Nothing surprises me.
The procedurally-generated, world-building, space-sim multiplayer sandbox genre has gotten a little out of control on Steam Early Access. It’s like a great swarm of developers looked to something abstract and inherently unwieldy in an effort to bring it down to Earth and let players dissect it as they please. While some of these titles have incredible fan support and extremely passionate developers, launching one of these games can be an ordeal unto itself, and keeping things organized and intuitive ultimately winds up being a challenge.
Still, if you measure each project by its self-satisfying excitement and the breadth of its reach, you’ll find a lot to love in the sheer determination some developers have in throwing the kitchen sink at players. Look to Steam Early Access title Space Engineers and you’ll find exactly that. With servers already filling up, there will be no shortage of unique, splintering worlds that continue to differentiate themselves, driven only by the player’s own imagination and ability to wrestle with controls.
Space Engineers started in 2002 when developer Marek Rosa wanted to provide players with an outer-space sandbox that could support “dynamic structures in a grid-like environment, with realistic physics and realistic volumetricity.” If that sounds like a mouthful, it’s because the design quickly became complex. The game uses real-world science and NASA technology as a basis for its worlds, and if you’re not careful, you could jetpack yourself far off into empty space and not even Alfonso Cuaron can bring you back.
You can equip several different tools and items as you explore rocks floating in space. You’ll used the WASD keys to move forward, backward, left, and right, but inertial dampening devices will allow you to turn off the momentum that might catapult you too far one way or another. In all honesty, struggling with this system of movement proved to be the most frustrating thing in my brief hands-on time, second only to having little to no clue as to where I was supposed to go or what I was supposed to do.
Space Engineers presents the truest sandbox experience I’ve ever set foot in, but it’s up to you and your friends to make it interesting and entertaining. You can focus on construction or combat. You can blow up asteroids or fly your ship around trying to hit fellow explorers like little space bugs. You can set a bomb on someone else’s ship. You can play with computers or add to the game by building new worlds for the Steam Workshop platform.
Space Engineers might have a long road of development ahead, but the emphasis on freedom is generally liberating if you can accept the responsibility that comes with it. If you want to be a jerk to others on a server, prepare for consequences. If you want to look for a team to build something exciting, that can happen too, but the most important element I can stress is that it takes time and dedication to get anything out of Space Engineers.
However, don’t expect to hop online for 15 minutes in between matches of Counter-Strike. The developers themselves admit that players will likely skirt around combat to focus on creating war machines that do battle for them: “Space Engineers shouldn’t be about troops; it should be about the machinery you build.” As such, it’s no surprise that “everything in the game is subject to change.” In a way, that’s perfect for the Early Access model, given that players have every opportunity to help shape the experience and drive development going forward.
You can download and play Space Engineers right now via Steam. The title costs $19.99 and the developers also offer a 4-pack for you and your friends at $59.99.