Hands On With Space Engineers

By Craig Pearson on October 25th, 2013 at 5:00 pm.

I am a friendly ship.
There’s not a lot to do in Space Engineers, but this is the first Early Access game I’ve played in a while that works, and, well, isn’t completely broken. In fact, it’s given me a bit of hope: the content is light, and it has crashed a few times, but it doesn’t feel like a game being held together by good intentions and hope. It’s the kind of offering you might pay for. And it’s a surprisingly slick demonstration of building and destruction. In space.

Space Engineers from the developers of (and is already better than) Miner Wars 2081, which was good engine in search of a good game designer. It’s a lot like a shinier Star Made: you start as a little engineer standing on a space platform that’s hooked up to an asteroid. There’s no goal (currently) but to build things and smash them.

Building is ridiculously simple, and can be done either on the platform or floating in space. I clicked on the jetpack on left the platform’s gravity, taking myself to the middle of nowhere to make something clunky and awful. I am not a good builder, but the component driven design of Space Engineers doesn’t hold that against me. To begin with, I brought up the building menu and selected a single block that the rest of the ship will form around. The choice of three blocks–small ship, large ship, and station–will inform the rest of the blocks what sort of ship you’re building, and they’ll scale accordingly.

Blocks are dragged from the inventory to the toolbar, so I grabbed some basic armour blocks (ignoring the slanted ones because I’m building something purely functional), a cockpit, thrusters, a reactor, landing legs, a gyroscope, and a gravity unit. Sandbox mode means I have unlimited resources. In this case, I just followed this tutorial from the developer with a few of my own modifications.

I dropped the small ship seed block into space and start clamping bits onto it. On one side I placed the cockpit, and the other I started building a framework for thrusters to connect to. Placing and wiping blocks can be done one mouse-click at a time, or holding CTRL will drag out a line of connected blocks. I did that on each side of the ship, creating two prongs either side of the cockpit to fit thrusters to. Thrusters need power, but the whole ship will act as a conduit, so I didn’t need to worry about connecting them directly to a power source. It’s the same for the cockpit, gravity, unit, weapons, etc: as long as they’re connected to a ship that has a reactor, and as long as you have enough power, everything will work. Thank the baby Jesus for that, because I am no engineer.

But I had a working spaceship in minutes: a floating, ugly, monster that moved in all directions (when I added thrusters and then remembered to add a gyroscope). It wasn’t as ugly as I’d imagined it would be, though. It hides its blockiness pretty well: everything smooths over when placed together, so it’s not so obvious that the ships are constructed from individual components That’s particularly noticeable on the inside of the bigger ships: I switched over to first-person mode there were no visible seams.

I didn't do it

Thankfully there are a few pre-fab ships dotted around the spawn area, and one is attached to the spawn platform: a red hulk that has interior space for the player to walk around. But It wasn’t mine, so I made my some modifications. First up, I wanted the back of the ship, which was an open sort of cargo bay, to be the front of the ship. The current cockpit area shared a space with a massive reactor and was enclosed, which is no fun whatsoever. So I swapped them, and it was as easy as deleting the cockpit module and then placing one at the other end of the ship. I am really impressed that you can change the ship’s orientation by moving a single block. With that done, I filled in the back of the open bay, so the rest of the ship was cut off from me. I have my reasons.

And here they are. The coolest thing about Space Engineers is the destruction. Crashing ships into things is wonderful: they bend, bust, split and contort. It’s incredibly satisfying. But when you’re in control of the bigger ship, you don’t get the cockpit view of the smaller vessels, you just get a third person view. That’s fun, but I also wanted to see a crash from inside the ship. My plan brilliant in its simplicity: I’d speed towards another ship that was floating around the spawn and cut power. I needed to do that to retain momentum when I cut away from the cockpit, otherwise automatic systems would slow the ship down. But doing so (at this point, I’ve since learned that pressing ‘K’ will bring up a list of individual ship components to toggle) would cut off the gravity, and my dude would drift back down the ship. I’d miss the effect I was aiming for. So I built a wall and hoped it would keep me in place.

Nothing could go wrong. To make sure, I gingerly manoeuvred the rouge giant so it was a couple of metres away from a free-floating blue ship. Then I backed off. I was careful to not nudge the mouse at this point, as I didn’t want to miss and dart off into the void, pinned to a spaceship with no hope of stopping it. That would not make me happy.

But the crash did. Surprisingly for one of my plans, it went swimmingly. So well that I recorded it.

