Blackbird Interactive's deep space experience Hardspace: Shipbreaker has released as an early access title and we had the chance to check it out ahead of time.
There's something oddly soothing about dismantling a hunk of metal whilst floating freely in deep space. It speaks to the same part of my brain as the methodical busywork you find in simulation games, and while I've never really been into driving buses and trains around, and I'm no digital fisherman, I do enjoy those simulations where you're taken out of a real-world context and given something new to do. That's the case in Hardspace: Shipbreaker, a new game from Blackbird Interactive that tasks players with making a living from the scrap carved from derelict space wrecks.
The thing that really appealed to me wasn't the simulation aspect, however, it was the sassy tone with which it is delivered. Even before you've picked up a single tool you'll have to click through a bunch of menus that introduce the game's tongue-in-cheek attitude. We're seeing a lot of interactive entertainment take a similarly absurd approach when exploring the notion of big business in the future, with the likes of The Outer Worlds holding a similarly sarcastic approach when discussing a potential future built on the worst aspects of capitalism. That being the case, the first thing you do is sign over all of your rights as well as your DNA to your new employer, LYNX.
And so begins your time under their employ, and the campaign portion of Hardspace: Shipbreaker is all about paying off a seemingly insurmountable debt. To that end, you must use the tools given to you to dismantle floating piles of space junk, pulling them apart and recycling them as efficiently as possible. The most expensive items are thrown into a giant space-net that stretches out underneath your workspace, while the other resources stripped from ships are either melted down in the furnace or have their parts dismantled in the processor, which are both parts of the floating facility that surrounds you while you work. Using a futuristic lasso and tethers to move debris, you can grab the items you cut free and move them around into the correct location, getting paid for each item sorted properly, although thanks to zero-g traversal, that's easier said than done.
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The first thing that hits home is the controls, which might be intuitive but are still a tough nut to crack. Hardspace: Shipbreaker gives you six degrees of freedom when moving around, and that can be tricky to master, especially as your momentum is also a factor. You can move vertically, or you can spin, strafe, and go back and forth (and slam on the brakes). It takes a bit of time and even after a couple of hours I was still bumping into things. On the other hand, it did feel natural and logical, and it didn't take me long to feel at home in the play space, despite the fact that it wasn't always easy to get around and keep track of where everything is.
The frontier atmosphere is strong here, and whether it's the southern drawl from the operator speaking in your ear, or the Wild West-inspired soundtrack, it's clear that the developers wanted to riff on the spirit of adventure that defines that period of American history. You're a long way from home and in a strange place, but it feels grounded and plausible. In fact, it's hard not to be impressed by the scale of it all the first time you spin around and look beyond the confines of your workspace to see orbital stations hovering in space as far as the eye can see. It contributes to a defined and striking visual style that suited the overall atmosphere to a T.
While I didn't get to see it all after technical issues halted my progress (it crashed a couple of times during the first missions), I'm told there are around 15 hours of content available in the Early Access build. There's a freeplay mode where you can pick one from a handful of ship variants and get stuck in, however, the main event is the campaign mode where you'll find plenty of different jobs to accept, each one giving you new objectives as you try to keep up the interest payments on your crippling debt.
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I was certainly drawn in by the premise, the presentation, and the playful sense of humour. There's more to see and I look forward to seeing it, so for now, consider this a tentative thumbs-up despite some technical hiccups. It's not the finished article but it is an engaging and immersive experience that will appeal to those who like nothing more than getting absorbed in methodical gameplay and light-hearted simulation. If you don't mind a few early access teething issues such as the aforementioned crashes it's already worth a look, but if you prefer your games polished then stick this on your wishlist for now - it has the potential to be very good indeed, even if it's not quite there yet.