel to get back to the planet. You’ll likely gather an extra bit of appreciation for people that actually do this kind of thing to a living.
In a gaming climate like this, where Indie developers are saturating every genre out there with promises to revolutionize what a game can be, Squad seems to have done just that. Its simplistic approach to an extraordinarily complex space simulator leaves me wanting more of it. I am a rocket scientist. Just, you know, not a very good one.
By the Numbers:
Graphics – 6 – These are bare bones at best. While certain aspects of space are rather pretty to look at, the rest is bland and boring. Hopefully the developers will add a little more pizzazz to some of the textures down the line. Maybe the mod community could do the same.
Sound/Music – 7 – The sounds of rockets and explosions are satisfying enough. I found the music rather annoying after a while and have since turned it off. When you spend the vast majority of your time fixing little glitches in your design and hearing the same three minute retro 60’s Mod music, it’ll grate on you eventually.
Price/Value – 10 – Currently $39.99 on Steam. Worth every penny. Your bang for your buck is pretty solid here.
Gameplay – 9 – Aside from the eccentricities of the design aspect of the game, the gameplay is top notch. It’s great fun to fly your contraptions, even if it means flying them into the hillside.
The “Skew” Factor – 10 – There are issues with the game, but nothing that would dissuade me from telling all about how great it is. There is a lot of depth for all its silliness. You also might just learn something in the process.
Bottom Line – 9 – There is so much to like about this game. There is great fun in designing spaceships and testing them out. There is also a vibrant and giving community to help you on your way for when you get stuck. It’s a game worth having.
The Beverage Pairing:
Kerbal Space Program pairs best with Elysian's Space Dust IPA. It will certainly take the edge off when performing that final burn to get your little Kerbals home from their latest moon landing. It’s hoppy, balanced, and finishes nicely. A must have for all you space cadets who likes beer that packs a punch.