Get Spaced!

My latest obsession is Space Engineers from the makers of Miner Wars 2081.

 

SE brings the survival crafting genre to space and though still in alpha is available on Steam already. I have been eying it for some time and recently picked it up on sale at what turned out to be just the right time. Three updates in the last two weeks have added a great deal of content to the game including a fully developed (if still alpha stage) component and object construction system. I’ve already put forty hours into the game in the past couple of weeks and have gone straight to my PC several times after work to go back to welding plates together. It’s work that at first glance seems tedious, but turns out to be very satisfying and relaxing.

I like this genre (obviously) and besides SE have put a lot of time into Don’t Starve, though have never cared for Minecraft, which I find stylistically unappealing and difficult to manage due to colorblindness. For someone with eyes like mine, textures are very important and simple color palette swaps on otherwise identical material tiles just leave me trying to mine all the wrong things at all the wrong times. So far this has not been too much of a problem in SE, although there are times when I find myself cursing the low level of light produced by both my suit and ships equipped with spotlights while inside or on the dark side of asteroids.

Getting lost can have serious consequences in survival mode, so you need to get a beacon up before you go flying off after another asteroid or ship. This little construct is technically a small ship, which made the material cost of the beacon much lower than if I had attached a station grade beacon to the platform itself.
Getting lost can have serious consequences in survival mode, so you need to get a beacon up before you go flying off after another asteroid or ship. This little construct is technically a small ship, which made the material cost of the beacon much lower than if I had attached a station grade beacon to the platform itself.

Space Engineers has just recently added the threat of indiscriminate meteors but is otherwise devoid of any antagonists save for the environment itself. There are no monsters attacking you, but in survival mode your suit power is limited and consumed by all jet pack and work actions. You’ll need to keep either a med bay or cockpit seat powered and available in order to charge back up every few minutes (cockpits keep you fully juiced up while inside any powered ship). Aside from that, the only survival challenge is not slamming yourself into the side of whatever you are jetpacking or piloting towards, something I discovered the hard way.

Your Engineer

All players are engineers, though you can build weapons and fight with other players if you are into that sort of thing but as pointed out by the developers Space Engineers is not “about troops…it should be about the machinery you build.” When loading maps, pithy quotes from engineers, technologists, and philosophers are displayed demonstrating the esoteric aspect of the seemingly mundane acts of building, maintaining, mining, and processing ore. Food, water, and oxygen are not concerns as your suit provides all the sustaining life support you need so long as it has power.

You can build interior spaces, however they are not pressurized and you are still always in your suit. Nevertheless, it still seemed like one of the first things I should build were some modest astronaut accommodations.
You can build interior spaces, however they are not pressurized and you are still always in your suit. Nevertheless, it still seemed like one of the first things I should build were some modest astronaut accommodations.

The Environment

Maps are launched from a map creation panel much like a multiplayer FPS or RTS in which you choose the size of the environment and the number of mineral rich asteroids it will contain. The games take place in relatively small pockets of space and you can actually get quite far with your jetpack alone, just make sure there is a recharge at your target!

A recent update added random cargo ships that can be toggled on during map creation. Automated transports periodically travel through your sector and if you’re feeling thiefly you can commandeer these for your own use. At present there seems to be no risk in this but the object ownership mechanics are not yet in place, so I would imagine that in the future hijacking these shipments will have consequences.

Your Creations

Lastly and most importantly are your creations. Structures are classed as small ships, large ships, and immobile stations. The size of the structure determines the material cost of components attached to it. The actual construction needs vary depending on the current game mode, Creative or Survival.

My life’s work, a mining ship that tears through iron and nickel ore. The recently implemented conveyor objects allowed me to pipe all of the ore directly into a cargo container which can be emptied into a collection funnel above my refiners. Neato!
My life’s work, a mining ship that tears through iron and nickel ore. The recently implemented conveyor objects allowed me to pipe all of the ore directly into a cargo container which can be emptied into a collection funnel above my refineries. Neato!

Creative Mode is a pure sandbox and until recently was the only available game type. You can choose any component type and simply point and click to paint the component into the spatial grid. With only creative mode available for many months, most players have been building bigger and bigger star ships with nearly no practical application in the game (yet). A browse through the Steam Workshop will turn up a number of great builds from purely original dreadnaughts to builds of the Millennium Falcon.

The recently added Survival Mode introduced actual material requirements to the game finally gives mining a reason to exist. Players must first have basic components like steel plate in their inventory to paint the framework of an item into space and then weld all components to the frame until complete. Components are built in an assembler (an extremely versatile descendant of the 3D printer) into which you place ingots of materials. Ingots are produced by refineries, into which you place raw ore mined from asteroids. Alternatively, you can scrap existing ships and recover components to build into the new items. At present, there is no material loss when breaking down items (I hope it stays this way).

Your welding torch and grinder allow you to wax on and wax off, respectively.
Your welding torch and grinder allow you to wax on and wax off, respectively.

I’ve spent most of my time in the last couple of weeks in a survival scenario that begins with a massive ship crashed into an asteroid and nothing else. The ship is powered and mobile, but I have been cannibalizing it to build a platform and smaller, more useful ships.

So much steel recovered and yet so much left on this hulk. The amount of materials that go into ships of this size is not really clear until you get into survival mode and start trying to manage your logistics
So much steel recovered and yet so much left on this hulk. The amount of materials that go into ships of this size is not really clear until you get into survival mode and start trying to manage your logistics

After creative mode, survival mode seems a bit tedious at first since one cannot simply point and click an enormous ship into existence. The flip side however is that the things your build are immensely more satisfying. I’ve slowly built myself a very functional mining ship over the last week investing probably ten hours or so into something that could have been built in half an hour in creative mode. As any player of a survival crafting game can tell you, this is the real payoff such games, simply seeing your creation come into reality as you build it bit by bit and knowing every nut and bolt of it intimately. After having spent so much time on this one ship, it matters to me more than something I would have thrown together in the sandbox. With material and time limits being more realistic in survival mode, I am sure the flood of enormous ships the workshop will begin trending to smaller, cleverly built ships that are more functional and interesting. I’m looking forward to more time with this title.

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