By: Armaan Khan
Is it still cool to dream about being an astronaut? Space seems so passé these days but, man, when I was a kid it was the tops. I would watch the shuttle launches on TV and dream about one day going up into the black myself. I never did quite get there, but it’s okay now because indie developer Squad has produced Kerbal Space Program to fill that void in my dreams. KSP puts you in charge of the space program for the planet Kerbin and while it’s far from complete (the current version is 0.13), it already provides hours of fun with the promise of more as updates are released.
There are no hard objectives in Kerbal Space Program. Once you’ve been shown the ropes on how to build, launch, and fly a rocket, you’re left on your own to do whatever you want. Your options are fairly limited, however. Currently you can try to get into space, achieve a stable orbit, and return to base without killing your three astronauts. If you install some of the available mods, you can also attempt to visit the moon, but there’s not much else to do besides that. This might seem like a bad thing, but the joy of KSP is in actually managing to pull these feats off. They’re not as easy as they sound.
It all starts with assembling a rocket. You pick the command module, then pack fuel tanks, thrusters, decouplers (to build multi-stage launch systems), and various other components beneath it. The pieces snap to each other like LEGOs, so building feels natural and intuitive, more like playing with a model toy than fumbling with a computer program. Once the rocket is assembled, you can take it out to the launchpad and fire it off with a tap of the spacebar. If your rocket is set up with multiple stages (and it should be, otherwise it’ll be a very short flight), successive presses of the spacebar will activate the stages in the order you laid them out in during assembly.
You have full control over flight, using WASD by default, but that can be fully mapped to your preference. The input configuration deserves a ton of praise, because it is incredibly robust. Not only can you have two separate sets of key/button configurations, you can also configure every single axis on your flightstick with the ability adjust deadzones and sensitivities for each one individually. If that weren’t awesome enough, the game will autodetect your axes, so you don’t need to know if your flightstick’s throttle is axis 4 or axis 6 to get it to work. It’s refreshing to see such comprehensive controller support in a modern-day game.
Once you start launching rockets, you’ll realize just how complex the task of getting into space is. The game uses real physics for flight, so if your craft is not balanced properly, it will go spinning out of control. If you don’t have enough engines to reach escape velocity, you won’t be able to break out of the atmosphere. But, if you put too many engines on, you might become too heavy to lift off. There are a million little issues that you have to deal with, and the only way to figure them out is to keep on trying, failing, learning, and trying again. And it’s not the pointless artificial learning of other hard games (I’m looking at you, roguelikes), you’ll actually come away from Kerbal Space Program with a greater knowledge of spaceflight, orbital mechanics, and the issues involved in it.
I couldn’t help but feel a constant sense of wonder while playing. It almost felt as if I was really participating in the early days of space travel, where no one knows the best way to get a man into space and back and the only way to figure it out was to try. The limited component options for rocket building contributed to that “first steps” feeling, because you’re stuck with building Saturn-style rockets. You’ll have to work with what you’re given, whether or not it’s the best tools for the job, and hope they succeed. And, boy, when you do finally make it out into space, in a stable orbit, you can’t help but feel you’ve actually accomplished something. I actually held my breath the first time I saw my craft breaking out of the atmosphere to be embraced by the black of space. It was awe-inspiring, and I have never felt that way playing a game, ever.
It’s an experience that’s going to get better with time, too, because the developers are actively adding new content. KSP is eventually going to feature management options allowing you to expand the program’s facilities with more buildings, the means to hire/train astronauts, as well as the ability to research better equipment and components. You’ll be able to travel to other planets in the system, build bases there (as well as in space), and carry out structured missions. Squad’s even going to add cities to the surface of Kerbal, to give it that lived-in feeling. All these additions will make this great game even better.
Conclusion – Is It Worth The Money?
Of course, whether or not you actually find Kerbal Space Program as awesome as I do depends entirely on how much you like the subject matter. If your interest in space exploration starts and stops with teaching female aliens about the human concept called “love,” then you probably won’t find much to enjoy here. But if you, like me, watched those space shuttle launches with wide-eyed wonder (or wish you did), then you owe it to yourself to check Kerbal Space Program out. It’s currently $7, but that price will go up as more content is added, so the earlier you get in on it, the better value it becomes.