Space Engineers Review

Ever since Minecraft exploded off of digital shelves, there have been very few games that can really compare to its sandbox supremacy. The one thing that Minecraft lacked was moveable blocks. Once a block was placed, it was stuck there and would never move unless it was destroyed, even if it wasn’t attached to another block. Barring any mods, this meant that your intricately detailed model of the Battlestar Galactica would never be more than a sculpture.

Enter Space Engineers . . .

Quick disclaimer: I have not played the survival mode of this game yet.

WHAT EVERY ENGINEER HOPED THEY WOULD END UP DOING
Can you sense the bitterness?
History and Game Engine

Space Engineers is the brainchild of Marek Rosa. It is an “Early Access” game developed by Keen Software House. Their first project was “Miner Wars 2081.” It used an in-house-developed game engine called VRAGE which featured destructible voxel terrain. This allowed players to drill through asteroids dynamically and in whatever way they wanted, even hollowing one out. (Yes, I know the following screenshots are from Space Engineers)

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An asteroid in its natural state.
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An asteroid after you play God.

For Space Engineers, they used their experience to develop an improved version of VRAGE which they creatively dubbed VRAGE 2.0. Some of the key additions include volumetric objects (ie. blocks) and realistic physics.

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New meaning to the phrase “off the grid.”

Finally, you could assemble a ship block by block and fly it around in space. And that’s not even the most fun part. If you’ve ever played with LEGOs (and who hasn’t?) you probably know the joy of watching pieces splatter all over the place. Space Engineers allows you to revisit that joy IN SPACE!

The new game engine gives each block its own voxel terrain, so each block can deform individually. What does that mean? It means that your ship can get dents. It means that holes will be ragged. It means that the aftermath of a ship-to-ship crash is a unique, mangled maw of steel.

What happens when you combine realistic physics and separable blocks with individual deformation? Beauty.

When I saw this trailer on Steam (where it is available as an Early Access game), I was instantly sold. It was like I had been toasting bread in the oven all my life and had just been shown a toaster. But I’ve talked enough about the game engine. Let’s get down to some of the nitty-gritty of gameplay.

LEARN BY DOING
Interface and Controls

Like most sandbox games, the amount of options at your disposal is mind-boggling at first. I think the biggest hurdle in this game is learning how to play it. I also think that aspect is what makes sandbox games fun because I’m a masochist.

There’s a tutorial video that you can watch, but I couldn’t sit through more than a minute of its 10(?) minute duration. The video was just dry and I’m not a fan of non-interactive tutorials. Thankfully, built-in help text pops up in-game too (can be turned off).

The game’s user interface is good in some places, but a little tricky in others.

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There’s the familiar “action bar” on the bottom which can have blocks, parts, or tools bound to it. In the corners, you’ll find readouts for important things like your current speed and energy/fuel levels. These readouts will show up only when applicable, keeping the screen nice and clean.

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Placing blocks can be a complicated and sometimes frustrating endeavor (eg. Glass windows being tinted on one side). Each block can (and often must) be rotated individually. To assist the player, a helpful diagram is displayed in the top-right corner of the screen when placing parts. It shows the different rotation directions each labeled with the corresponding keys (can also be turned off).

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A ship’s flight seat and most parts feature a control console. When you use a control console, you’ll be presented with a menu that contains every function that that ship or station can do and more. Every component has its own controls and options. On a large ship, you can end up with a very long list. Thankfully, they are automatically sorted by component type and name.

The controls can also be difficult at first, but that’s to be expected in a zero-g environment. To help control your movement, the game features an “inertial dampener” system. This system will automatically slow your character or ship to a stop while moving. On a ship however, you must have the correct parts and have them placed correctly. The dampener system can be turned on and off on the fly.

HOW TO TRAIN YOUR SPACE ENGINEER
Gameplay

The steep learning curve can be intimidating to newcomers. Despite this, the developers employed some great game design to motivate a new player. Excuse me while I read too much into it wax poetic a little.

When you start the game and create a new world, you must select a starter map. These maps provide you with a variation of scenarios and, most importantly, pre-built stations and ships. There is a blank map scenario, but it is placed at the bottom of the list. This arrangement nudges a new player to start on a map with pre-built ships.

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The pre-built ships accomplish two things. First, they allow the player to experiment with other aspects of the game without needing to build anything. Second, by showing the player what a complete ship is like, the pre-built ships are essentially saying, “This is what you can build. This is your power.” That is the kind of motivation that can get players to murder 8 sentient machines in a row and then kill them all again (Warning: link NSFW for language).

“YOU HAVE THE CONN”
Multiplayer

Yes, saying that in game will induce giggles of excitement.

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I really shouldn’t be wearing red in a space game.

Multiplayer gameplay is much like Minecraft’s. It’s really just single-player with more people, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing as Minecraft has demonstrated.

The nice thing about Space Engineers is the simplicity of multiplayer. Upon creation of your world (or through the main menu), you can set your world to “Public” or “Friends.” Public worlds will allow anyone to join while “Friends” worlds allow only those on your Steam friends list to join. There is no need to look up IP’s. No one is required to set up their own server. Just switch the setting on the world and invite your friends through Steam.

This method has a limitation: everyone that joins you will be booted from your world once you leave. This is where making a dedicated server makes sense, and the game includes the programs for doing that if you wish.

KEEP IT SIMPLE, STUPID
Limitations

This is a realistic game in many ways, but it is a game not a simulation. The developers took some liberties when designing and programming the game.

First and easiest, they set the game in space and far away from any planets. This greatly simplifies the physics and dynamics calculations necessary to make the game realistic. The drawback is that the only environment available right now is an asteroid field.

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In space, you won’t have to listen to another variation of “Keep Calm and Carry On.”

In the real world, the speed of light is your only limit on movement. In Space Engineers however, the maximum speed is, understandably, capped much lower (somewhere around 105 m/s as far as I can tell). While I do not know the true reason behind capping the speed, I can imagine it has to do with the game design and physics calculations seizing up.

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So simple a car insurance company could make a commercial out of it.

Ship building is also simplified. You don’t need to wire any of your parts together or create fuel lines to thrusters. Having them all connected by structure is enough. The game already has a steep learning curve, so I think that this kind of simplification helps take the edge off.

CLOSING THOUGHTS

As an early access game, Space Engineers does not yet offer much to do besides building things (or survival mode which I’ll remind you I have not tried yet), but that core mechanic is still fun in and of itself.

Despite being tough to get into, if you like sandbox games you should give the game a chance. The game is still being tweaked constantly, and On top of that, modders are always cranking out new content as well. It has great potential. Just give it some space time.

What are your thoughts on the game? Are my posts too damn long? AM I A CYLON? Let us know in the comments below!

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5 thoughts on “Space Engineers Review”

  1. This game is fun, but like you said, not much to do. I really like the feel of it. Being able to create something and then move around in it is nice. I hope they expand what you can do in survival. Then we could like play it as we’re like a miner colony. Our ship is our home and we just fly from big asteroid to the next big one to refill our supplies and gather material to sell for our livelihood. ooooooh

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  2. I’m really curious about what’s different in the survival mode. Brian, I told you not to make me want this game. WHY WOULD YOU DO THIS TO ME?!

    Like

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