There aren’t many people who haven’t heard of Kerbal Space Program. A space simulator sounds like it has potential to be long winded, arduous and boring, but KSP is none of those things. Even now, during its Steam Early Access phase it’s a fascinating, rewarding and brilliantly frustrating game which hooks you in from the first moments and, in my own experience so far, hasn’t let go just yet. It’s easy to dream of sending rockets to the Moon, landing on Jupiter and sending your own probes round Mars, but aside from the fact the KSP galaxy is made up of fictional planets you won’t be doing anything like that for quite some time. Your opening hours will be made up of building intricate rockets, constructions that look awesome and wouldn’t look out of place on a NASA launchpad… and then seeing them burst into flames before they’ve even left the ground.
KSP, you see, is all about trial and error. Not long after you’ve you managed to get a rocket to take off you’ll realise it hasn’t got enough or a kick to get out of the atmosphere of Kerbin, the Earth-like home planet of the Kerbals. You’ll see your wonderful rocket run out of fuel, lose momentum and come crashing down to the ground. You’ll watch in disbelief that your amazing “this can’t fail” creation has very much failed. And you’ll do it all with a huge grin on your face.
As more updates arrive on Steam, more features are added. There are tutorials that walk you through the basics of building a successful rocket, launching it and maintaining an orbit. And they’re helpful too – I soon managed to consistently launch into a decent orbit after running through them, although getting beyond that proved tough; I generally ran out of fuel once in orbit and just left my astronauts there floating about the place forever. Oops. There’s a career mode of sorts now too, starting you off with only a few parts to put on your rocket, and letting you unlock more as you complete various objectives and carry out research from your flights. This is a pretty nice way to learn the ropes – without being overburdened by loads of different parts to attach it’s easier to figure out what does what, and a recent update improving the tooltips makes life even more understandable. That’s one of several things that have been tweaked or improved in recent weeks, and the developers are constantly working hard to add more improvements, with upcoming additions building the career mode up even further.
If you think this is just a game to build rockets and send them into space, you’re wrong. Want to set up a space station, then send up additional bits to attach to it? Well you can. Want to send a landing crew up to Mun (which is cunningly like our very own Moon) or another planet such as Eve, Duna or somewhere even further afield? You can do. You can even send multiple teams there to work together, or if you botch a landing and end up stranded you can send a rescue team to bring them back. If you’re feeling really adventurous, you can even build land bases on other worlds. It’s not easy – I tend to crash into other planets and kill all of my Kerbals on board, but I’m sure I’ll manage it soon.
The real physics built into KSP also make any success feel like a genuine triumph. It’s almost impossible to get cross when things don’t work, you just want to knowÂ why they didn’t work and figure out how to sort out the problem. It’s also a big reason why KSP is starting to appear in physics classrooms in several schools around the place – this isn’t a simple “build and win” game, this requires an understanding of space, some knowledge about how exploration works and the will to persevere through numerous failures on the way to success.
For once, it actuallyÂ is rocket science.
So the future is looking great for Kerbal Space Program. It has a huge community already, building mods and sharing their brilliant rocket and ship creations. The official forums are buzzing with advice, success stories and things to try out, and the ever-growing Wiki is a great resource for helping you out when you get stuck. Everything is in place for this to be one of those essential games that people will be playing and talking about for years to come, and you can be a part of the program’s development if you jump onto the Early Access bandwagon. If you’re unsure and sitting on the fence, I’d suggest you fall off it and put your money on the table. You’ll thank me when you set up a space station and land on a distant planet.