After backing up like a long-jumper, I hit the thrusters and watched my speed build. When it hit about 40m/s, I cut the power and disconnected from the cockpit. Flicking to first person I watched, pushed against the wall, as the ship swam closer. I felt like a casual observer in a shark’s mouth. The smash nearly ripped the target ship in two (and in another playthrough it did), while my now squashed and broken vessel scudded to the side and started rotating and flying off. I was nudged out the side of the cargo bay, left to float alone as it drifted off. The damage on the collision-side was a huge dent and a few ripped off sidings, and though the blue ship came off worse, I could still walk around inside.

But my big red beast was tumbling off. I watched it for a bit, remembering the good times and the bad times, and then let it go.

I can’t say what sort of future Space Engineers has, and to be honest after Miner Wars I’m hope they build an emergent sandbox and avoid missions corralling what they have. The roadmap here suggests more systems and multiplayer, and the single scenario they’ve listed is based on survival and mining. It’s really encouraging.

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45 Comments »

  1. Lord Custard Smingleigh says:

    And LO, was the voice of Pearson heard throughout the land.

  2. Shodex says:

    I hate to be “that guy”, but for somebody in space the jump is waaay too short. It’s a miracle he lands at all, really.

  3. GamesInquirer says:

    Personally I had an unpleasant experience. I think it’s too basic and problematic still (it froze my whole PC one time), people expecting an actual game should probably wait a year. I didn’t even really like the ship controls. I also wonder what it means for the Miner Wars MMO that they essentially promised to early buyers of the existing Miner Wars, or if it will also be abandoned when they’re ready for their dream space game, which this isn’t and only represents another phase on the way there, like Miner Wars.

    Since you probably played more, where do you end up falling if you don’t enable the jetpack? Earth?

    On the other hand I had a great experience with the demo of the early version of NeonXSZ, a sort-of-space-combat game, that to me felt slick and quite complete already.

    It doesn’t take place in open space, it’s all indoors with tunnels and larger rooms, yet is still pretty cool as it borrows from Descent, Quake and Diabol (heh) to offer frantic action with some Newtonian-ish flight physics in a procedurally generated world where a handful of factions duke it out and leave precious upgrade loot behind (of which there’s a lot).

    Its only downside is perhaps the lesser ship models but it’s an indie game and you don’t see them up close that much, while you can customize them to your liking. The overall visuals are stylish enough and really clean and sharp in person, they can also be customized with a handful of shader/color themes. The cockpit is quite neat and despite its embedded second screen constantly showing what’s behind you or the current target, the game runs silky smooth on a modest PC.

    The free demo is only 80MB (I think you can unlock the full alpha within so perhaps the whole thing is that tiny) so there’s really no excuse to avoid trying it.

    http://www.tinyurl.com/neonxsz

    • Craig Pearson says:

      Yeah, the falling is odd. Basically you fall for a bit then stop falling and float.

      • stoner says:

        On the ship and/or platform, there is a Gravity Generator that you install. That Generator has a sphere of influence. You “fall” in the direction of gravity until you’re out of the SOI. Then, you float. You determine the direction of gravity when you position the Generator.

    • gagemgaming says:

      The falling is part of a realistic physics engine that copy’s actual space in witch you fall slowly getting faster until you reach the speed of light and then you slow down as you hit asteroids set out around the sandbox

  4. Dozer says:

    Amazing. I’ll order this as soon as I get out of bed!

    It’s weird actually. 3am, I’m reading “Microserfs”, a novel about ex-Microsoft employees in a crazy startup company in 1993. The product they’re working on is a reimplementation of Lego. This kind of this is exactly similar to the concept in the book.

  5. RaoulDuke says:

    I don’t want to poo in your coffee Craig but I don’t understand why these physics are so impressive, have there not been many/any other space-based games with smashy-bashy physics like these?

    I’m genuinely curious, its not like it splits into a thousand [1000] or even ten [10] different bits like in say, flatout when the car panels fall off and get battered.

    Is it purely the space factor?

    • Craig Pearson says:

      It was all bosh and gnyarr! That was about the fifth or six take, and each time it tore and ripped in interesting ways (including one that did bash into loads of pieces). And don’t forget that the ship is completely reconfigurable in a Minecrafty way, so it’s not like Flat Out where everything is mostly pre-built.

      • RaoulDuke says:

        Ah right, that sounds more like it, I think all the vids I’ve seen have been like that one, just bad luck on my part, I crave flying space pieces.

