Published on December 3rd, 2012 |
by Lee Gent
3 Great Space Sims that are out of this Worldplay
Mars hurtles towards me at seven kilometers per second. Surface features whip past; hills, valleys and craters zoom at me from the horizon. Suddenly an icy-cold chill grips me: I’m going too fast. The Martian atmosphere is a pain in the butt, there’s enough of it to melt my shit up and burn me to a crisp but there’s not enough of it to use for lift. Even if I had stubby Space Shuttle wings they’d be useless here.
An alarm blares. I’m starting to heat up. If I had the fuel I could maybe save myself, boost higher or try to slow down but it’s way too late for that. I used far too much trying to escape Earth’s thick, gooey embrace and now my fate is sealed. The klaxons reach a crescendo and I watch my temperature gauge rocket from yellow to red to white before… “Hull breach at Mach 15. You are dead.”
Thankfully I’m not NASA’s latest robotic visitor to the red planet; I’m playing Orbiter, a mathematically and physically accurate spaceflight simulator. It’s a venerable piece of freeware, having been around since the early 2000s, but it’s the kingpin in a small but growing pool of very special space sims.
I regret nothing!
Of course, flight simulators have modelled ‘real’ physics since time immemorial but, perversely, spaceflight games have been limited. Arguably the principal baddie in Virus/Zarch/Lander (depending on your 80′s home computer brand) was gravity, but Elite got the ball rolling with its arcade-style controls. The Freespace, Freelancer, X-Wing/TIE Fighter and Wing Commander games all made a mockery of physics and turned the vastness of space into, well, a really dark WW2 dogfight simulation. No-one’s complaining of course, they were ace and one of them even had Biff Tannen hassling Luke Skywalker.
Still, it’s probably only Independence War and its sequel that remain the successful attempts to meld exciting real-time space battles with the dullness of science.
Since the glory days of Freelancer almost ten years ago, the only thing that’s kept the ‘space game’ genre alive has been the hit-and-miss X series. It’s possible this is because everyone who used to care has been swallowed up by EVE Online but the fact remains that if you’ve an appetite for such things, your options are limited – more so if your tastes run to the… nerdy.
Enter the saviour: indie games. Take a peek at three deliciously geeky games which should satisfy your lust to Boldly Go.
In space, no one can hear you scream profanities.
Lunar Flight does one thing and does it extremely well.
You are in control of a Moon lander not dissimilar to the Apollo’s Lunar Module; you must ferry cargo from one landing pad to another over increasingly less-forgiving maps; you must battle gravity and your ever-diminishing fuel reserves to cross the map and earn money from your missions, money you can then spend on more efficient engines and (inevitable) repairs to your craft.
It’s devilishly difficult and not a game for less-patient people. It’s also extremely tempting to go pedal-to-the-metal and thrust your way to victory but remember! You must spend an equal and opposite amount of energy to slow down again. You’ll learn this lesson soon enough although it will cost you five or six brand-new landers.
Admittedly it sounds simple, and frankly a little dull, but there can be no feeling like nailing a perfect landing with two seconds worth of fuel left. Equally, there’s no rage like almost nailing a perfect landing but clipping a radio mast before spinning like a billion dollar merry-go-round into the dirt. Of course, like any perfectly designed game, there’s never anyone to blame but yourself. Oh, and it’s built on the Unity engine so it looks great in addition to being nice and cross-platform.
Ever notice how phallic Rockets are? I have. I really, really have.
Anyone who has ever played with Lego has tried to build a rocket. In KSP you get to do it for real… ish.
Starting with nothing but a large pile of spacecraft and rocket parts, you must assemble a rocket capable of (1) launching without exploding (2) reaching orbit without exploding (3) landing on a moon without exploding (4) returning home, without exploding. Before you reach your objective you’ll do a lot of exploding
The game is split into two: vehicle assembly building, where you design and build your rockets with a simple drag-and-drop interface, and the flight screen where you jab the space bar to light the touchpaper. As your creation ascends you’ll roll, pitch and nudge it with the WASD keys, while mashing the space bar will jettison empty rocket stages (if your design incorporated it).
It’s easy (and terrific fun) to build rudimentary mockups of the Saturn V or Space Shuttle but the most fun is to be had when you ‘experiment’: what if the Space Shuttle had fifteen booster rockets instead of two? What if you had a twenty-stage rocket? I won’t spoil the surprise but I can reveal that it ends in awesome explosions. I would never admit this myself but you may get a strange thrill from watching your creations torn apart in a fireball. Curiously my old Lego spaceships always suffered from the same fate.
Once again the game uses the Unity engine; the graphics are more cartoony than realistic, best illustrated by noting that your astronauts aren’t humans but Kerbals – natives of Kearth – and bear a striking resemblance to the evil minions in Despicable Me. And yes, the game is difficult but that only makes it more rewarding: it took me a year of experimenting and casual play to reach the Moon. And you get to create and fly your own rockets.
Just pick up (read the manual) and play!
While it’s true that there is no plot, goal or overriding gameplay mechanic to Orbiter, it would be disingenuous to describe it as a sandbox. Upon starting the game you’re met with a bewildering array of options which you’re welcome to click through until you get to the game proper: you have a spacecraft, on a runway. Go.
What happens next is up to you. Fly to orbit? Sure. Dock with the ISS? Go for it. Try one of the bonkers ‘slingshot’ orbits that have been the mainstay of sci-fi since forever so that you can get to Pluto and mock its tiny, irrelevant face? Shoot. You can even dock with Mir and then try to crash it into Earth but you’ll soon meet your nemesis: real spacecraft require fuel and you’ll never have enough.
The game is unforgivingly realistic and upsettingly hard because of it. There are no in-game tutorials – you’ll need to read the help pages and conquer the steep learning curve. Thankfully all of this is tempered by the incredible sense of accomplishment you’ll feel when you finally roll out on the landing strip after a extraterrestrial venture. You know how good you feel when you level up in your favourite MMORPG? It’s that. Multiplied by ten. It is rocket science, after all.
As well as a staggering array of third-party mods ranging from cool-looking near-future spaceplanes to the ultimate challenge: a full-scale mock-up of Apollo 11, high-resolution satellite maps of Earth, the Moon and Mars are also available from the official download site to supplement the lower-res default maps, but even on stock settings the game looks great, especially from orbit. There’s even a third-party re-write of the graphics engine that uses modern DirectX shaders for extra spangle (although you’ll want to grab some of the third-party spacecraft add-ons for best effect).
The cosmic ballet goes on…
It’s DirectX only and closed-source so there’s no chance of platform portability and you may tire of it extremely quickly if you require some sort of ‘objective’ to be foisted upon you. If you’re willing to invent your own quests and missions though, it’s loads of fun and gives you a legitimate excuse to discuss delta-v, specific impulse and thrust-to-mass ratios with your mates in the pub.
As for my own Mars mission, the second time around I remember to pitch ten degrees more to get me above Earth’s clingy atmosphere quicker. I make a course-correction burn two months earlier, accelerating time to compress the usual eight month journey into ten minutes. I’m left with half a tank of fuel, more than enough to get my ass to Mars and enough to nudge me gently into the red haze where I descend like a jump-jet onto the landing pad at Olympus Base. After a pause to refuel, I’m ready to try my hand at returning home.
Footnote – As it turns out, what’s arguably the granddaddy of all computer games ever was a physically-accurate text-only version of Lander back in 1969. Get yourself an awesome history lesson here.