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Once The Rockets Are Up, Who Cares Where They Come Down? - A Kerbal Space Program Review

Updated on November 23, 2015

Disclaimer: In the interests of full disclosure, I would like to mention that as of the writing of this review, I am a moderator on the official game forum for Kerbal Space Program. However, this is not an officially-licensed review, and I will receive no compensation for it beyond whatever may come my way through HubPage's standard content monetization processes. All thoughts and opinions are my own, offered here for whatever they're worth.

Extra Disclaimer: I typically play on a lightly modified install which includes certain parts and features (such as a custom toolbar) that may not be present in the game as shipped. However, most of my review is concerned with broad-strokes gameplay mechanics which are perfectly applicable to the stock game. I'll do my best to point out any modified features in any screenshots I share to prevent confusion, though one or two things may slip through the cracks.

This review is based on the most recent update to Kerbal Space Program available as of this writing (v1.0.5).

Introduction - The Smallest Detail...

Complacency can kill.

The task was simple: Get Valentina Kerman and her friends to the Mun, plant a flag, leave behind a few footprints, and bring her and her crew home to bask in some well-deserved glory. It's nothing I haven't done before in this game. Easy-peasy.

I spent some time in the Vehicle Assembly Building getting the launch vehicle set up just right. I double-checked my staging sequence, making sure that all my engines, stage decouplers, and other fiddly bits were going to activate in the proper sequence; I've seen my parachutes deploy themselves on launch enough times to learn not to just assume everything's in order. I made a practice run or two to make sure I knew how the rocket would behave on launch, just to be sure.

The actual launch went beautifully, putting me right in the orbit I wanted. I timed the injection burn just right to give Val and company a travel path that would send them sailing just above the Mun's surface, where I would then circularize their orbit so that I could land their celestial chariot of chemical fire at my leisure.

Drifting above the Mun's surface.  (The blue-and-white striped part sitting between the docking port on the nose and the crew capsule is from a custom parachute add-on; all other parts are stock.)
Drifting above the Mun's surface. (The blue-and-white striped part sitting between the docking port on the nose and the crew capsule is from a custom parachute add-on; all other parts are stock.)

Up to this point, I had done everything right. I knew the lander had plenty of fuel to land and return home. I knew I had the skills and the experience to stick the landing. I knew that once I made it down, getting back was going to be simple. I knew what I needed to do for an ideal landing: Keep your rate of descent within comfortable bounds, and minimize your lateral drift.

Unfortunately, I had forgotten something very basic: Always make sure you're not coming down on top of a steep slope.

Pictured:  Failure
Pictured: Failure

Had it not been for that one mistake, I would have had a perfect three-point landing. However, the slope was just steep enough to ensure that my lander toppled over on contact, and my futile attempts to bring it upright once more only served to destroy the fragile fuel tanks. The crew capsule was sent bouncing across the landscape; fortunately, it was durable enough to survive the ordeal, eventually skidding to a stop and looking none the worse for the wear despite its brief and unplanned career as a tilt-a-whirl pod.

Thankfully for my jarred and battered crew, the stock game doesn't track food or oxygen use - a small mercy, but one that ensures that Val and her pals won't starve or suffocate on the Mun's surface. They'll be just as bright-eyed and bushy-tailed as ever when the rescue lander comes along, assuming I don't crash that, too.

Rocket Science for Beginners

The above scenario is one of many you may face as a player of Kerbal Space Program, a spaceflight simulator published by the Mexican game development studio Squad.

Kerbal Space Program has three main gameplay modes to allow players to choose their own challenge level. Sandbox Mode is the most forgiving, with unlimited access to the full range of available parts and no extra details to keep track of. At the opposite end of the scale, Career Mode gives you a budget and contracts to worry about and restricts your parts list to a bare minimum, requiring you to gather research from scientific experiments and crew observations in order to unlock additional parts from a tech tree like you'd find in a strategy game. Somewhere in the middle is Science Mode, which eliminates the budget requirements but keeps the research and tech tree unlock system. These are further modified by a customizable set of difficulty options that can be tailored to your tastes.

One of the differences that sets this game apart from other games in the spaceflight sim genre is its adherence to certain realistic constraints that others prefer to handwave away. To give an example, one common convention found in spaceflight sims (that they undoubtedly carried over from their science-fiction film ancestors) is the assumption that spacecraft in space behave much like aircraft in flight, requiring constant thrust to keep moving and capable of making dramatic banking turns so that all the cool space fighters can have space dogfights in space. Travel is often simply a matter of "point-and-thrust," where your spacecraft is guaranteed to head straight for whatever you've aimed it at when you fire up the engines.

