Who at some point during their childhood didn’t consider becoming an astronaut as a potential career choice? Alongside cowboy, professional ski jumper and Hollywood movie star it seemed like a perfectly viable option. Personally I don’ think my queasy stomach would survive the training and what with my genuine toilet phobia, I can’t really see myself clenching for six months at a time. How wonderful then, to suddenly find a sim on the PS4 that will allow you to blast little green creatures off into space rather than yourself. But don’t let those cute little Kerbals deceive you. Kerbal Space Program is no easy peasy childish tomfoolery. Brace yourself for a seriously challenging construction and spaceflight simulation.
When I say Kerbal Space Program is ‘seriously challenging’ I mean it in the same way I would call Thor the God of Thunder ‘rather buff’. I’m playing it down a tad. This is not a pick up and play sort of game. It’s going to take some thinking time. You’ll undoubtedly need to start with the tutorials, and these will require every brain cell you have to wake up and form a support group. The tutorials start out with basic instructions to build the most basic rocket and then ping it up in the air. Basic. Job done. Then it will move on to more complicated matters and you begin to learn about different fuel types, different engines, stages, boosters, aerodynamics, gravity, physics, orbit, atmospheric entry and science goo. By the end you’ll expect to be awarded a BSc at the very least. You’ll also wish that either you had binoculars fitted to your eyes or that you could sit closer to the TV. The text is very small so get your beanbag chair out of the cupboard and cuddle up to your TV like you did when you were ten.
Once you’ve recovered from the mental exhaustion of the tutorials and providing you’re not half on your way to a breakdown, it’s time to launch into the main game. There are three modes to choose from all of which bring something a little different. There’s Sandbox, Science and Career modes. I went straight for Career as this seems like the next logical step. Suddenly, however, you’re on your own. You’re in charge of an entire space program and it’s your job to hire and fire the Kerbal astronauts, organise fundraising, accept contracts and keep the Research and Development department ticking over. You’re given free rein to build whatever rocket you want and blast it off somewhere exciting.
It’s so funny how with some games you go right the way through the tutorial, think you’re an expert and then suddenly your first rocket barely gets higher than a kid’s swingset and your second nosedives and kills your poor little sweet Kerbal in a ball of ignited rocket fuel. So funny haha hilarious. It’s at this point you realise that you’re a lot less intelligent than you thought you were. Back to the tutorials, this time with a notebook and a lot less tweeting.
As you progress through the game, you unlock more and more parts for your rocketship through the R&D team. Although career mode feel suspiciously Sandboxy at first with no clear guidance on what to do next, the locked construction parts do in a sense guide your game. There’s only so much you can do at first and only so many contracts you can reasonably complete. What feels overwhelming at first soon hones in to simply tweaking your rocket, removing parts and replacing them, unlocking the decoupler and using stages to get your ship higher and further. The more familiar you become with every part, the more you start to understand about what works and what doesn’t, what will help to complete a contract and what will incinerate your pilot. The control system is dominated by a pointer/curser which has to be moved manually. Parts need to be dragged into place and buttons and sliders need to be activated in the same way. I’m sure it’s a dream on PC but on console it’s not ideal and can make what should be an enjoyable task feel unnecessarily fiddly and frustrating.
This game is all about achievements. You can work for an insane amount of time on your ship and when you get it just right, it feels wonderful. Let me tell you, the first time you make orbit it feels like the birth of your first child. Well, I don’t have children so that’s just a guess; for me it feels like that time I elbowed fifty other shoppers in the face and got my first Furby. The joy! I did it! Then weep as your parachute burns up on re-entry and another Kerbal family loses their hero. But stuff the Kerbals, what did I do wrong? It’s trial and error and they’ll be many more fatalities before you truly conquer the cosmos.
Of course building a ship capable of flying higher than a party popper is only half the challenge. The other half is flight. You have your basic pitch, yaw and roll, but with the game’s realistic physics and orbital mechanics there’s obviously a lot more to it. The tutorials will help guide you with the basics but mastering it takes time. There is an autopilot of sorts that is an amazing help, but even that, once you develop further, is complex. Your screen is awash with dials, meters and numbers and when you begin it’s likely you won’t understand half of them and that’s fine, but it is clear that at some point you will need to understand and use them all. This is a huge game that feels daunting, boundless and truly epic in scale. The only thing limiting the gameplay is your own understanding, and that is where the challenge is.
Kerbal Space Program is a unique and intricate construction, management and spaceflight sim. It’s hard and it’s deep and, despite a sometimes fiddly control system, it’s incredible fun. The tutorials are long and detailed but they by no means tell you everything. This game wants you to make mistakes and learn from your burning Kerbals. Set aside a large chunk of time for this vast and complex simulation.
S J Hollis Rating – 8/10