Space Engineers (Alpha) Preview

Space Engineers is a game all about mining, exploring, and building massive structures in an asteroid belt. I talked to Keen Software House about doing a preview of the current alpha build, and they were kind enough to provide me a Steam key for evaluation. I’ve spent many hours over the weekend and through this week taking the alpha for a spin, and I’m here to share my impressions.

Space: The Mine-al Frontier

Space Engineers is going to draw a lot of comparisons to Minecraft. In both games, you’ve got to mine various materials and use them to create ever more complex creations within your virtual play area. Space Engineers also features a “creative” and “survival” mode similar to Minecraft. The interface is definitely trying to make things easier for veteran Minecraft players as well.

However, Space Engineers is more than just “Minecraft, but in space!” For one, the physics in Space Engineers is phenomenal. It’s a ton of fun to turn on your personal jetpack and zip around the area, and then turn it off and run through space stations and ships. Second, whereas Minecraft generally leaves you on foot on the surface of a planet, the main focus of Space Engineers is building and flying your own ships of various sizes.

space-engineers-inventory

Space Engineers gives you kind of a wide array of parts and pieces to build with, and just lets you go crazy. I was reminded of the Gummi Ship mechanics in the Kingdom Hearts series, but without the complexities of that game’s UI. Being able to move in three dimensions around your creations, go inside them, and build from all sides is really a lot of fun. Each ship needs certain parts (like a cockpit, thrusters, and a reactor) in order to work, but other than that your ships can take whatever form you decide.

Of course, you need resources for all of these things, and at least in Survival you’ll have to mine them yourself. The game gives you a hand drill to start out with, but once you’re able to build your own ships you can attach drills to them as well. It’s very satisfying to build and fly your own mining vessels.

space-engineers-mining-ship

Once mined, the resources have to be refined and then assembled into usable blocks. When you build your ship, you can attach connectors to it, which you can then use to interface with connectors on your space stations. In this way, you can “dock” your mining ship and unload resources directly into your production chain. This simplifies inventory management and having to unload/load all your goods by hand.

Once you’ve built the requisite components, you’ll have to lay out your ship or station and then weld the parts into place. Again, you can do this by hand or you can build welding and grinding tools onto your ships that will help make the process easier and faster.

If you’d rather just skip the whole process of building your own stuff and get right to flying and destroying stuff, you can. There are several “quick start” scenarios included in the game, and there’s Steam Workshop support for sharing and downloading creations.

space-engineers-normandy

If getting into space dogfights is more your deal, there are already simple NPC ship options for single player worlds, and there are also multiplayer servers to check out. It’s a dog-eat-dog world out there, though, so don’t be surprised if you end up space-paste before you can really build anything of interest.

Still in Alpha

At the moment, Space Engineers is in alpha. It’s playable, and I didn’t encounter any severe bugs in my time with it. The game’s had weekly updates which have expanded the game significantly in the past few months. That said, it still does have rough edges.

There’s not a lot to do in single player besides build ships and stations. Space is mostly empty except for the odd asteroid for mining. You could fight the NPC ships (assuming you turn them on) but they’re not that much of a challenge. That’s not to say there’s not fun to be had building stuff and learning the game mechanics, but I would like to see some interesting end-game challenges.

The survival mode seems like it could use some balancing. It’s somewhat difficult to gather resources by hand, especially in zero-g. Once you have a mining ship or some artificial gravity, things are much easier. You can opt to start the game past this initial point, but I know a lot of the appeal of games like this is doing it all yourself by hand. I highly suggest playing creative first, and watching the tutorial videos on the Space Engineers site before you dig in. There’s a lot to learn, and a lot of it isn’t going to be obvious just from playing.

The survival bootstrapping issues are doubly problematic in multiplayer. By default, you’re going to start alone, with limited resources, in a hostile galaxy. Chances are good big constructions have already been completed, and it can be difficult to bootstrap yourself in these situations. On the servers I tried, it felt a lot like DayZ or Rust in that there were a lot of larger players preying on the starting resources newbies get. I’m sure it’s not like that everywhere, and the new user experience can be a tough nut to crack in these sorts of games.

Conclusion

Overall, Space Engineers is a fun game with incredible promise. If you’ve ever wanted to be an astronaut and fly around in zero-g,, building massive engineering projects in space, this game is going to scratch that itch very well. Looking over the planned feature list gets me giddy – there’s a lot of cool stuff in progress already.

I always caution people about Early Access games that what you’re buying might be the final version of the software. While the weekly updates seem to indicate that it isn’t the case here, it’s still wisdom to consider. Do you want to build huge space stations and ships, fly them around, mine stuff, shoot other stuff, and generally just play around? If so, Space Engineers is worth your time. Go check it out on Steam!

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