MMO Burnout: Engineers in spaaace

Jef Reahard
J. Reahard|01.25.15

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MMO Burnout: Engineers in spaaace
I missed the whole Minecraft craze. I was stupidly grinding my virtual life away in various MMORPGs, plus I couldn't get past Minecraft's so-fugly-it's-hip aesthetic. No matter, though, because Space Engineers takes Minecraft's core concepts and dolls them up with pleasing visuals, a nifty near future sci-fi setting, and addictive gameplay that's much more than the sum of its parts.

"Simplicity is the ultimate sophistication," says Leonardo DaVinci by way of a Space Engineers loading screen. The quote is a fantastic jumping off point for discussing this sci-fi sandbox from Prague-based indie Keen Software House because you can basically boil down all of your gameplay to harvesting, building, and if you play on certain servers, fighting. My version of Space Engineers involves mining asteroids for the resources to make everything from power drills to solar panels to nuclear reactors to giant hulking dreadnaught spaceships.

These resources are converted to blocks via refinery and assembler units, and the blocks are then able to be placed throughout the game world to make, well, just about anything you can imagine. Some blocks feature built-in functionality (doors, terminals, cockpits, etc.), and all of them are both destructible and repairable.

If you just want to load into Space Engineers and look around, choosing New World followed by Quick Start from the main menu is the way to go. This will toss you into a pre-made solo scenario that's more than adequate for learning the controls, which will seem to familiar to anyone raised on WASD gaming.

One thing to note is that switching between first- and third-person is accomplished by pressing V, whereas swinging the camera around your third-person spaceman requires the left Alt key as well as mouse movement. It took me a while to figure that one out, which just goes to show that reading the manual (or at least, watching the tutorial vid) is still worthwhile.

When you get the hang of jetpack movement and the interface, you'll probably want to either start a new personal server or join a community server. Instead of selecting Quick Start from the New World menu, choose Custom and pick one of the pre-set options on the left-hand menu. Pay attention to the options on the right, particularly creative game mode or survival game mode. The former is best if you want to experiment with Space Engineers' incredible building tools, while the latter adds realistic inventory capacity, resource management, and death into the mix.

Also note that here is where you can decide to either leave your world as a single-player affair or open it up to your Steam friends list (or to anyone who happens by). There are plenty of other options here too including the frequency of meteor showers, the number of asteroids, etc. I encourage you to fully explore Space Engineers' menus because there are a staggering number of ways to customize your personal gameplay and build a unique multiplayer environment with the potential to cater to just about anyone.

Want to get some roleplay friends together and see what sort of marooned-in-space survival stories you can tell? You can with a few clicks. Are you more of a PvPer? Build yourself some guns and ammo and go to it! Or join one of the dozens of ready-made gank servers viewable via Join World from the main menu.

After you get your feet wet in creative mode, I recommend switching to survival mode since it adds some semblance of a gameplay objective (don't run out of energy!). Oh, and you can also switch your initial world between creative and survival modes whenever you wish via the options menu, so don't fret about losing your nifty creations when you want to change up your gameplay in the future.

At this point, the galaxy is your oyster. I tend to stick with my friends-only server and focus on building, but you can also PvP or even mine if that's your thing.

There's something bizarrely relaxing about mining in Space Engineers. It's not quiet, as the drill makes a godawful racket even though you're in outer space. And it's not facerollable, as you've got to constantly reorient yourself while drilling through huge swaths of asteroid and occasionally you'll lose sight of your entry hole as well as which way is "up."

The game's physics engine features Newton's third law, which means that you'll often have to chase down hunks of rock and corral them before they go spinning off into the void, assuming they're the chunks of rock (or mineral) that you wanted. Toying around with the jetpack and the limits of SE's gravity well generator blocks is always fun, too.

There's a vastness to Space Engineers that never gets old. Every time I'm reaching for an errant rock I'm reminded of that scene in Firefly where Simon and River are hiding from the Alliance by EVAing outside of Serenity's airlock. The bad guys are searching the ship for them, and those clever screenwriters hit upon having the brother and sister fugitives don space suits and attach themselves to the outside of the ship's hull until the danger passed.

One of the most memorable shots in the entire series happens when Simon slowly turns from his handhold on Serenity's hull and looks behind him, staring right into the face of incomprehensible size and distance. That's occasionally how I feel when floating to and fro in Space Engineers, which is quite a feat for a smallish indie title to manage.

Another positive that bears mentioning is the Space Engineers community. This past October, Keen announced that it had sold over 1 million copies of the game, and this is evident in the number of multiplayer worlds available via the Steam client as well as the huge helping of tutorial videos on YouTube. Whether you want some tips on cinematography, building the Enterprise, or best practices for surviving on a survival server, Space Engineers has a sizable and knowledgeable following that is all too willing to show you the ropes.

Space Engineers, as its name implies, is mostly about engineering. Don't let the title fool you, though, as this indie sandbox is quite accessible to both engineers and non-engineers alike, despite the fact that it's robust enough to feature real physics and real in-game programming. And hey, if space isn't your thing, Keen announced its followup title Medieval Engineers earlier this month!

Burned out on MMOs? That's OK; there are tons of other titles out there featuring MMOish open worlds, progression, RPG mechanics, or a combination of all three. Massively's MMO Burnout turns a critical eye toward everything from AAA blockbusters to obscure indie gems, not to mention a healthy dose of the best mods.
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