Technically this game isn’t one of the hundreds of unplayed titles in my Steam library. I picked up Space Engineers three years ago and I dabbled with it a bit before losing interest. At the time I thought it was an interesting idea, but it was too unfinished to really enjoy. It was roughly equivalent to the early alpha builds of Minecraft. It was a fun little system for creative building, but it wasn’t really a proper game yet. There was no sense of progression, no story, no end goal, or anything else to make it more than a really strange set of Legos.
It’s still being regularly updated, and so I thought it was time to give the game a second look. I’ve now spent four days with Space Engineers, and I honestly have no idea what the developers are up to. It doesn’t really feel all that much different from what I remember in 2014.
In Space Engineers, you play as an astronaut. You can mine for resources, refine the raw ore, assemble machine parts, and use the parts to build terrestrial bases, orbital stations, ground vehicles, spaceships, and various other craft for defense and resource acquisition. Building and using these constructions is really cool and is the main source of fun with the game.
Based on what I’ve seen so far, I’ve been assuming the developers are aiming for something like Kerbal Space Program or Factorio where the player begins with very primitive tools and gradually works their way up through some sort of tech tree. Or maybe like Minecraft, where progression is more about stepping through a dependency chain to access the end-game toys. There’s a “survival mode” in the game, and based on that description I’m expecting something like these other games.
Maybe that’s not their ultimate vision, but that’s the vibe I’m getting based on my time with the game and that’s the lens through which I’m judging it. If you want to tell me that Space Engineers is really all about ship-to-ship multiplayer combat and all the resource-gathering stuff is vestigial cruft from the early days of development, then fine. Maybe I’m playing the game wrong. Whatever. I played in the way that was most obvious to me and this is my reaction.
I tried to play in survival mode. I was kind of annoyed that every survival scenario began with you on an an already established base, since I wanted to “start from scratch” and work my way up to having a base. But instead the game always gives you a base, some ships, and all equipment. It’s like being dropped into the middle of a fully-stocked Minecraft fortress made by a stranger. What is there for me to do? Sure, I guess I can go off, find a free spot, and build my own stuff. But there’s nothing I need. If my only goal is to build creatively, then why wouldn’t I just play in creative mode where I can build freely? Right now survival mode is just an extraordinarily slow and cumbersome way to build.
The way the game is designed, you can’t have a progression from starting gear to full-fledged base. To make a simple cube – the most basic building block in the game – you need steel plates. To make steel plates you need an assembling machine. An assembling machine needs iron ingots from a refinery. Both devices need power, which requires either a reactor, or a solar panel and a battery. To build all of that stuff requires almost every resource in the game. It’s like a game of Minecraft where you can’t build yourself a shack until you’ve successfully harvested and processed iron, gold, coal, redstone, and diamond. But you can’t get that stuff unless you already have a working base! But if I already have a fully-stocked base then why am I trying to build a shack? It’s a game you can’t start playing until you’ve beaten it, so the developer starts you off in the end-game win state and then leaves it to you to figure out how to amuse yourself. Just… what?
The other problem is that in survival mode you’ve got inventory limits, and the inventory limits in this game are maddening. When you start a survival game you can choose if you want “Normal” inventory, a 3x expanded inventory, or the 10x expanded inventory. But Even with the inventory set to ten times the normal limit, I found myself making trips to the storage container several times a minute. It was like playing Minecraft with a three-slot inventory. It makes building very slow and awkward.
I anticipate someone will defend this on the basis of “realism”, but the game already has lots of compromises with realism. So why this? Why did this thing need to be realistic? With so much time schlepping materials around I feel less like a Space Engineer and more like a Space Stevedore.
Shamus, why don’t you just play in creative mode, since that’s obviously what you want?
That’s kinda my point. What is survival mode for? It’s not like there’s a lot of work required to stay alive when you’re surrounded with all these future toys. There’s no struggle to gain power or quest for stability. Survival is completely binary. You either have enough oxygen and you’re fine or you don’t and you’re dead. There’s no “barely getting by” state. Like I said, maybe the developers aren’t trying to make a Minecraft / Factorio kind of thing. I get that it’s unfinished, but you’d kind of expect the early version to hint at the intended design and give you a sense of what the gameplay loop will be. But right now I can’t tell what the game mode is all about or what it’s for.
I know it sounds like I’ve been really negative here. Sorry for ranting about an unfinished game mode for 1,000 words. To be clear, Space Engineers is NOT a terrible game. The devs are hard at work and the game has some really amazing technology behind it. I’m not whinging on about survival mode because it’s this awful thing that ruins the game or whatever. It’s just a really puzzling feature. The game has been in development for four years and is now in beta. You’d think things would be taking shape by this point. Even if Survival mode isn’t done, you’d think we’d have some kind of idea where they’re going with it. Is this it? Is this the intended experience? I don’t know, and I can’t help but wonder how this is going to evolve into a game with a sense of progression.
So let’s end by talking about…
The Good Stuff
Building ships is amazing. You can jump into a multiplayer server with friends, build gigantic battleships, and pit them against each other. The game runs simulations for physics, atmosphere, gravity, and electrical systems, so as your ship comes apart you’ve got depressurization, power loss, and debris flying around according to multiple overlapping fields of artificial gravity. Doing all of that in single-player is impressive enough, but the fact that it can also sustain these simulations over a network is amazing.
The building interface is really impressive. You can build some amazing stations and vehicles. Sure, it’s pretty complex by the standards of the genreIt takes a while to get a feel for rotating blocks in all three dimensions. but when you compare the complexity of the controls to the robustness of the output, it’s no contest. The sheer variety possible in these designs is stunning.
The same building interface handles ground vehicles, floating structures, freestanding structures, aircraft, and whatever else you can think to make. The game doesn’t require you to tell it what kind of craft you’re building, and it doesn’t have different rules for different things. All vehicle behavior is emergent based on physics.
The modding community is active and the game looks wonderful. If you just want to build creatively then there’s no reason not to get this. If you’re looking for something with more of a “game” type structure in terms of challenges to overcome and goals to achieve, then maybe it’s best to keep waiting.
Space Engineers is only available on Steam.
 It takes a while to get a feel for rotating blocks in all three dimensions.
The Best of 2017
My picks for what was important, awesome, or worth talking about in 2017.
The true story of three strange days in 1989, when the last months of my adolescence ran out and the first few sparks of adulthood appeared.
Good to be the King?
Which would you rather be: A king in the middle ages, or a lower-income laborer in the 21st century?
Silent Hill Origins
Here is a long look at a game that tries to live up to a big legacy and fails hilariously.
A programming project where I set out to make a Minecraft-style world so I can experiment with Octree data.