Ground Control to Major Jeb

This is a review I’ve been excited about writing for quite a long time now. Since I discovered Kerbal Space Program back in July 2011, shortly after the first public alpha became available, I’ve followed the development keenly. While the game still hasn’t officially been released, it’s popularity is growing by the day as the feature set expands. So, is this the sort of game that will soar in the clouds with other indie greats like Minecraft and Bastion, or is it doomed to explode on the launchpad. Read on to find out.

Full disclosure: I love this game. The reason I’m doing this review is because I think you should love it too, especially if you have even a passing interest in any of the following:

  • Space
  • Rockets
  • Explosions
  • Phsyics
  • Fun

This game has them all, in abundant quantities.

The Early Days

Like I mentioned earlier, I was on this bandwagon fairly early. I don’t want to go all hipster and say “I was playing it before it was cool” (I was, but that’s not the point), I just want to start at the beginning to show just how far this game has come already, which should highlight how much potential it has in the future.

Back in the early days, you could build rockets and launch them. There were no symmetry tools, and no struts. The auto-stabilisers were basic, and hindered as often as they helped. Rockets were wobbly messes that would bend backwards and forwards as they struggled into the sky. Random structural failures were commonplace – without warning, a solid fuel booster might become detached and fire itself like a missile into the rest of the ship, setting off a (amusing) chain reaction of fireballs. But if you could build a rocket that didn’t collapse under its own weight, and could fly relatively straight, what was there to do? Well, getting into orbit was pretty much all there was to do at the time. This is where physics starts to come into the equation. Like many other initiates, I was surprised to find that it wasn’t as simple as flying ‘up’ until I never came ‘down’: the world of gravity turns, apoapses and periapses was opened to me and with a lot of help from Wikipedia, I finally made it into my first orbit. Back then, there was no map view or time acceleration, so verifying that I had indeed made it into orbit meant waiting for half an hour, eyes fixated on the altimeter, making sure that I never fell back into the atmosphere. It may not sound like much of an accomplishment, but to me it felt just as rewarding as downing a raid boss. KSP had me hooked.

Warp speed Mr. Kerman

Warp speed Mr. Kerman

The team behind Kerbal Space Program, Mexico based indie developers ‘Squad’, headed up by Felipe Falanghe (a.k.a. HarvesteR) promised big things, and it was clear right from the start that they had the potential to achieve it.

The Present

Fast forward now to today. Kerbal Space Program now has a full solar system of planets and moons to land on and explore. You can build rockets and rovers, space planes and space stations. There are thousands of mods and part-packs available. You can see inside your vehicles with IVAs and bring your Kerbals outside on EVAs. The only limiting factor is your imagination. Check out this fan made trailer that was released a little while back, which shows just a fraction of the things that can be done now in KSP.

One of the hardest parts of KSP now is actually trying to decide on what to do. Although there is a career mode planned, the game is currently still a massive open-ended sandbox. Like Minecraft, the amount of enjoyment you’ll get out of the game comes directly from your ability to set your own objectives. Take for example, my current ‘mission’ I’ve set myself: I’m currently trying to land a space-plane on the surface of ‘Laythe’, one of the moons of the bright green gas giant ‘Jool’. In order to do this, I’ve had to:

  • Build and design a Single-Stage-To-Orbit (SSTO) space plane.
  • Build a space station with spare fuel
  • Fly space plane to space station to refuel (this is the step I’m currently on
  • Plot a course to Jool, aerobraking round it such that my orbit intersect’s Laythe’s
  • Aerobrake in Laythe’s atmosphere and land.
  • Realise I have no way of getting back, and send a rescue mission!
I can see my house from here!

I can see my house from here!

A mission like this is a massive undertaking, requiring lots of different rockets and plenty of man-hours. But watching it all come together is so satisfying that it’s all worth it in the end.

To the Future!

Even though the game is already jam packed full of features, there is still more on the way. Things like the career mode, astronaut training and researching a tech tree are fairly imminent, but even further afield there is potential for interstellar travel, resource mining and much much more. The community that has sprung up around the game are also producing some incredible content (one such mod has already integrated the aforementioned resource mining!). KSP is also now available on Steam, giving its popularity an even bigger boost.

Highway to the danger zone!

Highway to the danger zone!

I know I have a bit of a tendency to bang on the old ‘Indie development is great’ drum, but this corner of the industry really is important. It’s fantastic to see a game like this succeed. Here we have a game that has the potential to be used as a real teaching tool (it’s already made its way into a couple of schools). There are some solid physics underpinning the entire game, and it makes learning the science behind space-travel fun. This game has the potential to inspire the next generation of astrophysicists. I for one can’t wait to see the future of Kerbal Space Program, and I really think you all owe it to yourselves to give it a chance. There is a demo of the game available for free on the official website, so go and have a play around with it. Happy launchings!

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