If you play Kerbal Space Program while thinking that your rocket will behave exactly as described above, however, you'll be in for a rude awakening. In this game, just as in real life, a spacecraft in the vacuum of space doesn't stop moving just because you've turned the engine off - "An object in motion tends to stay in motion," as a wise man once said. To get anywhere beyond the surface of Kerbin (the game's scaled-down Earth analog), you'll have to learn how your spacecraft's acceleration interacts with the ever-present pull of the planet's gravity to form an orbit, and then figure out the best way to go about adjusting that orbit so that it ends up taking your craft where it needs to go.

The solid blue line shows the path your craft is on now; the dotted orange line is the path you want it on to make an orbit.  The "cross" where they meet is a maneuver node plotting tool that allows you to plan trajectory changes.
The solid blue line shows the path your craft is on now; the dotted orange line is the path you want it on to make an orbit. The "cross" where they meet is a maneuver node plotting tool that allows you to plan trajectory changes.

Fortunately, the game gives you certain navigational aids to help you figure out where you're going, including an overview map that shows your craft's current position and trajectory, a maneuver node plotter that lets you plot course adjustments to see what will happen if you fire your engines in a certain direction at a certain place and time, and a "navball" to help you figure out which way your rocket's nose needs to be pointed. Making sense of the information these tools can provide will take time and practice, but once you've mastered them and learned how to manipulate an orbit, you'll know how to do almost anything you want to, from arranging a pinpoint rendezvous between two orbiting craft to visiting other planets.

Two spacecraft docked together after a successful rendezvous.
Two spacecraft docked together after a successful rendezvous.

And there are plenty of places you can visit. In addition to Kerbin and its own Moon analog (creatively labeled "Mun"), the game has a complete solar system of its own waiting for you to explore. Each planet has its own unique features and degree of challenge. Duna, the game's equivalent of "the Red Planet," is perhaps the friendliest destination for the would-be interplanetary explorer with its thin atmosphere. Eve, on the other hand, is deceptively easy to reach but incredibly difficult to get off of again - returning to Kerbin from Eve's surface is a challenge that serves as the rough equivalent of a "final boss" for the game. You can also track and visit a selection of procedurally-generated asteroids, or even try to bring them back home with you - though that obviously takes quite a bit of time and effort.

Building a Ladder to the Stars

Another key part of Kerbal Space Program's appeal is the fact that it lets you design and build your own spacecraft. The launch facility includes a Vehicle Assembly Building and a Spaceplane Hangar, both of which allow you to assemble complex vehicle designs from a wide variety of parts. In keeping with the game's adherence to real-world science, almost every available piece of equipment is based on existing technology or projected future developments - even the LV-N "Nerv" is inspired by actual proposals for nuclear thermal propulsion engines to be used in future plans for space exploration.

To build a new rocket or spaceplane design, you first pick a central component (usually a crew module or fuel tank) to serve as the craft's root part. From there, you assemble the rest of your craft by attaching additional parts to surfaces or attachment nodes - players who have spent time putting spaceships together from LEGO blocks will be on familiar territory. There are certain logical connections between parts with different functions - engines obviously won't work without a fuel source, solar panels go well when paired with batteries, and so on - but the system is flexible enough to allow for many diverse approaches to craft-building.

This rocket has far more boosters than it really needs - just the way Jebediah Kerman likes 'em.
This rocket has far more boosters than it really needs - just the way Jebediah Kerman likes 'em.

The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly

Overall, the combination of elements present in Kerbal Space Program makes for a highly engaging game, with plenty of room for exploration and creativity. Indeed, some players have invested hundreds of hours into bringing the products of their imagination to life and sharing them with the community at large. Supporting the game's already nigh-addictive levels of replayability is its ease of modification, with a dedicated community of add-on makers creating content to push the game beyond its original boundaries. Over the game's long open beta period, some of these add-ons have become popular enough that their content has been implemented into the stock game itself.

That said, the game is not without its shortcomings. Due in part to implementation delays in the underlying Unity engine, Kerbal Space Program defaults to a 32-bit program; a 64-bit version is available to Linux users, but technical issues have delayed the release of corresponding builds for Windows and Mac. Some players have reported framerate issues when attempting to fly high-part crafts. Contracts in Career Mode use procedurally generated text strings in their briefing descriptions, but the system used often produces hilariously incoherent text; a quality pass could definitely be used here. The contract system itself can sometimes force Career players to spend time grinding through profitable yet tedious missions in order to finance more ambitious personal goals.

Nevertheless, in the grand scheme of things, Kerbal Space Program provides a unique verisimilitude in gameplay and an impressive amount of flexibility. Few games encourage their players to test their own limits and exercise their creativity to the same extent. I would highly recommend that anyone interested in spaceflight sims or space exploration at least check out the demo to see if it whets their appetites.

5 stars for Kerbal Space Program

Statistics and System Specifications

Operating Systems:
Windows Vista, Mac OS X, Linux
Hard Drive Space:
1 GB
Note: Data taken from product page on Steam on 23 November 2015


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