Notes on “Hardspace: Shipbreaker” 0.7

I have spent entirely too much time playing Hardspace: Shipbreaker, but it’s been very enjoyable time spent. As of this writing, it is a Steam Early Access title and still in development. The build I’ve been playing is V. dated December 20th, 2021. (Only a few days before I bought it on Steam.) The developers have announced their goal to take it out of Early Access and formally release in Spring 2022. Comments below from my experience do not necessarily reflect the final product.

The game can be played in career mode, where ship teardowns are accompanied by a storyline campaign. My 0.7 build only went up to act 2, the formal release should have an act 3. Personally, I did not find the story compelling. This fictional universe placed the player as an indentured servant toiling for an uncaring mega-corporation, and that’s depressing. It’s too close to the real world of capitalism run amok.

Career mode has several difficulty settings. I started with the easiest “Open Shift” that removes the stress of managing consumables like my spacesuit oxygen. It also removes the time limit of a “shift” which is fifteen minutes. After I moved up to “Standard” difficulty, the oxygen limit is indeed stressful. But I actually started appreciating the fifteen-minute limit timer because it encourages me to take a break from this game.

Whatever the game mode (career, free play or competitive race) the core game is puzzle-solving: How to take apart a spaceship quickly and efficiently to maximize revenue. My workspace is a dockyard in earth orbit, and each job takes apart a ship and sort them into one of three recycle bins:

  1. Barge: equipment kept intact. Examples: flight terminal computers, temperature control units, power cells, reactors.
  2. Processor: high value materials. Examples: exterior hull plates, structural members.
  3. Furnace: remainder of materials. Example: interior trim.

We don’t need to aim at these recycle bins particularly carefully, as they have an attraction field to suck in nearby objects. Unfortunately, these force fields are also happy to pull in objects we didn’t intend to deposit. Occasionally an object would fall just right between the bins and they would steal from each other!

I haven’t decided if the hungry processors/furnaces is a bug, or an intended challenge to the game. There are arguments to be made either way. However, the physics engine in the game exhibit behavior that are definitely bugs. Personally, what catches me off guard the most are small events with outsized effects. The most easily reproducible artifact is to interact with a large ship fragment. Our tractor beam can’t move a hull segment several thousand kilograms in mass. But if we use the same tractor beam to pick up a small 10 kilogram component and rub it against the side of the hull segment, the hull segment starts moving.

Another characteristic of the physics engine is that everything has infinite tensile strength. As long as there is a connection, no matter how small, the entire assembly remains rigid. It means when we try to cut the ship in half, each half weighting tens of thousands of kilograms, we could overlook one tiny thing holding it all together. My most frustrating experience was a piece of fabric trim. A bolt of load-bearing fabric holding the ship together!

But at least that’s something I can look for and see connected onscreen. Even more frustrating are bugs where ship parts are held together by objects that are visibly apart on screen. Like a Temperature Control Unit that doesn’t look attached to an exterior hull plate, but it had to be removed from its interior mount at which point both the TCU and the hull are free to move. Or the waste disposal unit that rudely juts out beyond its allotted square.

Since the game is under active development, I see indications of game mechanics that was not available to me. It’s not clear to me if these are mechanisms that used to exist and removed, or if they are promised and yet to come. Example: there were multiple mentions of using coolant to put out fires, and I could collect coolant canisters, but I don’t see how I can apply coolant to things on fire. Another example: there are hints that our cutter capability can be upgraded, but I encountered no upgrade opportunity and must resort to demolition charges. (Absent an upgrade, it’s not possible to cut directly into hull as depicted by game art.) We also have a side-quest to fix up a little space truck, but right now nothing happens when the quest is completed.

The ships being dismantled are one of several types, so we know roughly what to expect. However, each ship includes randomized variations so no two ships are dismantled in exactly the same way. This randomization is occasionally hilarious. For example, sometimes the room adjacent to the reactor has a window and computers to resemble a reactor control room. But sometimes the room is set up like crew quarters with chairs and beds. It must be interesting to serve on board that ship, as we bunk down next to a big reactor through the window and its radioactive warning symbols.

There are a few user interface annoyances. The “F” key is used to pick up certain items in game. But the same key is also used to fire a repulsion field to push items away. Depending on the mood of the game engine, sometimes I press “F” to pick up an item only to blast it away instead and I have to chase it down.

But these are all fixable problems and I look forward to the official version 1.0 release. In the meantime I’m still having lots of fun playing in version 0.7. And maybe down the line the developers will have the bandwidth to explore putting this game in virtual reality.

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