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.
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.