        On a [slightly] more serious note, are we Scots really that hard to understand? Its all in the perspective I guess.

        “Hellooooooooo! I’m Craigy McPearson and I cannae get enuff a’these space booftings! Och aye the noo!”

        Is that how we sound to ‘glanders and ‘merkins?

  6. JiminyJickers says:

    I’m definitely enjoying the game and cannot wait for the extra features. Runs like a charm without any problems on my laptop.

    Sorry to hear some people are having problems with it, but hopefully that will get fixed soon.

  7. chiablo says:

    “isn’t completely broken”
    “has crashed a few times”

    Shouldn’t a game that crashes be considered broken?

  8. Aerothorn says:

    Can someone clue me in on why Miners 2081 is/isn’t worth playing? Was there a Wot I Think? I never saw one.

  9. TechnicalBen says:

    This game has so much potential:
    http://youtu.be/vg8fOGoNhxA

    I hope the MW problems are sorted through this games road map. Only because it’s nice to see people improve, and the community really seemed to have taken it hard. I’ve never seen so many get that way over a game, was it as expensive as Planetary Annihilation KS? Because I’ve only paid for £15/£7 Alphas and pre-orders, so any upsets (Blockade Runner, Kenetic Void, both being feature poor or progression slow) have been understandably risky (pre-orders and paid alpha).

    I don’t expect more from a publisher than the current product. Sadly, the Dev team made the mistake of offering something they could not deliver in the first place (MMO), and I hope they improve that situation some way. :/

    • Max Planck says:

      Not only did they offer it (the mmo), they also took money for it. Money they refuse to give back. This is called stealing where I live.
      I have no idea why RPS continue to give these crooks free advertisement.

      • TechnicalBen says:

        Can you point to where this is confirmed? Where did they take money for pre-orders of the MMO?

        PS, I’m no fan, I’ve not read it, but google provides this thread:
        http://www.minerwars.com/ForumTopic.aspx?id=3274

        So, SE seems to be the “experiment/code base” to add to the MW that would make it MMO compatible. Is this the right way to proceed? I don’t know, I’m not a MW/MMO customer. Is this delay understandable or unfair? It’s down to the MW customer to decide.

        Hope that helps.

  10. Beelzebud says:

    So fill me in here, because I’m not an expert in every company using crowdfunding.

    Did these guys already take money for a game, and then not finish it before moving on to the next “project”? It sure seems that way. Why should anyone have any confidence that this game will be completed?

    • airmikee99 says:

      Miner Wars wasn’t an unfinished game, some people just didn’t like it. It got fairly mixed reviews, but I don’t think Keen was intentionally screwing people over, like happened recently with Dark Matter.

      • wu wei says:

        Promising features to generate alpha sales, then splitting half of those features off into a yet-to-be-delivered MMO and expecting people to pay for them again is pretty much my definition of intentional screwing over.

        • airmikee99 says:

          If you’re right, that’s despicable, but so far it’s nothing more than an internet rumor. I’ve seen that claim made quite a few times, yet no one can back it up with a source.

          Which features were promised in Miner Wars 2081 that did not make it into the game and have been confirmed as being in the MMO?

          • wu wei says:

            Longer post with links is awaiting moderation, but the tl;dr answer is: the MMO itself was promised to be part of the original when they first started selling alpha access. The sandbox was also stressed as being a primary focus but is now dismissed by Rosa as being “1%” of the actual game, despite it still being used to advertise MW2081 on their site.

          • sterfield says:

            He’s right.

            Here’s an extract of an old email sent by Minewars website about the MMO pre-order :

            Miner Wars MMO is a massive multi-player online version of the single-player (and cooperative multiplayer) Miner Wars 2081. Encounter thousands of players online!

            We have decided to start with the pre-sales to see how big the interest of the players in the MMO version is. For this reason, pre-sales are given for only 19.99 USD with no other monthly subscription fees. This means that you pay 19.99 USD, thus support the developers and once the MMO comes out (Q4 2012), you can play the game for at least 2 years (guaranteed) without any subscription fees.
            Some of our goals and reasons with pre-selling the MMO:

            To determine peoples’ interest in the MMO compared to single/co-op. We may start focusing on the MMO development sooner, so fans will also receive MMO pre-alpha sooner.
            To support the developers (funds would enable us to hire a larger team, make the game earlier and better).
            To shape how the MMO will look like (not all design details are set in stone) with the help and feedback from our community of gamers.
            To generate more interest from our investors to invest additional money in to the MMO.
            And to let you save some money with the pre-sale discount price!

