The Simpsons have a lot to answer for in modern culture generally, but one element has bugged me for the past near 20 years. There’s an episode where Bart ends up in France, he’s staying with some evil men but has no concept of the language so struggles to stick up for himself when in a tough situation. Until through complete immersion he just picks up French fluently and is able to alert the police to the men. Despite this being clearly a farcical extreme example I often wonder how much you can learn something through pure immersion and blind insistence. Well it seems only right to test this theory with something that is renowned as a complicated topic; Rocket Science. NASA haven’t answered my calls since “the incident”, so instead I’m going to use the newly released PS4 version of Kerbal Space Program to learn about astrophysics, orbital patterns, the concept of weight to thrust ratio and at what speed someone will explode at when impacting the ground.
Kerbal Space Program has been knocking around for a few years now starting in a general alpha through the developer’s website and then hitting up Steam Green Light, before finally being finished this past year. The concept is simple if you look at it from far enough away; Kerbals (little green fella’s) have started a space program and it’s up to you to get them off the planet. To do this you must put together rockets to get them into orbit or further afield. This involves dealing with the command pods where the Kerbals sit, fuel tanks, fuel lines, engines, wings/fins, various paraphernalia for research and many other elements; oh and don’t forget a parachute. All in all it’s a lot to pick up and you really need to nail the execution, one fin being slightly off-center can cause your entire rocket to become a bit spiny, then a bit fally, and then a bit explodey.
Having captured the heart of so many fans and youtubers/twitchers over the past years Kerbal Space Program has finally been ported to console. And that’s where I need to make something clear in this review, there are two aspects to how to view this new release, one as a game in itself and another as a port of a PC game. In one of these Kerbal Space Program nails it, in the other, well it’s a painful experience for the player.
A trend with many releases recently has been font use, fashion over function has been a long time issue for game’s user interface but recently games like Witcher, Rocket League and now Kerbal Space Program have all taken the biscuit. I bought a 50 inch TV lately because of problems seeing text on the TV and it solved the problem for most games, but Kerbal Space Program has chosen a text that is so thin and small that it makes it painful to read. If you want to go through the tutorials, and trust me you need to, you’ll have to read quite a lot before you’re let loose on a warehouse to build your first rocket. When I had to sit a couple of feet away from my TV to be able to comprehend the mound of text it really is an issue.
The user interface issues don’t stop there however; there’s an option to choose your own flag to plant should you manage to make it to the Mun (the Kerban moon). There are many options to choose from but when scrolling through the options the scroll bar on the right goes down as does the selector but the window doesn’t, the selector is clearly moving around but scrolling never happens. If you decide to choose one of the few that are appearing on the screen there is no series of button presses that will allow you to get to the accept button to choose it, instead you just have to back out with the default option. Should you be ok with overlooking this error in UI you then have to put up with using a cursor on a console controller (the default is actually a motion control). When scrolling through various engines you need to be able to move through them quickly to read the stats, there you’ll have two problems, one the horrible text choice rears its head again and then you have to move a horrible cursor around as opposed to just pressing left and right on the d-pad. The straw that broke the camel’s back for me was a grey bar over the left side of the screen blocking a handful of tabs, I honestly have no idea what these tabs were for as at no point could I get the cursor to choose them because of this opaque bar. These are all clear issues that should have been picked up well before release.
There are other issues with the controls when you finally get around to take off but those seem to be a game concept where there are a lot of buttons needed so a modifier button must be held down to change the effect of a face button. It’s all very confusing but acceptable. This game isn’t supposed to be easy, you’re literally dealing with rocket science here, building is half the battle but then you need to be able to fly the bastard as well. Once in space you will change the view to a solar overview granting you oddly satisfying orbital trajectories and a hundred different stats and meters knocking around if you opt for full information. It can all be quite overwhelming, but once you see how numbers react after certain actions you can weirdly start to understand what’s going on.
Graphically and audibly not much has changed from the PC version, a lot of people will take issue with the simplicity of the graphics, especially on your home planet where it’s just a big green blob with some blue on it, but there’s something about when you manage to hit Space, everything slows down, the starts are beautiful and some great chill out music kicks in. It’s all rather gorgeous and that’s lucky, because more often than not I’ve run out of fuel by this point and that Kerbal isn’t going anywhere apart from round and round the green and blue marble.
There’s a few modes to keep you occupied including a campaign of sorts where you must juggle the business and the science side of space travel. It’s all rather clever but ultimately painful due to the aforementioned text issues that plague the game. My personal enjoyment just came from spending hours building, failing, learning and improving repeatedly until my rocket got that little bit further each time in the sandbox mode.
As I mentioned before we must break down this critique into the game itself and the port. As a game Kerbal Space Program is a complicated joy, there’s a lot to learn and master and the game almost is intentional in its lack of help in you doing so but none the less perseverance will pay off. The excitement of a rocket making it to orbit without any deaths is something to be celebrated and enjoyed, and even when things to go wrong you still feel like a god when a Kerbal jumps from a rocket to survival or a parachute pops just in time for a relatively safe landing. The game is hamstrung on PS4 however, there are so many painful aspects to its port. A cursor is rarely acceptable on a console and when the windows you’re manipulating don’t work to start with frustration will kick in repeatedly. Especially as inconsistently you can use the D-pad and other times you are required to use a cursor. These are all issues that can, and probably will, be fixed in patches but as a first experience of Kerbal Space Program it is frustrating to see it done so sloppily and confusingly. To come back to my earlier Simpsons learning French example there is a chance you could learn quite a bit from Kerbal Space Program; but unfortunately, on the PS4, the French guidebook is being held 50 feet away and in size 10 font by someone who doesn’t like you.