Space Engineers Preview — Minecraft For Geniuses

Published: March 17, 2015 1:00 PM /

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Space Engineers is an Early Access title being developed by Keen Software House. Keen is responsible for developing a multitude of games with similar themes. Destructible environments, science fiction, and resource management are reoccurring elements in most of their titles. While their earlier releases did not garner a lot of good attention, their two most recent titles, Space Engineers and Medieval Engineers seem to be getting a lot of love.

I started playing Space Engineers a couple weeks ago. I noticed it on Steam long ago, but wanted to hold off until it was out of Early Access. However, some acquaintances recently told me very good things about it, and I found I couldn't help but give it a go. After only somewhat overcoming a very steep and daunting learning curve, I began to marvel at the creative power of the game.

Space Engineers is most easily compared to Minecraft. To say that the game is Minecraft in space, is not very far from the truth. While it is clear that Space Engineers is so much more than that, the title could improve by borrowing a little more from its blocky predecessor. Of course, I can't pass final judgement on it yet. There are still many features to be added before Space Engineers goes gold. I'll get into some of the features and comparisons to other games soon, but first, check out this totally tantalizing video that previews some of the updates that are in store for the title.

You'll notice from the above video that there are a few moving parts, and obviously a whole ship that flies around. Some of these contraptions are not available in the game's current state, but it still gives you a good idea of what you're getting into. If you've ever messed around with some of the switches and moving parts from Minecraft, you'll have some notion of what challenges lie ahead, but honestly, learning how to play is probably going to be even more difficult than you think.

First, there's the fact that even the very basics are a bit more tricky in Space Engineers. With so many angled and sloped parts, rotation is an ever-present and important feature for most of the blocks you will be using. The rotation mechanism is confusing and seems to be somewhat contextual. A button that flips a block one way, my rotate it differently if your character is positioned differently. I hate this lack of consistency concerning rotation. Finding the perfect angel for a block is more of a process of elimination than it is one of precision. This could very well be my own personal problem, and others may not have a such a hard time with it.

Second, you are going to be building a moving, functioning space vessel! While the physics are not jacked up to Kerbal Space Program levels, they are still something you will have to be mindful of. How many thrusters do you need, and where do you need them? How heavy is your ship? Even if you put together something that cruises about as intended, you may still be thwarted by having a poorly positioned cockpit. The view of your ship and the context of your flight-controls are going to be based around the position of your cockpit and this is much more important than you might think. If you are using a ship that is supposed to get real close to things, say a drilling or repair ship, a good view is critical.

Finally, the above design hurtles are not even the trickiest ones! Master those things and then you will have to deal with cargo and codependent parts. Transport, mining, and repair vessels are going to need a conveyer system and cargo bays. Conveyer tubes need to feed into the appropriate containers and assemblers to make everything function efficiently. Trying to design a cool looking ship around all these functional parts can be very challenging and sometimes overwhelming. I often found myself staring dumbly at my screen as I tried to reconcile my design vision with the bevy or required functional parts.

This puzzling dynamic of reconciling functional parts with aesthetic-vision caused me to scrap and remake several ships. Honestly, I've spent a couple of weeks in this game, and I've only come up with one ship that I'm proud of... A small repair ship. A simple vessel compared to some of the other stuff I've seen, but I'll keep at it. I made two other functional ships, but they're pretty ugly.

This is my small repair ship, The Clam.
This is my small repair ship, The Clam.

Thankfully, when it comes to the task of engineering your bases and vessels, there are some powerful tools at your disposal. Of course, learning to use them is its own challenge. Personally, I watched a lot of Youtube videos just to get the hang of some of these things. The in-game tutorial is next to useless and mostly amounts to screen-spam. Even after watching an hour or two of videos, there are still some features I don't know how to use properly.

Useful tools I have gotten the hang of? Well for starters, there's symmetry-Mode. This great feature allows you to set center-planes and axis points. Once activated properly, any actions you take on one end of your project can be instantly mirrored on a different end.

