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Hardspace: Shipbreaker review: moreish sci-fi work sim sticks the landing

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Friends and loved ones will agree, I have big “background character” energy. If I lived in the Star Wars universe, I wouldn’t be a Jedi or a Sith inquisitor. I wouldn’t even be one of those rebels who wear the long funny bike helmets. There would be no “Liam: A Star Wars Story” premiering on Disney+. Instead, I'd be the guy who changes the bedding at a grungy BnB on Tatooine. I would spend my days just sort of vibing on the fringes of all the excitement, blissfully unaware of the very important adventures occurring in a galaxy very-very-close-actually.

Maybe this is why Hardspace: Shipbreaker appeals to me so much. As a cutter, a nameless employee of the LYNX Corporation, you’re about as important to this particular vision of the future as the lad who polishes the floors on the Death Star. You are a nobody. But Shipbreaker relishes in how much that still makes you somebody.

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Shipbreaking is a tough gig. Floating through zero gravity, it’s your job to strip apart derelict spacecraft, carefully processing their individual components to be recycled, reused or incinerated. You do this by systematically dismantling each ship piece by piece, removing brackets with your cutting tool before wrenching panels, canisters and chairs away with a gravity-defying grapple gun. It’s slow, methodical work with considerable risks. Fuel lines must be flushed. Cabins depressurised. Nuclear reactors contained. The phrase “measure twice, cut once” carries more weight when one stray cutting beam could decimate both you and your precious scrap in a fatal explosion.

But, despite the game’s trailers featuring more bangs than a Michael Bay flick, Shipbreaker is not an exciting game. Not if you’re playing it properly. It is - and I mean this in a positive way - dull. Deliciously dull. Purposefully mundane. Stuffed full of menial tasks that are hugely satisfying and deeply rewarding.

The loop is as follows: every day you load your bay with a fresh ship, approaching it like a sculptor examining a smooth block of marble. You float wordlessly around it, looking for key weak points, a way of cracking open this vessel like a big metal egg. The hiss of your cutting tool is followed by a satisfying pop as a bracket vanishes in a mist of heat, causing the attached panel to slowly float away from the larger structure. Then it’s time to sort out the valuables from the chaff. Tethers allow you to drag huge chunks of the ship’s hull into their designated processing areas automatically, while your grapple’s push function can quickly launch smaller components across your work area like you're an anti-gravity Gordon Freeman. Before long all you’re left with is a carcass, the bones of a long-dead beast picked clean by your sharpened tools.

It's intoxicating stuff. Repetition breeds familiarity, and before long you’re tearing apart craft twice as fast with the deft hands of an expert breaker. This feels like good honest work, despite its fantastical context. It helps that everything seems tactile and believable, each ship put together in such a way that appears deliberate and functional. These hulking wrecks are scratched, burned and bruised, but it’s easy to imagine them in their prime, soaring through the great unknown. It’s quite the feat.

Shipbreaking isn’t always relaxing, however. Career mode limits your scrapping sessions to 15 minutes, which layers on the pressure a touch - especially when you’re getting started. Movement is also purposefully floaty, your ability to manoeuvre across all axes hampered by your bulky spacesuit and inaccurate thrusters. It’s common to find yourself slamming into the side of a wreck like a drunk Superman after accidentally overshooting your intended mark. It’s a decision that makes sense in context, but it certainly won’t be for everyone. Even I, a self-proclaimed Shipbreaker-liker, found myself becoming frustrated by its quirks at least once or twice per play session.

It doesn’t really help that oxygen and fuel levels must also be kept in mind, lest you become so fixated in your work that you run out of air. Thankfully you can refresh your supplies by purchasing top-ups from a Lynx vending machine in your work area.

Ah yes. Lynx. Your corporate overlords who, in true sci-fi fashion, hold you captive via an extortionate amount of debt that no cutter could ever hope to pay off. Shipbreaker's depiction of a future driven by capitalist ideals is a touch tropey, but it’s executed with a dry wit that keeps things interesting. For instance, the game starts with a chipper robotic voice happily informing you that as part of the genetic sequencing process that grants you eternal life through cloning, your current body must first be terminated. It’s right there in a sub-section of your contract, silly! Did you not spot that part? Woopsy doopsy! Bye bye!

As you progress through the ranks, a surprisingly pertinent tale of unionisation and workers' rights unfolds, told mainly via conversations between your fellow shipbreakers. The conclusion to Shipbreaker’s storyline is the big-ticket feature of the game’s 1.0 release (as well as the ability to retain your current craft in-between game sessions, which is a welcome addition). I didn’t find these sporadic interruptions hugely essential, though they do serve as a welcome distraction from your day-to-day workload. Everyone is well realised and likeable, which certainly helps.

Early on, you're subscribed to a secret newsletter about the benefits of unionisation. Cutters are forced into a debt of over $1bn for the privilege of being hired, making the game's staunch stance on worker's rights particularly potent (you can read more about it in Edwin Evans-Thirlwell's interview feature).

Like you, they are nobodies. “Workers”, in the broadest most othering sense of the word. Folks who are struggling to survive in a world that is seemingly thriving, except not in a way that benefits them. Indeed, take a moment in-between slicing aluminium panels to glance up and you’ll be treated to a dazzling spectacle. Enormous freighters pass slowly through the inky void. A sparkling machine of some kind hangs eerily still in the distance. What is its purpose? The question remains unanswered. It’s none of your concern, after all. Some wrecks do contain audio logs, data drives and other subtle narrative tools that go some way to fill in the gaps, but the world of Shipbreaker remains largely unexplained.

What a thrill, to exist on the sidelines. To look longingly out towards the stars and wonder what’s going on beyond your little corner of this expansive universe. To understand a society purely through its waste products. Hardspace: Shipbreaker is a truly marvellous thing to spend time within.

I quite like being a background character, it turns out. Being the hero is overrated. If Shipbreaker has taught me anything it’s that the satisfaction of a hard day's work beats saving the universe every single time.

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