Hardspace Shipbreaker Hands-on Preview: Tactile, Dangerous, and Delightful

Jun 23, 2020

Saddled within an impossibly high debt on a planet that is slowly dying and within a system that becomes more brazenly corrupt by the day, you set out for the stars. Well, you don’t quite get to the stars per se, but in high Earth orbit, you start your new job away from the trials and torments of those you left behind. It's such a shame that this job is dangerous, difficult, and often costs more than it pays. Welcome to Hardspace: Shipbreaker.

The central concept behind Shipbreaker is fairly self-explanatory if the name isn’t very memorable. Your job is to salvage old spaceships, grabbing everything that's not nailed down. After that, you’ll start ripping out the space nails and taking the ship apart at the seams, selling the raw materials for an even bigger profit. You only have a set number of shifts to dismantle each ship, as well as oxygen and fuel you’ll have to restock every once in a while, which can encourage you to cut corners and rush through some of the technical cutting. That is not advised though, as spaceships are filled with all kinds of dangers that can get your cutter killed. Forgetting to de-pressure a ship might launch you into space, and more importantly, it might rip the ship apart and destroy a lot of its value. Accidentally cutting through a fuel line or power cell without properly disengaging them might also lead to an equally large explosion. And to make matters a little more interesting, each ship has a slightly different layout, forcing you to always keep aware of what exactly your cutting apart with your lasers.

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In real life, this was would an exhausting, terrifying job that no one but the most desperate would take. But it makes for an incredibly fun game. For those like me that love that immediate gratification, there isn’t much better than turning a ship into a skeleton in less than thirty minutes. Each ship is essentially a puzzle, with dozens of different combinations of goals and layouts to achieve. You could spend your first shift with a ship pulling all the most dangerous parts of the ship apart so you can work a little more freely next time. Or maybe you take all the hull plating you can away so that you have more room to crack up the engines and power cells. There are hundreds of ways you can approach this game, and you’re free to mix it up.

But there is something else that makes Shipbreaker so exciting. Humanity has a history taking things apart and this game taps into that primal urge. Shipbreaker gives you the chance to see that parts of spaceships you were never meant to see. You can see the mechanical, hidden subsystems and how they interact with the common areas of the ship.

Most ships in games are a whole. From the hull to the computers, the components that make up the ship are all merely parts of the same whole. In Shipbreaker that isn’t true. Each and everything that makes up the space is a whole of its own, and seeing how the pieces come together, prying them apart, is really interesting. You can see the developers had to decide how a spaceship would be organised, where the pieces would go, how they would interact. It's enthralling to look at the ships not as what they appear to be, but as the pieces they are made of. The central column that runs down the transporter ship you’re working on isn’t decorative or aesthetic, it’s the spine of the ship designed to hold it together. And there’s an incredible sense of scale and weight to the dead ships as you cut through them. Shipbreaker is, on top of everything else, an extremely tactile game that emphasizes the physical aspects of the space travel that are so often afterthoughts in the games industry.

Shipbreaker is in early access at the minute, with about ten to fifteen hours’ worth of content for you cut apart. Unfortunately, there isn’t a lot of different ships to work on, although not are exactly the same. Hopefully, as the game develops we’ll see more ships, larger ones, stranger ones, deadlier ones, and so on. The developers are promising quite a lot on their early access journey, and that includes mod support so that sadistic players can build floating dungeons for you to pull apart. But the lack of variety isn’t the only issue with the game. There are a few menus that aren’t easy to understand, and the controls can be a little too fiddly with navigating the salvage. Despite all that, it's hard not to think about the game. These are annoying issues, but they rarely take away from the sheer joy of peeking behind the curtain, taking out the cogs, and seeing just how it was all put together in the first place.

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Your primary tool is a laser cutter that can either shear through metal plates and open up new routes or disintegrate the connectors that hold the whole beast together. When you cut through something you’re not meant to, the consequences aren’t quite immediate. Shipbreaker gives you just enough time to hold your breath and brace yourself against the void. It’s a thrilling, terrifying moment when you see everything is about to change, and having cut through every ship available, I’m now holding my breath for the next change the game will bring.

Hardspace: Shipbreaker is currently 28% off at Green Man Gaming, by the way.