            So yes, they were taking money for the MMO aspect of Miner Wars 2081 and yes, this aspect of the game completely disappear.

          • Max Planck says:

            The mmo was a separate project, not a part of MW 2081. The public beta of the mmo was supposed to have released in Q4 2012, and the full game in Q4 2013. By Q4 2012 (coincidence?) the devs completely stopped talking about the mmo and refused to answer any questions regarding it. If people persisted with the questions, they were blocked from posting.
            The silence wasn’t broken untill recently, when the mmo was announced to be on hold indefinitely. No apology for the lack of communication either. They’ll keep the preorder money though, and god bless.
            This is no ‘internet rumour’, this is fact.

          • wu wei says:

            Since it’s still in moderation, here’s the link to their early site:

            http://web.archive.org/web/20100430190217/http://www.minerwars.com/?

            Miner Wars is a 6DOF underground and space shooter played in a fully destructible environment and is a combination of single player story game and MMO.

            That is what I paid for. It was 6+ months later that it turned into two titles.

    • dE says:

      They’ve got this dream project of a Miner Wars MMO. This is currently work in progress. They’re also releasing spinoffs from that, using the tech they’ve developed so far. For example Miner Wars 2081 or Miner Wars Arena. Or now Space Engineers. I suppose this is to finance and fund their MMO.
      It was and is possible to pre-order the MMO. Pre-ordering this doesn’t mean you’d get the spinoffs for free. However it probably did annoy folks that Miner Wars 2081 was released, the Single Player and Coop Version of the game, while there were no real news about the MMO. News about the MMO in general are a bit sparse.

      So… why should you have confidence? Well, why would you? In my books, if a game in a pre-release state, deducated from previews, reading up on it and seeing let’s plays, can’t entertain me enough to justify my purchase, no promises of future features are going to sway my opinion.

      /edit:
      There’s also a lot of confusion about names. They seem to want to establish Miner Wars as a brand, but then call all of their products Miner Wars at points.

      • Max Planck says:

        It is no longer possible to preorder the mmo. The public beta Q4 2012 release date is still listed in their FAQ though.

    • Bull0 says:

      It’s worth reading Eurogamer’s review. Promised features like Multiplayer were underdelivered. It isn’t as simple as people “just not liking it”, really.

      http://www.eurogamer.net/articles/2013-01-07-miner-wars-2081-review

      Keen appear to be deleting threads that mention any of this in the Steam forums.

  11. KDR_11k says:

    Yes, MW was an engine in search of a game design but I don’t think this’ll be anything else either. What good is a custom ship if there’s nothing to use it on?

  12. Chicago Ted says:

    Wait, you’re speaking in that video? I can barely hear you

    • SuicideKing says:

      Yeah it’s a bit low, the volume. I had to switch my audio output to “headphone” and turn the headphone’s volume all the way up.

      To be fair, that always happens to me when i record a game vid so…

  13. jonahcutter says:

    Is there anything to do in the game besides building and crashing ships into each other?

  14. OscarWilde1854 says:

    Aaannnd your articles shall forever sound out in my head in a burr of Scottish fabulous-ness… And my appreciation for all that is RPS has, once again, grown exponentially…

  15. SuicideKing says:

    Isn’t the physics a bit bad, though? I mean, the ship you rammed barely budged, while yours went flying off like it had it a solid wall (not a floating wall in space).

    I mean, newton’s third law and all that.

    • TechnicalBen says:

      The ship he rammed had it’s engines on, which auto stabilize (and actually to the extent of the thrust per engine) when left on. If you break off the engine, or turn them off (power loss too) then the ship will keep coasting. It you watch, the ships tend to avoid crashing unless you turn off the power. Which is helpful for gameplay later on, but means crashes will happen in certain situations (fights!). :)

  16. hjeer56 says:

    This is fantastic. Google is paying 80$ per hour! Just work for few hours & spend more time with friends and family. Yesterday I bought a top of the range Lancia after having made $9458 this month . Its the most-financialy rewarding I’ve had. It sounds unbelievable but you wont forgive yourself if you don’t check it out http://goo.gl/w7ceUX

  17. Airsoft Gamer says:

    I’m really excited to get this game!
    But I have a question if anyone could answer.
    I’m currently building a gaming computer, and I might wait to buy it off steam on there. But if I were to do it on this computer would there be a way to transfer it to my new one?

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