Load 16 Thousand Tons, What Do You Get?


LOW A frequent bug that makes it impossible to complete a shift.

WTF In the future, ‘no plastic’ is a fancy diet.

Hardspace: Shipbreaker may be the most impressive first-person job sim ever made. It has a few advantages over things like detailing cars or cutting down trees – disassembling spaceships in zero gravity is an instantly compelling task, after all – but it’s not Shipbreaker‘s premise that makes it so exceptional, it’s the presentation.

Set hundreds of years in a future where blue-collar workers go to work in spacesuits armed with hand-held laser cannons, Shipbreaker has players controlling one of the titular specialists, tasked with carefully taking spaceships apart piece-by-piece and sorting the parts into three different categories.

Mechanical and electronic goods are dropped onto a barge to be packaged and resold, nanocarbon is sent to a processor, and raw materials are dropped into a furnace. Be careful not to get too close, though – this industrial process will consume workers just as quickly as the scrap they harvest. Death is a frequent occurrence in the world of Shipbreaker, although not necessarily a game-ending one. Players can always spring for an expensive replacement clone to keep their game going, although using one piles a large amount of debt onto their account.

Speaking of which, debt forms the core of Shipbrearker’s narrative – the player only signs up for such a nightmarishly dangerous job because there’s no opportunity for meaningful work on an Earth which is in the throes of irreversible climate apocalypse.

The LYNX corporation (which runs the shipyards) saddles the player with over a billion dollars in debt just to get them into orbit and trained for the job, and after every shift, hundreds of thousands more get tacked onto the total to cover things like tool rentals, interest payments, and, yes, continued oxygen supply. Every moment of the game is spent in a race against this constantly accruing liability, and the stories that characters tell about their struggles to stay afloat feel like they ought to come with a trigger warning for anyone who’s ever worked a minimum wage job.

Fortunately, this anxiety is worth it as Shipbreaker’s gameplay is impeccable.

The player starts their shift by selecting a ship to work on, and then they’re dispatched with a laser cutter and a gravity gun to do the work. The ships are devilishly clever in construction — there are fuel pipes and electrical circuitry snaking through them in unexpected ways, and no matter how experienced one might be at the game, the player is only ever one bad cut away from an explosive decompression sending a piece of aluminum flying through their suit’s faceplate. Every action has to be planned and considered carefully in conjunction with a fifteen-minute shift time limit and the sizeable debt increase that comes with it perpetually looming over their heads.

The developers have done an incredible job of making Shipbreaker‘s tools feel satisfying to use. The cutting laser has two modes – a point that super-heats joints until they disintegrate, and a slice that erases everything it touches in a wide line. One is precise and slow, the other one quick and messy, forcing the player to think on every cut before they make it – is it worth the risk of hitting a fuel pipe to save half a minute? I’ve had countless games end because I made the wrong choice.

The gravity gun is the real star, though, with its ability to tether ship pieces to anything and drag them from one end of the bay to the other. Players will start out carefully moving one piece of metal at a time, and before they know it they’ll find themselves with half a dozen tethers going at once, cashing in hundreds of thousands of dollars’ worth of equipment simultaneously. As with everything in Shipbreaker, this comes with a real potential for danger – there’s no quicker way to get killed than being caught between a tethered piece of equipment and anything solid.

Even without a compelling story Shipbreaker would be one of the greatest sims ever made, but the developers have gone the extra mile in offering context for the gameplay. The player arrives on the station just as a union is looking for new members – they’re demanding safer working conditions and a fair cut of the profits they generate, but the bosses see them as expendable cogs in a machine. Over the course of the campaign the player will watch the union make moves and see the company’s monstrous overreaction to their demands. This is an openly political project, finding its heart in exploring the the ways people can band together to stop their exploitation.

I’ve played Shipbreaker several times through so one might think it would be easy to find some faults in it, but there’s almost no missteps here. An annoying bug will sometimes shut off the ‘use’ button, making it impossible to end missions, but as long as the player has a large enough oxygen tank and isn’t playing on endless shift mode, they can always just wait out the clock. If this was a review of the early access version, I’d make a comment about how difficult it is to finish the thing, but the economy has been completely rebalanced, and now instead of taking 40-50 hours to wrap up the story, it’s more like 15-20 for a first-timer.

Hardspace: Shipbreaker is a masterpiece. It offers perfectly-tuned gameplay that dovetails flawlessly with the story that it’s telling, and it’s the rare example that manages to make its points entirely through mechanics — even if someone stripped out all of the dialogue, players would still understand what the game has to say about the crushing cycle of worker exploitation under capitalism. The fact that the developers went out of their way to build a believable world and great characters to help players empathize with the people trapped in this corrupt system shows how much they cared about making the best possible version of their work.

Rating: 9.5 out of 10

Disclosures: This game is developed by Blackbird Interactive and published by Focus Entertainment. It is currently available on PC. This copy of the game was obtained via publisher and reviewed on the PC. Approximately 100 hours of play were devoted to the single-player mode, and the game was completed multiple times. There are no Multiplayer modes.

Parents: At the time of review this game was not rated by the ESRB, but it contains Violence and Mild Language. There’s absolutely nothing here that could scandalize even younger teens. Yes, players will find themselves in extremely tense situations, but there’s nothing they shouldn’t be able to handle.

Colorblind Modes: There are no colorblind modes available.

Deaf & Hard of Hearing Gamers: I’ve played through the whole game without audio and encountered no difficulties. There are subtitles for all dialogue, and visual cues for every key audio effect. Subtitles cannot be resized. This game is fully accessible.

Remappable Controls: No, the game’s controls are not remappable.

Jason Ricardo
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