Each week Marsh Davies battles the overwhelming urge to flee, struggles through an Early Access game, and comes back with any stories he can find inside. But this week he's on holiday, and so in his stead Brendan Caldwell has played Interstellar Rift, a multiplayer starship construction sim.
I spawn on an impossibly advanced spacecraft. We are floating among asteroids and surrounded by a flotilla of other impossibly advanced spacecraft. The computer terminals flicker on and off as I walk past, chirruping for attention. The doors part with a welcoming breeze of pressurised air. The ship’s corridors shine with the glow of futuristic pride. Truly, this is a magnificent time to be alive. A time of scientific glory, a time in which anything and everything is possible.
Hey. This vending machine is broken.
Interstellar Rift is a game about making spaceships and mining asteroids. But it is also a game about stacking boxes and trying to figure out why you are suddenly asphyxiating. So there’s some variety. It falls somewhere within Starmade or Space Engineers’ remit of building big, mad space-things and then flying those space-things around with a desperately understaffed crew of fellow players. It’s rather ‘light’ on other planned features at the minute (combat, trading, functional vending machines). But that is what comes of being in the earliest of early access. And there is, thanks to its first-person wandering and delightful machinery, a lot of sweetness to it.
The first moments of the game are almost eerie. The ships have that clean Star Trek aesthetic, shiny chromatic surfaces rather than the rough-and-tumble of metal grates. But everywhere I go it is creepily empty. On the bridge of the ‘starter station’ I instinctively avoid a vent on the ceiling. A hangover from too much Alien: Isolation. I continue to look around. Computers, yes. Crew quarters, I see. But no crew, or other players. Aha, I think, as I discover the toilets. The doors to the toilet cubicles do not open. But luckily you can pass right through the door, like some kind of horrible toilet phantom.
Once I realised you can use the teleporter to get from one ship to any other within range, I hopped out and started exploring. I head to a ship called ‘miningstation’ where I find a bar with a jukebox playing light jazz. But also: the mineral production plants. Here you can use the computer terminals in one room to teleport asteroids aboard and slice them into boxes of copper and iron ore (or water if they are an ice asteroid). From there you haul the boxes into the next room and dump them into a hopper, where you can process the ore into delicious metal.
I spend a good while figuring out how to do this, even though the stores of the room are already filled with boxes of materials (mined by who? where is everyone?). You can only carry a limited number of boxes and the warehouse was already full to the brim, so for a while I end up playing a rubbish first-person version of a Sokoban game. Eventually, I create enough copper and iron for what I’ll need. I think.
Up in a control room, above the bar, you can design and construct a ship from another type of terminal. It’s worth stopping here to say that the computer screens are lovely, almost ‘touchable’. The kind that you don’t ‘zoom into’ like in most games but navigate them while retaining your first-person perspective all the time. I love these types of screens and sci-fi games are where they belong. Good work, Interstellar Rift.
Anyhow, I design my ship. An amorphous hunk of disordered cubic metal, cursed with submarine-like corridors and an engine room with all the essential machinery jammed into the same twenty metres. I add some engines to the back, thrusters all over the outside and finish off with some decorative spikes. Spikes are important. People don’t mess with you if you’ve got spikes.
I christen my new spaceship the ‘Stroppy Garcia’ and set off to find a teleporter, so I can finally board him and go for a spin. I hop in the teleporter. Light envelopes me and dumps me into the bowels of my new ship.
Oh my god. Yuck. I have somehow painted half of the teleporter room dark red and left the other half garish grey. I try to leave the room but the panel on the door reads “low power” and refuses to open. Suddenly I am addressed by my computer. I am informed I am standing in what is called a “low oxygen environment”. I see. My O2 levels are dropping steadily. I bang on the door a few more times. No luck.
