Hardspace: Shipbreaker is a game from Canadian studio Blackbird Interactive that launches in Steam Early Access on June 16th. You play as a shipbreaker, tasked with the dangerous job of cutting up disused spaceships to salvage their contents. Wearing nothing but a spacesuit and armed with a laser cutter and tether, your mission is to make enough money from these hulks to earn your freedom. But each vessel is packed with hazards that can kill you in an instant if you make a mistake.
In the game, you emerge from your habitat module and jetpack over to where today’s job floats in front of you. These vessels aren’t clean and tidy, however, and you have live electricals, fuel tanks and pressurized cabins to deal with. That means that you can’t simply go in blazing with your laser cutter — well, you can, but you’ll not live to regret it.
Instead, you need to act strategically, pulling apart the ship’s external equipment and hacking off any external hardware before venturing inside. Because the cabins are pressurized, you’ll need to gently find a way of getting the high-value gear left inside, like computers and chairs, outside. There, you’ll drop them into a barge that sits below the drydock and tells you how much cash you’ve earned. Only when you’ve picked it clean can you depressurize the hulk and start pulling the ship’s superstructure apart. That’s where the most volatile and valuable prizes sit, including the ship’s still-working nuclear reactor.
But one false move with your laser cutter, or if you dismantle a system in the wrong order, and it’s curtains. Hit a fuel line and it’ll explode, damage a power junction and you’ll get shocked, and puncturing the hull inside a pressurized cabin will cause it to explode. If a piece of flying debris hits you too hard, or you crash into it at speed, then you’ll feel it. And that’s before you get to the problems of your equipment failing and setting you on fire, or you run out of oxygen.
In my experience, the game works best when played with a gamepad rather than keyboard and mouse, all the better to move in zero-gravity space. Having 360 degrees of movement feels unprecedented for this type of game, and something you’ll need to master early on if you don’t want to feel lost. “It’s a really important part of the game to get your bearings in the salvage bay,” says Trey Smith, the game’s director, “because [otherwise] it’s the Ender’s Game thing where you don’t know which way is up.”
The game’s main conceit is that you — the game asks for your real name when you start — have escaped a miserable life on a deserted, ruined Earth. To do so, you signed your life away to the omnipresent, sinister Lynx Corporation, which, essentially, now owns you. By covering the millions of dollars to get you into space, Lynx subsequently charges you for everything, so you are in the company’s constant debt.
And, every time you die, Lynx resurrects you at a substantial cost, which is added to your total debt. Plus, every time your shift ends, you have to pay costs to the company, including renting your equipment (which you pay to maintain) and your living quarters. You’re essentially signed up to a life of bonded labor, a form of modern slavery that the International Labour Organization says affects millions of people all over the world.
“There’s a part in the progression where it feels like you're getting buried, and that was by design,” says Smith. “But as you progress and earn certifications and get better tools, and can access these more expensive ships,” he said, “you’ll see a light at the end of the tunnel.”
I’ve been playing for around eight hours now, and I know my way around the game’s first class of vessel relatively well. There are moments when a plan comes together, and you make the right cuts in the right order and everything floats to their intended destination. When you’ve mastered the initial game and things start to click for you, it’s hard not to get engrossed in it. The kick you get from successfully deboning a starship is strong enough that you just can’t wait to get back to do it again.
In fact, a quick one-hour session to test the game quickly spirals to eating a whole evening as you get engrossed in your current project. “We target flow,” said Smith, “the player just gets immersed into the experience and the real world melts away.” It’s serene and satisfying to float around making a plan and working out how best to tackle each ship in turn.
The one annoyance is that the game caps your oxygen supply to a level I found frustrating at best, and punishing at worst. Finish the tutorial section and you’re given a 250-second window to do some salvage and race back to the habitat module to buy another oxygen canister. Smith says that this is to help players learn the geography of the bay with the constant shuttling back and forth, as well as teaching them to use the grapple to get there and back faster.
The tight window is also to help reinforce Smith’s notion that this is “blue-collar” work — a 15-minute shift, broken up into 250-second loops. The further up the tech tree you go, the bigger your oxygen tanks can get to extend the loop when the ships get more complex. It’s the one thing that didn’t click for me as it acts as a needless distraction that breaks up the puzzle-solving elements of the game. It’s tough enough already, I think, to extract the gear from each vessel without dying, before you add the busywork of running back and forth to top up your air.
You’re free to try some big or clever ideas to make your shipbreaking more efficient, but don’t be surprised if they blow up in your face. In one attempt, I tried to fill a pressurized room with all the high-value items while I depressurized the rest. My grand plan was to try to tilt the ship to face the barge, force an explosive decompression and send all the prized items hurtling down to the recovery barge in one go. It didn’t work, and I blew the ship up, killing me in the process and leaving a dead husk to clean up after my resurrection.
Smith says that there is no right or wrong way to tackle each salvage operation and his team has been surprised at the variety of approaches taken. While showing the game off at PAX East, the team ran a competition to see who could salvage the most in the shortest time. “This was a very simplified ship,” he said, “and even with the simple systems that were inside, we saw crazy ways that people were doing things,” which were “completely different than any of us on the dev team had done.”