Kerbal Space Program is finally an actual game and it’s magnificent
Jebediah Kerman is flying high above the surface of the moon in a wide, sweeping eliptical orbit that brings him within mere miles of the surface of the planetary body. He's only got a little bit of fuel left, and he's still got to make it back home.
The eliptical orbit is making that difficult. It was useful for conducting some important science, but it's a difficult orbit to escape. I need to ignite the engines so I can pick up some speed and get home, but there's not enough fuel for a course correction. If I ignite too early I could be slingshot right out of the solar system. If I ignite too late, I might never escape orbit.
And the weirdest thing is happening: I actually care whether I make it out of this situation. I've been here before, and in most cases I'd have just pointed the ship straight at Earth, ignited the engines and let the chips fall where they may. In the past there was no benefit to bringing Kerbals home alive, other than a clear conscience.
I've played Kerbal Space Program for countless hours over the past eight months, but the latest update (.22) has turned it into what feels like an entirely new game.
The game is finally here
Despite what you may have heard, Kerbal Space Program has never actually been a real game until now. It was a flight simulation sandbox. You'd build your rocket as best you could. Plan out its launch stages. It would come pre-loaded with throw-away pilots, the tadpole-like titular “Kerbals.” You'd then launch your rocket and attempt to pilot it someplace in the Kerbal star system.
That was about it. There were hundreds of hours of play locked away in that ever-growing sandbox, but there was no “point” to the endeavors other than your own personal goals and ambitions.
The latest free update changes that drastically, and adds an overarching career mode that sees you conducting experiments and collecting knowledge in order to advance further in your technology and reach farther into the heavens. While keeping the classic sandbox mode intact, Update .22 adds an entirely new management simulator mode.
You're still able to play the game in Sandbox Mode just as you would have before the new update, but now you have the option to begin humbly. In the new Career Mode, you begin with just a few parts to construct a rocket from, a type of fuel tank, a type of rocket engine, a parachute etc.
The basic idea is that you must use these basic tools to try new and exciting things. You're an upstart space program with no idea how to do anything. Not terribly unlike NASA or the FKA back in the 1950s. Use your basic tools to launch a rocket and land it safely and you'll earn some “Science” points. Conduct a successful suborbital flight and you'll get more points. Reach orbit and you'll get more. Conduct an extra-vehicular activity (leaving the spaceship) and you'll get some as well.
The Science points can then be spent on parts and tools for building ever more sophistocated and efficient rockets.
The catch is that you don't earn those points simply by conducting the operation. You also have to get that information back to headquarters. If you have the power then you can radio it back to Earth, but if you don't (which you often will not) then you'll need to get your pilot back to base safely for debriefing.
It's an intelligent and elegant design structure, because it forces a few different effects. First and most importantly, it makes you care about the fate of your missions and the lives of your Kerbals. Even if you're only concerned about them because they hold valuable information, it adds a wonderful tension to gameplay, and makes you think hard about the design of your ship before you strap a pilot to it.
Next, the way Science is given out for accomplishing feats encourages experimentation. You're not told how to achieve new advancements, you have to figure it out for yourself. For instance, one ship part available to you is an experimentation module. You examine it at different parts of your journey to yield new insights into how machinery and objects are affected by space travel. You're never explicitly told that you'll gain new insights (and Science points) by examining it in the moon's orbit. You have to form that hypothesis and go see for yourself.
Finally, the research and development system (acquiring Science to spend on new parts) is a great way to help you learn all of the tools at your disposal. The sandbox version of KSP is overwhelming and it takes hours just to understand which parts are best for making just a simple rocket. Here you're forced to start simply, practice using simple parts, then gradually make your way up to more advanced rocketry. And how do you move your way up to better parts? By being more experimental and thoughtful with the parts you already have.
It's a fantastic system that leverages the game's existing strengths while emphasizing its greatest ideals and qualities.
So long, Kerbun
I've already played dozens of hours of KSP, but I think this is the update that finally hooked me. There have been many improvements to the game since it originally launched, and this wont be the last one.
There are a lot of parts of Kerbal Space Program that still need to be worked on. For instance, this update introduced the ability to recruit and hand-select your crew for each mission. It doesn't seem to have any tangible effect though. Astronauts are rated only on their “courage” and “stupidity,” neither of which seem to effect the mission.
But when so many parts of the game have already been massively improved it's easy for me to give the developer, Squad, the benefit of the doubt. There's still a lot of work to be done, but they've shown themselves to be very cautious and capable when tinkering with their masterwork. I've been looking forward to this update for a long time, but I didn't expect it to be this much fun.
I can't wait to dive further into it as soon as I can, and I wholeheartedly recommend that any space nerd should do the same. There's never been a better time to explore Kerbal Space Program.
Kerbal Space Program is available on Steam for $23, but if you already own the game then the update is free.