Hardspace: Shipbreaker is a first-person spaceship salvaging simulator bought to you by Blackbird Interactive, which is formed of the same key development team which created the critically acclaimed Real-time strategy series Homeworld. The game is set in a dystopian future, humankind has industrialised a large part of its solar system and Earth has deteriorated into a place of squalor and decay, the necessity to salvage space junk and ships, due to space now becoming a perilous scrapyard of junk hurtling through it, has become a lucrative trade to those willing to bear the risks.
In this game, you experience life as a full-time manual labour ship dissecting spaceman, armed with your trusty “cutter” and a newfound sense of purpose as you work off your crippling debt in this futuristic capitalist universe. Doesn’t sound like your idea of a good time? Well, you’d be sadly mistaken as this game has amazing cathartic qualities thanks to its simplicity in its core gameplay objective, tied together with a solid physics engine and what feels like a beautifully fitting Firefly inspired soundtrack, you could get lost for hours on end intricately dissecting the precious cargo laid out in front of you.
The genres that spring to mind when playing this game would be puzzle, sandbox, and simulation. Although it is relatively simple in principle you can’t go hacking away at a spaceship as if it’s some metal piñata and hoping it drops goodies straight into your lap. There are numerous hazards you need to look out for and work around such as decompressing the air on the ship so it doesn’t explode by interacting with the atmospheric regulator on the ship. Checking those pesky fuel lines to ensure they are no longer filled with dangerous flammable liquids before you start laser sawing them and turning yourself into space dust, live reactor cores that act like delicate ticking time bombs, sneakily tucked away tanks of coolant and much more. It’s almost like playing a zero-gravity game of surgeon simulator except now your life is on the line too, but that’s ok as your helmet has an in-built scanner which provides an easy to read HUD x-ray of the ship’s carcass so you can plan for how you’re going to extract the parts you need.
The salvaging missions begin from your “habitation module” which is essentially your HUB world for the game, where you can choose what ships to work on, repair tools and equipment or purchase new perks and add-ons for your gear. Although be mindful spending your money here as you need to pay living fees and eventually your debt so don’t get too carried away with luxuries. This HUB menu is rather basic in design, but it makes up for it in functionality and the tool upgrades are more along the lines of small perks and quality of life features, extra range etc. rather than game-changing power-ups.
However, after all that, the game would have fallen flat on its face if it didn’t deliver a solid physics engine, free from immersion breaking bugs, and this game delivers fantastically on that front. The tether can be used to move objects of greater mass than you and you can push and pull lighter parts around with the grapple gun and these interactions feel like they really follow Newton’s Laws of Motion as you are pushed back when applying these forces requiring you to stabilise with your thrusters to prevent yourself drifting through space.
A downside at this point in time is that there are only two classes of ships at the moment, the Mackerel, a 30-meter cargo cruiser with three different configurations, and the Gecko, a 60-meter freighter with two variants. They are procedurally generated; however, this lack of ship variety may get tedious after many hours, but this is early access so there could be more content when the full version of the game is released.
As touched on earlier the soundtrack to this game is tremendous and perfectly fits the vibe and feel they were going for, a fully space-western easy listening delight with what sounds like soft cello and gentle guitar sliding in the background. It isn’t too overpowering and is certainly reminiscent of the popular TV series Firefly. Obviously, there isn’t too much to say on the gameplay sounds as you are in space after all but the focus on your characters breathing and distant thuds of metal can provide an eery and foreboding atmosphere.
The team at Blackbird have done a solid job here with the animations for the tools being on point, the blinding light and particles as you melt through the ship’s hull really deepen the immersion. And The textures, while basic aren’t anything to sniff at especially from an independent game studio and the removal of the HUD can provide some aesthetically pleasing screenshots with the Earth in the background. I ran this game on high with my GTX-970 and i7-6700k processor at around 30-40 fps which is adequate although I noticed some significant frame drops during ship explosions after I sent my poor labourer to an early grave by carelessly chucking about a reactor. Hopefully, this can be further optimised with the full release as I feel I have a mid-range spec computer, which is probably similar in performance to the average consumer at the moment.
For an early access game, it is well polished, addictive and will be one to look out for come full release providing the player with a relaxing and satisfying experience as you surgically dissect the ships with fine precision while listening to its gorgeous sci-fi western soundtracks. With its only notable flaws being a lack of content and some performance issue drawbacks, both problems I’m sure will be tackled by the development team once the game is fully released. There is only one act currently in the campaign mode, which is around 15 hrs of gameplay, and the ships you have available to salvage are rather basic and box-like in structure, so not much to get your teeth into so far. The physics engine seems to take a hefty toll on CPU usage which will hopefully become more optimised in the future as the frame drops were quite noticeable during explosions or ship decompressions.