Kerbal Space Program, an indie game from Squad, is a sandbox game that deals with building and flying things. Whether those things are rockets, airplanes, space planes, or interplanetary probes is entirely up to the imagination of the player. It’s an incredibly deep game that deals with physics aerodynamic forces, gravity, and orbital mechanics. All of that depth is beautifully abstracted away with a very simple snap together system for building aircraft and spacecraft.
The core game mechanic is very satisfying; start with a cockpit, add a fuel tank, snap an engine to the bottom, and select a Kerbal pilot. Then go to the launchpad, fire up the engine, and see what happens. What will most likely happen will be an explosion. Maybe on the next launch you’ll actually send your Kerbal up, or in a general direction that is somewhat up, and then there will be an explosion. On your third launch that little green guy or gal is DEFINITELY going up, but then you’ll realize that you forgot to add in a way to separate the capsule from the fuel tank. So now your Kerbal is coming back down too fast and on top of explody things….explosion. For the fourth launch you put in a stage separator. Now when the engine runs out of fuel you smartly separate the capsule. It goes up higher, and higher, and then starts coming down. It’s then that you realize that a parachute would’ve been nice. Crash, then explosion.
But, throughout all of this, something that absolutely shouldn’t happen in games does happen, you start to learn things. The iteration between build, launch, and explosion, is entertainingly short, and no loss is permanent in Kerbal. Soon enough you find yourself getting Kerbals to space, and then in orbit. After that you will find yourself docking things together in orbit. And then, leaving the safety of your home planet, Kerbin, to land on your moon, Mun. Then, quite literally, the solar system is the limit. Kerbal features nine planets with different orbits, gravities, and atmospheres. You can build craft to explore all of them. Whether or not you build craft that can return your Kerbals safely home is entirely up to you. You can play in a sandbox mode or a full career mode with space center management, an economy, research and development, and astronaut recruitment.
For building your rockets and planes the collection of parts you can use is very deep. There are multiple types of each component. Along with capsules, tanks and engines there are solar panels, batteries, landing gear, and science experiments, just to name a few. If you head over to the aircraft hangar there are wings, tail fins, rudders, elevators, everything you need to make fully flyable airplanes and spaceplanes.
Unfortunately for the console releases (this review is based on the XBox One release) the simplicity of everything is mired in a port that did nothing to adapt the game to a console experience. This is evident from the very first loading screen where the name of each file being loaded is shown to the user. Why? Even on the PC and Mac versions such information is of questionable value. But, at least on those platforms the user has the ability to look at the filesystem and find the files if something goes wrong. On the console providing filenames is useless. It does nothing other than enforce the fact that Kerbal Space Program is primarily a PC game. From there the experience with KSP on a console only gets more frustrating.
Dialogs, like picking graphical settings and saving and loading games, are not adapted to the console at all. Instead of navigating through options with the thumbsticks and buttons you are expected to use the left thumbstick to control an onscreen mouse pointer and the A button as a mouse left-click button. No thought or design work was done to change the interface for consoles.
Text, of which there is quite a lot in KSP, is very small and hard to read. This is based on sitting on a couch which is about eight feet away from a sixty inch television.
Building a rocket is frustrating. Again, the console controller has been relegated to emulating a mouse. Picking an object and moving it around is passable, but trying to position two objects close enough to each other that they snap together correctly is tedious. No consideration has been given to making the snapping system more user friendly on consoles. Building a simplistic rocket of less than a dozen parts was a struggle. I don’t feel I’d have the patience to snap together enough pieces to build a Mun capable rocket, let alone an interplanetary vessel.
Kerbal Space Program is a deep game, with a career mode, space center management, research and development and, of course, rockets and lots of explosions. It’s designed in such a way that a player only has to expose as much of that gameplay as they want. It’s a wonderful game and I am a huge fan. If you want to play it and you only have an XBox One, please give it a try, even with the problems the basic porting effort has introduced. If you have access to a gaming PC or a Macintosh, play it on your computer. You will have a much more enjoyable experience exploring space.