I scramble quickly back to the teleporter. Please, PLEASE, let there be enough power to get out. Lucky for me, there is. The light takes me and I pop back to the mining station, a little rattled but basically okay. I fiddle with my ship’s design, adding some solar panels and linking them to the doors and teleporter, then I head back. This time the teleporter room door does what it’s told, like a toddler suspending its tantrum, but only so it can catch its breath. The rest of the ship is wonky as hell. There are constant and random power failures. Doors lock and unlock. There are no lights in the stairwell. The vents intermittently stop pumping oxygen, as if they are entitled to a 15 second lunch break every minute. And the cockpit. Power is so low and badly distributed on the Stroppy Garcia that the pilot can’t move the ship without asking somebody else for a push.
I decide to teleport among some of the other players’ ships and see if anyone will donate some Hydrogen to me for engine fuel. The first ship, called the Mk III, looks promising. There are working lights on board! Fancy bedrooms! Amenable doors! It’s a wonderful ship but there’s nobody home and no materials on board that I can, er, borrow.
The next ship I try is called ‘glebminer’. When I arrive I am immediately assaulted with blinding lights, annoying electro music and a severe lack of oxygen. It’s horrible here.
‘New Eden’ is next on my list. A giant Easter Island head statue greets me as I drop in, which is both impressive and creepy, considering how Mary Celeste everything has been so far. Walking around New Eden’s crimson corridors I become more and more in awe of the ship. Huge cargo bays (all sadly empty), a massive engine room with Hydrogen generators stretching into the distance like a line of igloos. And a room on the uppermost deck with two huge observation domes. I am both fearful and inspired by this gargantuan vessel. If they can power this place, I can get Garcia working.
I head back to the mining station and decide to make my own hydrogen fuel. I salvage the Stroppy Garcia for scrap and begin collecting more ore and water for his resurrection. While I am processing asteroid water into hydrogen and oxygen, I catch sight of a name on board. ‘The Hydro Goat’. A human! I head up to the control room to see if they want to chat. But Goat just stands there, back turned, comatose and upright. The jazz from the bar’s jukebox filters through the walls.
I give up on this player and go back to gathering resources and tweaking Garcia’s design. I add even more solar panels and group different devices together. I sort life support and doors into one essential group, and the cockpit and engines into others. I install a fuse box without knowing exactly how it works. I commission some bigger spikes.
Just as I’m finishing off, I see another player running around, stacking boxes and dumping resources into the ship’s belly. The player is called ‘Nebula’. Happy days, a friend! But then a shiver of panic goes through me. What if Nebula uses MY resources? I’ve just been taking whatever I need from these piles. What if Nebula does the same to me? To MY piles? I quickly finish what I’m doing and run to the control room. I build the new Stroppy Garcia and teleport aboard. Goodbye, sucker! Thanks for all the iron.
I head down to the engine room of the Garcia and dump hydrogen into the tank. I put some oxygen into the life support systems. I open the fuse box casing and nod as if I understand what it does. All systems are functioning perfectly. Time to head for the cockpit and finally fly this baby.
In the pilot’s seat I flicker through the engines, deactivating two of them to begin with, just to see if that saves on fuel. I hit the forward controls, anticipating a flash of speed, a fight with the thrusters, a surge of adrenaline. The space pilot’s life! But the ship stutters. I activate the other two engines. We start to crawl forward. I am furious. We are going about as fast as an old man in a kayak. I hover over the mining station, looking into it’s domes, where little Nebula is probably still working away, going back and forth, filling the hoppers, emptying the stores, playing space age Sokoban. But I wonder, as I turn and Garcia hobbles away like a dying insect, which of us is the real idiot.
All in all, Interstellar Rift and I got on well. It is the kind of game that rewards imagination and creativity. I am yet to play its most obvious recent rival, Starmade but it still gave me some warmth to finally get my ship going. One downside for the present: it felt like I had seen much of what was possible very quickly. If it were any more bare bones it would be in a natural history museum. Yet the development plan - which includes weapons, player trading, multiple star systems, first-person fighting and ship-on-ship combat - looks promising. I’m looking forward to seeing it, once the vending machines are fixed up.
Interstellar Rift is available on Steam for £10.99. I played version 0.1.0c from June 30th. Marsh Davies and his alt-texts will return next Monday.