Kerbal Space Program 2 made me feel as dense as its layered gameplay systems in the best way possible. Before my two hours hands-on with the sequel to the beloved whimsy-infused astrophysics that is Kerbal Space Program, I hadn’t played a minute of the engineering/management/space sim series. Always fascinated by it, yet daunted at the prospect of giving it a go, I was fairly hesitant ahead of jumping in. However, I’m happy to report that I had a highly enjoyable time with KSP2, finding myself pleasantly surprised by its welcome approachability. Despite it certainly being a complicated beast to grapple with at times (this is rocket science after all), I managed to find joy in small victories and plenty of fun in my many, many failures.
To those, like me, who are new to the Kerbal Space Program series, it’s fundamentally all about taking a fledgling space agency made up of green-shaded, Minion-like Kerbals to the stars and back. By building rockets and plotting missions of increased ambition, you’ll venture further and further into the Kerbol solar system, all in the name of exploration. Of course, reaching far, far away planets is no simple task, and nor should it be. And so begins a brain-straining challenge solved through educated trial and error.
Screens – Kerbal Space Program 2
In some ways, the experience reminded me of my early hours with Media Molecule’s Dreams – being let loose in a sandbox of possibility where experimentation and well-intentioned – but fundamentally flawed – ideas are encouraged. The generous and well-structured tutorials are presented in a light-hearted and digestible manner, and I swiftly found myself swept up in the vast possibilities that Kerbal Space Program presents. Whilst Kerbal veterans around me with thousands of hours logged harboured dreams of ambitious Martian programs, I was more than happy just to launch one of my rockets and get everyone on board back to Earth (AKA Kerbin in this universe) safely. Something that I just about managed, but not before a few mishaps along the way.
Up until this point in my life, most of my understanding of astrophysics came from repeated rewatches of movies like Apollo 13 and The Right Stuff. Turns out, that doesn’t really come in much help. My first attempt to crack the atmosphere consisted of me desperately trying to relive my youth in the form of a truly shoddy reimagining of Thunderbird 3. It didn’t look anything like it and it functioned even less impressively, barely packing the thrust of a late-era Elvis Presley. Style over substance clearly isn’t the way to go when it comes to space travel it would appear. And so back to the Vehicle Assembly Building (VAB) I went – a welcomingly intuitive space to design your very own rockets, landers, and buggies, and where I found a lot of my enjoyment with KSP2 coming from.
Next up on my production line were The Banana Man Mark 1, 2, and 3 – a series of yellow space bullets that each failed for various different reasons. It’s a credit to developer Intercept Games that even I, very much a newcomer, was able to swiftly and accurately diagnose the problem each time my efforts crashed and burned. At first, the number-riddled UI can be quite overwhelming to look at, but it quickly decodes itself. For instance, a series of actions, formed into a playlist of sorts in the bottom right of the screen, act as the stages of your launch, each numbered to indicate the order in which they will be performed upon a press of the spacebar. It’s probably wise to have your engine ignite before decoupling half of your ship, for example. Something I definitely, definitely didn’t forget to do.
Back in the VAB things are just as clearly laid out, with tabs full of fuel tanks, command modules, and the all-important emergency parachutes. Each component found inside snaps satisfyingly to other parts and is clearly described, providing key (but never intimidating amounts) of information. I not only found myself having fun in designing rockets that in theory should work but sneakily learned more than I bargained for, such as the difference between a sustainer and an orbital engine. Like the best classes at school, Kerbal teaches you via fun, trickling science into your brain through playful osmosis. It’s through these lessons that I did eventually get my eager little green Kerbal into space and back to home soil as The Banana Man mission reached a fruitful conclusion after failing them so often previously.
It’s in these small progressive improvements that the key to Kerbal’s joy emanates from; those small dopamine brain shots that make you feel like a genius for a fleeting second. It’s with this new-found confidence that I dared to dream and constructed a monstrous pink rocket made up of the biggest parts on offer to me. The Goliath was born, but I’d prefer to not talk about what happened next in its remarkably short life…
As if I didn’t need another reminder that my grasp on aeronautics was close to non-existent, I decided to chance my arm at designing my very own jet. I had a lot of fun playing around with the many options available making quite a snazzy-looking plane, even if I do say so myself, complete with an X-Wing colour palette to match. Yet again though, I was met with the reminder that functionality really should take precedence over fashion when it comes to these things. Once again, I had a blast making it anyway, even if I never did quite get that particular dream off the ground. Literally.
From jumping into some of the pre-saved scenarios made available to me, I have been able to see what can be done in KSP2 when fully in command of its deep systems. I sat in orbit around the glowing purple mists of Eve (Venus), deployed a buggy on the Mun (Moon), and actually managed to fly a jet that had been designed by someone much more intelligent than I.
It’s all presented with a wink and a nod too, with the Kerbals themselves often providing comic relief with their changing expressions as you once again deliver them to their doom. Aside from some sadly deceased Kerbals there really is no penalty for failure in Kerbal Space Program 2, with wild experimentation constantly encouraged. Where many simulation games of this depth can be punishing in the way they throw budgetary and permadeath concepts in the mix, Kerbal is all about the fun of adventure and not about the consequences of misadventure.
It’s the sign of a promising game when even when you’re failing miserably you aren’t smacking your head against the desk or shattering a keyboard with the blunt end of a mouse. Instead, Kerbal Space Program 2 only made me want to try, try, and try again, having fun even when my plans blew up in front of me. I’d encourage those who may have once felt daunted by the prospect of KSP to really give it a go; I think you’ll be pleasantly surprised by the approachability you find inside. I’m already looking forward to taking that next small step on February 24th when it makes its way into early access and the moon starts to feel not quite as far away as it once did.
Simon Cardy will not be applying for any NASA jobs for the good of mankind. Follow him on Twitter at @CardySimon.