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Getting Hands-On With Space Engineers – A New 2014 Space Odyssey
Space Engineers – at first glance you might be tempted to say “Look, it’s Minecraft in space!” And I suppose in a way it is, but it’s so much more fun! From the threat of suffocating in your spacesuit to crashing your lovingly-crafted ship into an asteroid (or another person like I did), there’s so much to do already in the title, even though it’s only in early access on Steam. Space Engineers is the latest project by Keen House Software, and it’s a “sandbox space game all about engineering, construction and maintenance of space works”. What you build is really up to you, and it really is like Minecraft in space.
You play as a Space Engineer, and the universe is your plaything. When you start the game there are two modes you can play: Creative and Survival. Creative worlds give you the freedom to create whatever your mind can come up with, and you have a variety of scenarios to play with. From two empty platforms in the vastness of space to a fully pre-built space station, you are given access to all the building blocks in the game and don’t have to find anything to make them – you simply click and build. Whether you want to try and create a self-sufficient space station, make replicas of existing spaceships (I totally didn’t try and make a replica of the Millennium Falcon one time) or let your creativity flow and build a ship of ultimate doom and destruction, that’s up to you. The art of building is simple: you simply point to a block face and if you can build another block near it the edge will appear green. Left click and presto! You’ve put two blocks together. To get the different blocks you need to drag them to your Toolbar (on the bottom of the screen) which you do by pressing G and simply dragging them. A shortcut is to double click them, which will automatically equip them to the next available slot. You can also colour the blocks something other than the default grey by having a block piece selected (as if you’re going to put another piece down) and clicking the middle mouse button on an existing block. You can change the colour selected by either pressing the brackets buttons or you can create custom colours by pressing P (took me a while to figure this one out!) So yes, you really can make a bright pink Death Star if you want.
You also get to choose the world size, from four to eleven asteroids (which you can mine, but we’ll get to that later) and the danger of the game world. If you fancy a challenge, then crank it up to Armageddon mode, where asteroid showers are pretty much common and anything you build will probably get destroyed like an explosive masterpiece. On the other hand, you can put it on peaceful mode if you want to build undisturbed. Creative mode is also great for helping you to learn the basic controls of the game (which aren’t as simple as they sound), but I personally went straight for Survival mode. If you’re going to be learning, may as well learn while doing something productive!
Survival mode gets a little more complex – here’s the point where I say if you’re unsure with the controls, head back into Creative mode! I’m quite the stubborn person so I suffered for a long time while trying to learn it all. Survival mode has all the same options for world creation as Creative, but you also have 3 new options: Inventory Size, Refinery Speed and Assembler Speed. Several new functions are added to survival mode which make it a challenge, since you’re now on a desperate fight to stay alive in the cold darkness of space. Your inventory decides how much you can carry, from mining ore to creating or salvaging components to build a station or ship. It gets quite realistic from this point on, so get ready for it! Each item has a weight, and you need to consider these while traversing your world. Anything you can’t carry will simply float off into space (or sink if you have a gravity generator nearby). Your refinery speed decides how quickly your refinery will process ore and turn these into necessary components. A hint for anyone starting: get to a meteor and find Uranium! Trust me, you’ll need it. And finally the Assembler speed decides how quickly your assembler will create the components needed to make blocks, thrusters, gravity generators and so on. These can be set to ‘realistic’ (a.k.a slow as hell), 3x and 10x. It all depends how patient you are.
When you start a new game, you spawn in with a very basic yellow ship. It’s not the most pretty, but it gets you from A to B and you have everything you need, including a Med-Bay. Why a Med-Bay I hear you ask? In Space Engineers you have both a health total and an energy total. Energy is expended when you float around, and drains much more quickly when you’re fixing, grinding or mining. If this gets down low enough a lovely red message will flash on your screen saying ‘Warning: System Energy Low. Life Support may fail’. Don’t take that warning lightly, as that’s how people die in space! Luckily you can charge energy up by holding T at the Med-Bay. I think the lowest mine has gotten to so far is about 2% before I noticed. At this point the world was empty: just me, my beautiful ship which I christened the Serenity (original, I know, but apparently calling a ship Aaaarrrgh isn’t appropriate no matter what noise I make while flying!) and several empty platforms and asteroids. I knew what I had to do. First I crashed my ship. Accidentally, but flying a ship isn’t that simple. I’ll explain this when I talk about controls in a little bit. After reloading I made my way into the nearest asteroid, ramped the gravity up (which drains Uranium, hence the need to mine) and started mining for resources. Just like Minecraft I hear you say. Well, have you ever had your face nearly blown off by a meteor in Minecraft? Sometimes it’s a regular occurrence in Space Engineers, hence the hiding in an asteroid!
If you get a little lonely, which you will, Space Engineers generates random ships that fly around in space. Now you can do two things with these: ignore them since there isn’t any enemy AI implemented yet, or turn full space pirate and grab those badboys! Be careful though, catching them is easy but getting them to slow down is the problem. Once you manage to get into the cockpit, either through opening a door or grinding your way in, you need to stop the ship. The easiest way is to do this is to turn the inertia dampers on by pressing Z (this is the same for your jetpack and makes it much easier to control, although turning them off allows you to fly a consistent speed). When I manage to pirate a ship I try and take it back to my home-base, which is my space station/parking garage on the dark side of the asteroid (the dark side avoids the meteors from the sun, so no ship damage!) Your mouse controls the gyroscope, which is the way the ship is pointing, and WASD controls the thrusters. At the moment I’ve collected one of each type of ship and I salvage the rest, so I don’t really have to go creating supplies just yet. It takes a while, but I’ve got a proper little salvage operation going on. Oh, and if you have Thruster Damage turned on then you need to be VERY careful – these ships are booby-trapped with warheads that cause massive damage and generally kill you, so you need to search the ship thoroughly before moving it. Otherwise just do what I do and turn the Thruster Damage off for now!
At the moment Space Engineers only really has the mining and building working, so there’s still plenty of things to do if you’re imaginative, and the physics in it are pretty amazing. After all, the game is based on reality and how things work – the game strives to follow the laws of physics and only uses technologies that exist in the near future, like gravity generators and reactors. No space lasers and no transporters. It’s not Star Trek I’m afraid. But it already had both competitive and cooperative multiplayer working as well as deformable and destroyable environments. And the list of features not implemented yet definitely makes buying it worth it: factions will soon be appearing in game so you might actually have something to fight, the conveyors will be working to make a more efficient mining process, the animations will be improved and, the best feature yet, large weapons (Gatling guns and Missile Launchers) will be usable on large ships. You want a space war? You’ve got a space war!
At the moment the game is £14.99 on Steam and the game is still in early access, which means that there are a lot of bugs and problems. But the guys at working hard to fix bugs and have an extensive community forum, where you can talk with other players and the devs and even show off your creations! Make sure you check out the official website for the community forum and any updates, and you can also check out the Space Engineer Facebook page. At the moment the game has a lot of promise, with the same addictiveness as Minecraft and the added benefit of crashing spaceships and dog-fights in space. If you’re looking for a new sandbox title to invest time into, I definitely recommend Space Engineers!