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Space Engineers - Inside an Interstellar Sandbox

Previews By Neilie Johnson on August 19, 2014

On the Space Engineers website, a faux Wikipedia entry dated 2077 states: “A space engineer is a professional practitioner who uses scientific knowledge...to solve practical problems in space.” As a game description, it's pretty dry. It's also fairly accurate for what Space Engineers, a new sandbox game in development by Keen Software House, feels like thus far.

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At the moment Space Engineers is in alpha and as such, feels more like a training simulator than a game. In fact, I could see it being used as an effective learning tool for students interested in becoming astronauts. In any case, developer Keen Software House is latching onto the hot-hot-hot sandbox game trend, dumping the single player story campaign featured in its previous game, Miner Wars 2081, to focus entirely on player-created content.

Space Engineers provides users with the building blocks and tools to create their own space stations, ships and mining settlements. It allows you to start in one of two ways: with a partially pre-made world, or with nothing but a large area of empty space. Either way, you have to figure out what to build in that world and how to build it, and at the moment, one of the game's weak points is tutorializing.

Currently, you learn how to play by reading page after page of key binding notes and watching a series of long, drawn-out tutorial videos. These informational tidbits are helpful, but getting through them is like performing a homework assignment rather than fun. Still, if you manage to get through all the tooltips and all forty minutes (!) of tutorial videos, you'll be in better shape than if you go into the game blind.

The game has two modes: Creative and Survival. The former is much easier-going and allows for instant building, and endless resources. The latter requires you to manage your resources, build things manually, and if you don't watch your inventory carefully, to endure the indignity of death and further, the loss of all your items. Regardless of the challenge, each mode can be played with friends. With its peer-to-peer setup, Space Engineers promises a better multiplayer performance, (granted, my experience was only with single player) and at this time, can accommodate up to 16 players.

For sandbox neophytes, starting from zero is a bit overwhelming. A good way to absorb objectives and methods is to check out other people's game worlds. Before building my own space, I spent some time loading other people's creations in order to get an idea what the game's tools could do and in some cases, I was impressed with what I saw. In other instances, worlds were far less compelling, which is the risk of relying on player-generated content. This lack could be an indicator of the steepness of the learning curve, but at this point it's hard to tell.

Having played tourist, I began with a partially-premade environment called “Crashed Red Ship.” The focus of this world—and hence the foundation of my space settlement—was the wreckage of a space vehicle embedded in a large asteroid. I began by selecting a handful of building blocks from a palette of items such as reactors and gravity generators, and with them built a nearby station with walkways that accessed the wreck. It took some getting used to, but for the most part, was quick and easy. 

Quick build enables you to add multiple blocks at once, and the paint tool lets you color structures a variety of hues in a matter of seconds. The handy symmetry mode speeds things up even further by letting you mirror structures as you build them. All told, basic building is a snap—I suspect though, building anything with any uniqueness or complexity would take patience, ingenuity and considerable time.

Everything in Space Engineers can be “assembled, disassembled, damaged and destroyed,” but when you're a tiny human floating in the vastness of outer space, survival outweighs creativity. Ships and stations need to have mechanisms and these need power to operate. That means you need lots of resources like uranium, iron and solar power; it also means you need a method of collecting these resources and in the case of ore, of refining it. Doing this effectively not only keeps your settlement productive, it keeps you from dying. All of this in single player is pretty involved, and multiplayer adds yet another wrinkle to the proceedings.

Multiplayer worlds are persistent, which means they're prone to a range of unfortunate events, like having stations run out of energy, or losing hard-earned resources to unethical players. More painfully, dying in multiplayer means losing your items and having to bust your butt to regain them. This is a bit too much realism for me personally, but players who like that kind of challenge will likely enjoy experimenting with the various realism settings and/or playing interstellar pirate.

Space Engineers can be played in first or third person (in third person, you can set your space suit to whatever color you want) and it is kind of fun jet-packing around in space. It's also pretty darn cool to build your own ship, then jump into the cockpit and fly off in it. Right now though, that's basically the extent of the fun. The game has a lot of rough edges and looks bland (granted, Keen House's website says much of the art is placeholder). Textures and lighting are flat, and deep space isn't all that deep and fails to evoke a sense of awe, excitement and dread. Still, this is alpha (I always want to say that in a yell like, "THIS...IS...SPARTA!") so no wonder. Besides, the kind of player Space Engineers is likely to attract probably cares more about logistics than graphic bells and whistles.

Keen Software House is clearly building on what it learned from its previous game, action-survival simulator, Miner Wars 2081. These guys love systems, space, and simulation, not mention creating large multiplayer worlds where just about anything can happen if you've got the imagination for it. If Keen's goal with Space Engineers is to create a cerebral, highly customizable simulator, then I'd say they're very nearly there. If, however, they're hoping to make something that stirs the senses as well as the intellect, they have some ways to go.   

Neilie Johnson / Neilie Johnson is a freelance contributor to MMORPG.com. She''s been writing about games since 2005, developing games since 2002, and playing them since the dawn of time. OK not really, but she''s pretty sure she''s got controllers older than you. Witness her game-related OCD on Twitter @bmunchausen.

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