Archive for February, 2014

In low orbit around Kerbin

In low orbit around Kerbin

Were you to visit my home and gaze at my bookshelves it would not take a psychological profiler to reach the conclusion that I am a bit of a science nerd. Cosmology, Astrology, Biology, Geology, they all are taking up shelf space. I even spent several years studying natural sciences at University level. Combined with this is an unhealthy interest in simulation games. The first game I really logged serious hours on was a 747 flight simulator on my Dragon 32, the cockpit displayed in all its 8 bit, 16 colour glory and the first time I had ever used an analogue joystick. I never was a platformer fan. Sonic and Mario just never appealed. Many more flight and combat sims (Microprose M1 Tank anyone?) scratched my itch over the following years

Recently, I started to hear about a simulation game that had all the things I needed, science and simulation in one package. At first I was content to hear other people’s experiences. This game was still in beta with new features being added. I thought I would wait until the build was stable, maybe even until it was ready for full release but it was there on my radar (radio, detection and ranging don’t you know).

Still the stories came in. Would be mission controllers launching their spacecraft in to orbit, exploring the solar system or crashing in flames on take-off. Everything about this game piqued my interest. So this weekend I finally caved. Early access or not, I could no longer wait.

This game, of course, is Kerbal Space Program and in just five days I have lost 38 hours and many brave Kerbals to it. I would never normally even begin to recommend a game that is still in early access. Features change and there is no way to know if the game you are playing is the one that will actually ship. This game though is so feature rich and the engine so sound that its hard to believe that there is much more to add.

The titular Kerbals are a race of brave if not completely competent humanoids living on the planet Kerbin. As the controller of their space program it is your job to build, develop and fly their spacecraft. There are two game modes, sandbox and career. Both are pretty much what you would expect. Sandbox gives you a set of tools and sets you loose. Career gives you some basic tools to get you going and then by completing flights and doing science you can unlock the next level of technologies. Science forms the in game currency and is redeemed by clicking on a capsule in flight to get reports or conduct experiments. This data can then either be saved to be recovered with the capsule after the mission or transmitted back to base if you have fitted the required communication antenna. As long as you do this the rest of the story you create yourself. It really is that type of game.

Once you start the game you will be presented with an overview of the space complex. From here you can choose Science and research, tracking, astronaut training, Space plane hangar, and launch site or the vehicle assembly building. It’s this last one where you need to begin. Building your craft is as simple as dragging and dropping components. As you add to your build a sequence of action commands will build up on the left hand side of the screen. It’s important to get these in the right order. A booster will be of little use is if decouples before it fires after all. These commands can be dragged and dropped and the list added too as you continue your build.

Getting ready for launch is a simple as clicking the green launch icon in the top task bar. This will take you to the launch site. This is where the list of actions comes into play. Each press of the space bar will activate the next action. Firing boosters, activating decouplers and so on, if you have the sequence right this will result in your Kerbal heading out on his first suborbital flight.

Once in space the true gem of this game shines through. Its depth is astounding. Orbital manoeuvres, trajectories and re-entry are all presented in an easy to understand way. Despite using words that are not exactly commonplace but totally true to space flight, like retrograde and prograde, the tutorial does a great job of walking you through what is needed. The best bit? No maths, just a simple arrangement of expanding circles to guide you in firing the engine. You did remember to save an engine for orbital flight didn’t you?

The fact that America’s National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) has jumped on board to joint develop a NASA missions pack to be used in education speaks volumes of how this game has been received in the science community. It never feels like its teaching you anything but all the time it is revealing the complexities of planning manned space-flight.

I am still only scratching the surface of this game. Eventually I can explore other worlds or build space planes for intercontinental flight. As previously stated this game is still in early access but for anyone with even a passing interest in space-flight I cannot recommend it highly enough. On Steam there is a demo to download and try for free so there is no excuse to not try it. In early access the game currently retails for £19.99 and I feel it is worth every penny. A typical FPS campaign is complete in under 8 hours so I have already had more than twice that at half the cost. The controls are easy to understand and not overwhelming but I do advise you go through the tutorials as it can all seem daunting. Once you get a feel for the types of construction that works it’s easy to build craft that will take you high above the world. Where you chose to go next is up to you.

Darren Lissaman

Screenshot from in-game and is used under fair-use. Rights remain with the owners.