Thursday, 7 May 2015

Kerbal Space Program Full Release

A little green man grips the controls in his space pod, firing the rocket engine on his lander to slow his descent to a moon. It's taken many attempts to get to this position, and all the practise has finally paid off. He lowers his landing gear, throttles the engine up, touches down gently... and the lander promptly falls over on its side, and the pod rolls down the hill to rest at the bottom of a crater. No matter, that's all par for the course in Kerbal Space Program.

It's still good right? (All pictures can be enlarged)

This isn't the first time I've written about KSP; there was a short piece on it as one of the first posts on the blog in 2013. I stopped playing KSP regularly after they added in the career mode to the alpha (October 2013), only taking a quick look at the asteroids in the April 2014 release. I didn't want to burn myself out on the game before it was actually released. Now it has been officially released and I've got to say, the game has really improved since the last time I played it.

The tech tree. Everything is unlocked from here.
When you first start up a game, you can now choose 3 different game types: sandbox, science mode, and career mode. Sandbox mode does exactly as advertised, allowing you to create unlimited rockets and aircraft with nothing locked away. It can be a little confusing being dropped into the game with so much to choose from, but for those of us who want to just mess around, sandbox is the place to be. Science mode is a slimmed down career mode, removing the need to manage money and reputation, but allowing you to progress through the tech tree at your own pace.

Career mode is essentially the story mode of the game, placing you in control of your very own space program. The goal is to explore the Kerbin system, a place that has 4 terrestrial planets, 1 gas giant, 2 dwarf planets, and 9 moons scattered around the various planets to explore. To do this, you launch rockets and fly planes, performing various science experiments to gain science points. These points can be used in the Research and Development facility to unlock various new parts that make exploring easier or unlock new experiments and ways to explore.

So many contracts, so little time.
Of course, nothing is free, so you have to manage the funds of your space program. Each part you put on a rocket has a cost associated, so keeping things simple and recovering as much of the rocket as possible is the best course if you find your program strapped for cash. However, even doing that can put your budget in the red. That's where the contract system comes in. Contracts are essentially goals for you to work toward, ranging from simple "test this part" goals to  complex "collect data from another planet" goals. Managing the reputation of your space program is important too. Killing the kerbals that man your ships or failing contracts makes your reputation take a hit, whereas completing contracts increases it. The higher your reputation, the better contracts you can get, giving you more money.

The release version gave us a whole host of added features and changes to the physics. Parts can overheat now, so ships require heat shields to safely come back down to Kerbin (the earth-like home planet of the kerbals), and getting too close to Kerbol (the sun of the system) will also cause parts to overheat. Survey scanners and mining drills allow you to exploit the ore found throughout the system to make fuel, allowing for the creation of refuelling bases out in space. Aerodynamics were also tweaked to be more realistic, with more streamlined designs actually flying faster and heating up slower. There are also now procedural fairings, allowing you to put a streamlined cover over the payload of a rocket to take advantage of the new aerodynamics.

This game has everything: Orbital mechanics, explosions, and more!

Unfortunately, at the time of writing, an update has caused some issues. Version 1.0.2 broke the aerodynamics in the game, making the air soupy and slowing down anything falling from orbit to the point where re-entry isn't as dangerous as it was previously. Overheating display bars also cause a memory leak, causing the used RAM to jump up into the 4gb range from around 2gb. Fortunately you can turn off these bars (hit F10), and the current aero doesn't really cause anything other than exposed batteries and solar panels to overheat to the point where they break. Update: Squad are aware of all these issues, and are working on them now. Also, when KSP is installed on a regular HDD the game takes an awful long time to load to the menu (I had it take around 4 minutes at one point), so I recommend installing it on an SSD to drop the load times down to around a minute.

Not shown, the GIANT rocket needed to get this to space.
All of the changes to Kerbal Space Program give it that finishing touch it needed to be a complete game. No longer just a physics sandbox, the game has direction now. My feelings for the game generally haven't changed. It's simple enough that anyone can built a basic rocket and launch it into the air, but complex enough that more experienced players can replicate entire space programs. Even failure in KSP is fun, for two reasons: you usually learn from it, and sometimes you get beautiful explosions. On the other hand, success in KSP leaves you feeling a sense of accomplishment that few games can. Even partial success situations like the one described at the beginning leave you grinning, and for me, an opportunity to plan the rescue mission for the stranded kerbal. I highly recommend it.

As always,


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