Video Games

I’m a rocket man! A review of Kerbal Space Program

“That’s one small step for man…one giant leap for mankind.” – Neil Armstrong

To infinity...or at least that planet over there.
To infinity…or at least that planet over there.

Ever since I was a little boy, I loved space…and dinosaurs…but mostly space.  I read everything I could get my sticky little hands on that would have anything to do with space, the planets, rockets, anything.  I grew up and moved on to other things, but the love of space was always there with me, and gave me my love of science fiction.  When I heard about a game that let me run a space program, I naturally jumped at the chance.  Enter: Kerbal Space Program!

The basics of the game are pretty simple: Here are a bunch of parts, put them together and see what happens.  The tone is very light hearted (check out some videos here) and the Kerbals themselves are so darn cute.  There are two modes of play, Career and Sandbox, but as the game is still early in development the career mode really only has a tech tree.  The sandbox mode is, for now, where it’s at.  You have all the parts at your disposal and the stars above to shoot for.

When you start the game, you see that there is a tutorial.  You may think to yourself “I’m not a rocket scientist, I better try the tutorial.”  Well, good luck.  It really does not teach you anything about how to play.  In fact, other than a “click here to do this” type of lesson, the game teaches you nothing about what it takes to build a rocket.  That may not sound cool, but I LOVE it.  The trial and error method of figuring out what parts do what and how they go together is one of the things I love most about the game.  No hand holding at all.  You learn by pressing the launch button and seeing your ship crash…repeatedly… over and over.  Seriously dude, LRN2FLY.  The feeling of pride you get when that first Kerbal orbits the planet…priceless.

Um, was that supposed to happen?
Um, was that supposed to happen?

Once you get into space, you are not completely left in the dark.  KSP gives you the Maneuver Node!  Pick a spot on your orbit where you would like to do a maneuver and the node appears.  You can pull on any of the six directions to see how it will change your orbit.  Pull it a little for a small change or a lot for big changes like going to another planet.  Once you are happy with the result, just point your ship at a little blue dot on the navball and fire those engines until you reach the required velocity. Now you are on your way to exciting adventures on other worlds.

For a game that is only on version 0.23 (at the time I write this), it really feels put together.  The graphics are pretty good and the sound is ok, but the physics engine…simply amazing.  The game uses very detailed Newtonian physics in the core game mechanics.  Things behave in space just as they would in actual space.  The math is spot on, the calculations you would use in real rocket science are the same ones you would use here.  I say “would use” because you don’t have to actually be a rocket scientist to play, although a basic understanding of the terminology and simple orbital mechanics helps, it is not actually required to play.  Then again, if you want to run the calculations, you certainly can.  I’m a bit of a math and physics nerd myself and even I don’t bother running the numbers, just build-fly-pray.  That could be their slogan, really.

Just one of many planets to crash upon.
Just one of many planets to crash upon.

While the game is in development, Squad has been very open with the community that has arisen around their game, keeping open communication about what they are working on as well as what can be expected in the next update. Another great part of the KSP community is the mods.  Squad opened it up to be modified by anyone and even made a site for people to share their creations, whether it’s a ship they built that looks like the Enterprise, or a complete mining system, they have it.  There have even been a few lucky people that impressed Squad so much they just went ahead and hired them.

There are a few complaints I have about the game, but it is still early in development, so who knows what will change before it is finished.  My biggest complaint is the lack of fine control.  Some maneuvers require very accurate and very delicate control of the throttle, and that fine level of control just isn’t there.  One of the most used mods is called MechJeb, which is sort of like an autopilot that can do the fine level of control for things like hovering.  It can actually be used as an autopilot, but the wealth of information the mod gives is a life saver.  I really would like its delta-v calculations to be added to the main game as it is crucial to knowing how far your rocket is going to go.  Yes, I could calculate it myself, but why would I want to do that, I’m lazy!

The other big complaint is the fact that the calculations of the physics engine do slow down a computer quite quickly, especially if you are working with large ships or space stations.  Squad has said that they are working to convert it from a 32-bit program to a 64-bit one to take advantage of multicore processors as well as tweaking the engine itself to be a bit smoother.  It might be a complaint, but I completely understand.  The game is basically a physics simulator; it’s going to require a heck of a lot of calculations every second.  Oh, and if they could make it so that I would only try docking on the light side of a planet instead of the pitch blackness of the night side, that would be great.

For a space junkie like me, this game is absolutely one of the best games out there, and they are not even done with it yet.  It does have a learning curve, a pretty steep one actually, but that has been half the fun for me.  If you have no patience, then this game probably isn’t for you. If you have an actual life, unlike me, then tread lightly around this game.  It can be a bigger time sink than a black hole.

You can check the website here.  The game is also available on Steam.

2 thoughts on “I’m a rocket man! A review of Kerbal Space Program

  1. Mike:

    Welcome aboard!

    Liked your article, although simulation games like this one all scare me. I played Eve MMO by CCP for a while, (in fact, I think I still have an auto-renewing account, and need to get some truing done, or cancel the credit card…), but tired of all the solo work I was doing since none of my friends played anymore.

    I harken back to the days of pumping quarters into Lunar Lander, one after the other and never landing a single ship.!/arcade/lunarlander/play

    In fact, I just destroyed 20 in a row, and made a bunch of 2 mile craters…

    I will give this game a look, but I am afraid it would be quite the challenge for an old timer like me. I love the idea of constructing the craft and tinkering with whether or not it will even fly though, that really does appeal to me. So long as there is only flying and not landing involved, maybe I can hack it!


    1. Thanks for the welcome Stu!

      Landing is definitely involved, usually harder than intended! I’ve left many a new crater on various moons and planets, but, and maybe it’s just me, the drive to get it right drives me ever onward. My first Kerbal in orbit ended up stuck up there, and the first three moon landers were not able to return either. I’ve had many “spontaneous rapid disassemblies” just sitting on the launch pad!

      The game is not easy, but I absolutely love it. Some of the features they plan to add, like a mining system and missions, should really make this one of the best simulators out there. I might have forgotten to mention you can build planes too, but I’m no good at flying them. 😦

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