Living as we are in the golden age of simulation games, there is seemingly no end to the blue-collar jobs that players can dabble in from the safety of their own couches. Whether they long to sample life as a medieval shopkeeper, a city bus driver, or even a mushroom prospector, there’s something out there to help them live their dreams.
Generally I judge these titles using two criteria — how interesting is the premise, i.e. window washing is a less attractive prospect than dinosaur bone surveying, and how well the developers manage to transform that job’s activities into gameplay elements. Based on this criteria, it’s no surprise that Hardspace: Shipbreaker has rocketed right to the top of the simulation genre.
The game takes players to a distant future in which the sci-fi fantasy of working in outer space has become just another job, albeit a fantastically dangerous one.
After a brief tutorial during which players are informed about the one billion dollars in debt they’ve accrued getting certified for orbital jobs, they’re immediately put to work in the salvage bay where the action takes place.
Players first select a spaceship to decommission, and then set to it with a variety of futuristic tools. They have to be fast, though — not only does each work shift last just fifteen minutes, but all of this is taking place in a vacuum, and one eye must always be kept on the oxygen meter. There’s no obvious penalty for taking too long on a job, but keep in mind that you’re forced to rent all of your equipment, meaning that you start each workday with an extra half-million dollars in debt.
While I tend to be fairly skeptical about claims that technological advances in game engines can create meaningfully better experiences, Shipbreaker is the perfect example of a game that wouldn’t have been possible even a couple of years ago. The key feature here is that there’s no set method for disassembling ships — the player can approach each one however they want.
Carefully slide into the ship, depressurize the cabin, and then burn out each coupling until the ship unfolds like reverse origami? A completely valid approach. Want to unleash a plasma saw and slices ships into rough pieces? Go for it, just be careful not to accidentally detonate the power core while cutting your way through. No matter how outlandish the player’s plan, the incredible physics engine ensures that every individual piece of debris reacts and moves in zero-G realistically.
The player’s goal at the moment (Shipbreaker is currently in Early Access, so who knows what further development will bring) is to pay off their billion dollar debt. In addition to focusing on recovering high-value salvage from ships, every new job comes with a set of criteria that need to be completed if they want to upgrade their license and get access to larger, more valuable spacecraft.
While the premise may seem limited, things are kept fresh via a huge amount of randomization. Ships may share a chassis, but a cargo variant will have a completely different interior than a passenger liner. Even within specific ship types things are mixed up — key energy systems will cycle between a few different locations, so it always pays for the player to scan a hull carefully and ensure they’re not about to cut into a fuel line behind a titanium wall.
In addition to the stellar gameplay, Hardspace: Shipbreaker manages to offer some decent worldbuilding around the edges of the simulation. Canned radio messages reinforce the idea that the player is a tiny (and eminently replaceable) cog in a giant industrial machine, and there’s an enormous constellation of industrial facilities visible in the distance to reinforce that point. Some cues also subtly let the player know that the salvage bay they’re working isn’t exactly a high-end operation.
Hardspace: Shipbreaker is already one of the best simulation games I’ve ever played, so I can’t wait to see what the developers have in store as its Early Access period continues. Each new ship is a puzzle to be solved, a world to explore, and a source of desperately-needed income. Everything about this experience is a delight, and I can’t wait to spend more time in its world.