First Impressions — Hardspace: Shipbreaker

June 24, 2020
Also on: PS4, Xbox One

There’s something to be said for games that turn the monotonous into a game that is both entertaining and somewhat Zen-like. In recent times the gaming landscape has become festooned with potential digitised fantasy careers, from trucking around Europe, to fixing cars, building PCs and everywhere in between. If there is a job out there to do, chances are someone has built a game simulating it. In the case of Hardspace: Shipbreaker we have a career that does not yet exist; stripping down and cutting up spaceships. Or as they say around these parts, being a cutter.

Working for the super-corporation LYNX, you’ve effectively signed over your soul to the man for a berth, an ability to be cloned and to be charged every time for the privilege. Starting with just under a billion dollars worth of debt to the corporation, you must slice and dice your way through each ship maximising both your time and profit. At the end of each shift you’re charged for what you’ve used (which is pretty much everything) and this is then deducted from whatever you managed to salvage. If you’ve managed to put in a good shift then, hopefully, you will have worked off some of that debt. It is, therefore, a brutal existence but it's not without its upsides.

The trusty scanner, a cutter’s best friend

If there’s one thing that we marvelled at, even with just a training vessel in your dock, it's the environment in which you work. Sure, some of it is just cold, hard steel but look around and you can see Earth (even if it’s meant to be a hellhole in this Universe) and space full of life and, presumably, more docks like ours. As we cut our way through our current Gecko class transport ship we notice other vessels moving around and crossing through our vision in the distance. Early access or not, Hardspace is, for what it depicts, a rather pretty game with wonderful details in its minutiae. 

This attention to detail gives each ship you recycle a feeling of being lived in, from the leftover food packets and drink bottles, to the logs you will likely retrieve as you cut your way through. These relics left behind by the previous owners allude to incidents and the lives of others outside the three walls of your cutting berth. What you find in these logs range from the melancholic to the snide and is Hardspace’s way of commentating on life under the corporate thumb. They do, however, allow you to wonder what the crew and passengers of the ships you tear down were like. Whose poster did you just unceremoniously fire off into the salvage barge below? What was it like being ferried around the galaxy in these rather uncomfortable looking seats? Was the in-flight entertainment any good and even more importantly, how was the meal? Many of these questions will, most likely, go unanswered but it's the fact you wonder at all is a testament to Blackbird Interactive’s attention to detail.

Umm… whoops??? Clean up in berth 5!

At the moment there’s only one act out of the promised three available but thanks to the procedurally generated ships and a freeplay mode there’s heaps of salvage action to sink your cutting beam into. The career mode is where we spent most of our time and it’s here you learn the ins and outs of being a cutter. The first hour or so is learning the ropes with Weaver, your handler, in your ear giving you instructions on how to approach things. With the basics learned and the appropriate certification attained you can then tackle bigger and more lucrative vessels. Each certification is based upon hitting certain targets relating to what you can salvage or completing work order tasks. These tasks are assigned at the start of each new vessel you claim and include salvaging specific components or a specific weight of materials. Completing these rewards you with Lynx Tokens which can be redeemed for upgrades to your kit including buying them outright. If you manage to do this, the total amount deducted from each shift is reduced and therefore more is paid off your debt.

Completing all of these tasks inside each fifteen-minute shift becomes impossible the bigger the rig you’re cutting. The bigger Gecko class ships can take three or four shifts to fully dismantle and salvage for anything approaching useful. However, if you plan each shift appropriately and work methodically from the outside in you can almost always end each shift with something being paid off your debt unless, of course, you don’t. You see, cutting is a risky job which is probably why you give up your DNA so that you can be cloned. One wrong move can spark a chain reaction that can, if you’re really unlucky, ignite the ship’s core which provides a rather pretty explosion but is, unfortunately, rather deadly. Whilst you’ll be resurrected, not only will you be charged for the fresh lump of skin you’re in but there’s now a mess of twisted nanocarbon and metal awaiting your attention. Not to mention that a ship’s reactor is one of the most lucrative pieces of salvage and you’ve likely just witnessed a rather expensive fireworks show.

Every day I’m cutting it...

Whilst the danger is always there, once you’ve dismantled one or two ships of any particular class or type, screwing things up becomes less likely. Even with the procedural generation, the approach you take will likely be the same each time. It seems the randomness of the ships only affects things in minor ways such as the location of the nacells or how many airlocks a ship has. The only thing that tended to catch us out was the difference in pressurisation within each vessel. Sometimes everywhere was vented, other times, some places were pressurised which surprised us with a crate to the face. Thankfully, if you do get damage you can sometimes salvage what you need from the ship you're currently working on. Alternatively you can just go buy a repair kit, since what’s a few thousand to an already several hundred million dollar debt? In one amusing situation, separating the cockpit from the main body of our ship created enough thrust in vented air that it launched the cockpit out into the great beyond; some say it even attained a stable orbit around Earth.

Eventually though you’ll hit a rhythm with your salvage operation, from where you make your entrance to which parts you cut first. You’ll start to evolve your own methodology and it's about this time that the monotony can set in. This can be amplified even more as you move through the certifications to higher levels. Some of the targets can feel a little like too much grind is required to obtain them. This does feel very in keeping with the overall aesthetic of the game but its ‘huge corporations are bad m’kay’ message can detract somewhat from the overall enjoyment. This can be easily alleviated by taking a break or having a go in freeplay. Most likely these certifications will be altered as Hardspace makes its way through Early Access and the other two story acts make their appearance. Right now, however, they can feel a bit daunting and detract somewhat away from what is an enjoyable and rewarding game even at this point in its journey to full release.

That’s some debt to pay off...

Despite the grind, pulling apart the training vessel, a mid-size Mackerel or the slightly larger Geckos is a rather fulfilling endeavour, especially if you avoid any major incidents. Equally, the puzzle-like nature of dismantling means we were always looking for shortcuts or new ways of using our tethers, a sort of electric bungee cord, from our grapple utility. Having these new ideas pay off can be rather rewarding. Even with the occasional hit of monotony we often found ourselves wondering ‘what if..’ to a new cut or extraction idea and promptly saw us claiming a new ship to test it out on. It’s this, “one more go” feeling that Hardspace needs to bottle if it's to keep players playing and to aid in its development.

Whilst a billion dollars worth of debt is going to take some time to work off, the knowledge that more is to come in the form of more ship types and extra campaign acts helps you ignore the issues. The fact that there’s so much to do, albeit based around only three ship types, is commendable for a game that is essentially in beta. That being said, some balancing work is needed on the certifications as things develop to avoid making things feel too much like a grind and too close to what one would imagine the real life of a cutter would be. Hardspace has heaps of potential and it’ll be interesting to see where things go from here. 

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Pete Taylor

A long time gamer since the days of the mighty ZX Spectrum +2. The bug really bit when I got a Sega Mega Drive 2 and it hasn’t let up since. Huge racing fan but I also enjoy losing myself in a well-told RPG and management sims. It doesn’t have to be good-looking to win my heart, it’s what’s deep down inside that matters.