Another awesome design tool is the blueprint feature. Once you assemble something you like, you can easily make a blueprint of it. With a blueprint in hand, all you will need is a special hologram block and the required materials. Then you can quickly assemble a copy of the blueprinted object. I enjoyed designing my vessels in creative mode and then using the blueprints to manufacture them in survival mode.

This is my first little base. Here I processed ores and manufactured parts.
This is my first little base. Here I processed ores and manufactured parts.

In creative mode a player has unlimited resources and can build or delete blocks instantly. In survival mode, players will have to gather all the raw materials for their structures and vessels. In order to build or destroy blocks in survival mode, you will need to wield them up or grind them down. A process that takes some time.

These two modes in parity with blueprints are amazing, and what I believe to be rather immersive. It makes sense that simply designing things shouldn't really take resources. When I'm in creative mode, I imagine my space engineer is at some simulation terminal drawing up blueprints. When he's done, he takes the blueprints and manufactures his work using the required materials.

While the assets and tools Space Engineers comes with aren't bad, some of its best features can only be obtained from the modding community. There are already thousands of mods for players to toy with on the Steam Workshop. Keen developed Space Engineers from the ground up with modding in mind. I make use of several mods myself, and all have worked flawlessly. I fully expect more epic ones to arrive soon, maybe even some that fundamentally change how you play.

This picture demonstrates the Colt Command Console Mod, a favorite on the Steam Workshop.
This picture demonstrates the Colt Command Console Mod, a favorite on the Steam Workshop.

One feature I had a difficult time having fun with was multiplayer. I started playing with a friend, but he got bored with trying to figure out how to build things and decided murdering me would be much more entertaining. Flying around in some of the pre-built worlds attempting to blast and grind each other to death did have it's allure but wasn't the experience I was looking for. I later joined some PVP servers, but no fun was had there. They were desolate worlds where people hid very very far apart from each other, and almost all resources had been mined into oblivion.

Eventually, I created my own multiplayer world. The intention was to simply have a creative world where me and other drop-in individuals could create blueprints while benefiting from a little company and conversation. I disabled all damage and PVP features, but the experiment still ended in disaster. The very first person to join my world created a self-replicating ship... The replicates continued to multiply... In no time there were 100s of the damned things floating about as far as the eye could see. This eventually brought the performance of my game to its knees and I had to abandon the world. I do hope they devise a way to combat this particular type of trolling. If they do not, all public creative worlds are likely to fall victim to replicating ship spam.

Interior of my base.
Interior of my base.

Space Engineers is an amazing creative tool, but it doesn't always feel like a game. There's not a lot of reasons to explore. Even the rarest minerals are not that difficult to locate. It's unfortunate that there isn't much treasure or loot to obtain. You can hijack some of the NPC vessels and raid their cargo holds, but it'd probably just be easier for you to mine and manufacture your own stuff.

There's also very little peril. You can turn on an option that will produce random meteor showers. If you don't build some point defense systems the meteors will periodically and mindlessly damage stuff, but that's about it. There are some hostile vessels, but you can see them from very far away, and they will never bother you if you don't bother them.

While creating cool spaceships and stations is fun in its own right, survival mode desperately needs more reasons to explore, fight, and defend. Upgrades to your astronaut would be appreciated. Having armor and weapons, maybe some space stations or caves to explore, hopefully crawling with hostile creatures and full of loot! These things would be very welcome.

wow crazy large ship space engineers
So far, this is the coolest vessel I've seen.

In the end, despite some shortcomings, I highly recommend Space Engineers to more creative and patient gamers. I don't see it contending with Minecraft... yet. But elite players of Minecraft or those that liked Kerbal Space Program should definitely check it out. Best of all, the future of this game looks very bright, and I'm salivating at some of the proposed updates. Even if it lacks some wanted features now, I think it's likely to get them and more as patches roll out.

We solicited Keen Software House for a free copy of Space Engineers and they were happy to oblige. I played this game on PC using mouse and keyboard controls.

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Hi, I'm Ben. I am a 35 year old gaming veteran. My first console was a Mattel Intellivision(released 1981, purchased 1983) and I have owned at least… More about Benjamin