When Drew and the Couch Soup Crew (Crewtons? Crewshions?) flicked across the early access code and press kit for Štefo Mai Morojna's space-faring rocket building simulator Spacflight Simulator, it's fair to say I was unsure whether I was going to enjoy this game.
The press kit makes the game seem like something that would interest me at its face value. I enjoyed messing around in Kerbal Space Program and did physics as my "fun" subject in year 12 (mistake), and this game purports to be a realistic simulation of space travel.
However, I'm always hesitant about reviewing or talking about games that are in early access. Not only do you get to be an unofficial QA tester with all the perks (I'll let you know when I think of some) without that pesky issue of being fairly compensated for your work, any criticism of the game could end up being invalid once the game releases.
Before I started playing, I did a bit of a dig around about the mobile versions of the game, and my gut feeling was that the game looks a little light on features and not worth playing.
I've spent a couple hours with the game so far. And you know what? Sometimes you should totally trust your gut feeling.
First thing to address with this game is that a whole bunch of features that are listed on the menu and game options just simply aren't there right now. Career mode? Listed but not there. Sandbox mode? Listed, not there. Different types of solar systems? Absent.
So yeah, there are not a lot of options to play at the moment, but again it's good old early access. Credit where it’s due, the game does have some pretty good tutorials that walk you through orbiting, docking and the moon quite well.
Unfortunately, there’s nothing to help you get off the ground. I had to look up a YouTube tutorial on how to turn the engines - never a good sign for any game where the player needs to resort to YouTube to find out how to start playing.
Early access stumbles aside, is the game worth your time and money? Well, let's dive in further.
Visually, it's not too impressive, but the simple graphics and textures create a nice underdog fledgling rocket scientist feel to it. I'm not going to kick the game's teeth in because it's not running 4K, 60 frames per second. I'm more interested in the nuts and bolts of the gameplay mechanics.
The gameplay is split into two distinctive parts: the building of the rocket and the launching of the rocket. If you’re anything like me most of your early launches are going to be an exciting start and ending with a fiery crash resulting in yet another budding astronaut life snuffed out.
At the building stage for the rocket, the building tools are pretty basic. Don't get me wrong, they’ve got an extensive range of little bits and bobs to stick on your rocket, and it’s relatively easy to cobble something together. The grid and symmetry tool are both welcome and useful to help construct the rocket of your dreams.
However, the components you're using to build this astronaut execution device only have a little text description when you hover over the part. There's no clear explanation for what they do, although some are obvious (fuel tanks, engines, etc.). Some could really benefit from a bit more explanation of when and how these parts are used.
For the launch, once I figured out how to actually launch the thing, the controls are relatively straightforward and easy to use. Press a couple of buttons, toggle a key switches and you are flying a rocket my friend. The map screen is a great tool to plan your journey across the stars using the projected trajectory. In my case it was good to plan where I’d be sending the (hypothetical) salvage crews once the rocket smashed into the Earth.
Also, there's something incredibly therapeutic about scrolling out and getting a true sense of the relative size of the planets compared to the vast expansive solar system itself. Brings a bit of perspective to compare the insignificance of the rocket with the grand scope of everything. A little bit of existential dread about our place in the world as well but who hasn’t had that from time to time?
Unfortunately, the game isn't all peaks. There's one undeniable fact that the game can't hide from even, in the depths of deep space: this game just doesn’t make me feel anything when I play it. The menus are bland, the art is basic—the entire presentation for this game just falls flat. Nothing the game did was presented in a way that conveyed the inherent wonder of space travel.
This is space we’re talking about, something our best minds understand very little about. It’s vast and majestic and goddamn terrifying in its scope and none of that comes across when I’m travelling through it in this game.
In Spaceflight Simulator, there's just no outer context to keep me invested in the success or failure of these rockets. No goals like colonising the Moon, or reaching the next solar system or even just not killing your astronauts. We never get to see the engineers or astronauts we're working with, and there are no buildings to upgrade or research to do.
It's pretty much summed up like this: I built this rocket with as much fuel and thrusters as I could and launched it. I reached space, saw on the map all the far flung planets that looked identical that I would maybe reach one day and just couldn't see the point.
No game is released in a vacuum, and we really have to look at the other competition on the market in order to make an informed recommendation. Obviously, the colossus blotting out the sun on the horizon is Kerbal Space Program. Some of you would say this is an unfair comparison considering the sizes of the development teams. However, Kerbal has pretty much everything Spaceflight is missing and it’s only $30 more.
There's an early access roadmap where the developers could have shown how they plan to build up the game to rival Kerbal. Unfortunately, they should rechristen it in memory of the Talking Heads because it's pretty much a road to nowhere.
It's a little concerning for me because if I had bought this game at early access (regardless the price), I'd want to know the developer has a plan to get the game from early access to a full blooded release.
Although even the best laid plans can go awry as Bioware has taught us time and time again.
Overall, Spaceflight Simulator is a competently made game, but there was just nothing the game put in front of me that made me want to keep playing. It didn’t hook me in and in the face of such strong offerings from its competitors, mainly Kerbal Space Program, I just can't recommend this game at its current state.
But, again, this is early access, so who knows? By the time the game actually releases it could be about you building a rocket to escape the Mecha-Stalin v. Mothra global war and gathering the best glam rock legends of the galaxy to free the Earth… hold on I'd better write that down.
What keeps you invested in games like Spaceflight Simulator and Kerbal Space Program? Let's chat in the comments about what makes a truly great rocket-building game.