Kerbal Space Program 2: the preview review

Kerbal Space Program 2: the preview review

Kerbal Space Program 2

October 3, 2022. It's night in Cape Canaveral. Alarmed by a distant rumble of thunder, Howard Mostrom runs with some cables in hand. Behind him he has a structure that the too close shot does not allow to recognize. Then the scene widens: Mostrom is near the ramp 41 of the United Launch Alliance, at the Kennedy Space Center, intent on placing the equipment with which he hopes to record the sound of an Atlas V during the lift-off. Other than rolling thunder.

It's been a night of ordinary work for Mostrom, at least for the last year and a half. An audio game director by profession, he is among the few in the world who can approach a ramp a few hours before a space launch. And he is the only one who can do it to develop a video game: Kerbal Space Program 2.

This anecdote, or the fact that Elon Musk and Tony Bruno, the boss of the United Launch Alliance, play Kerbal would be enough to understand the essence of a video game that has been relying on reliability for  more than ten years technical-scientific and rigor two of its pillars – the third is the ability to make the first two hilarious.

If it weren't for the world preview of Kerbal Space Program 2, in early access from February 24th (on Steam and Epic Games Store), Intercept Games - who developed it - and its publisher, Private Division, have decided to turn to whoever has given them a hand to make it happen: the European Space Agency (ESA).

Fantasy precedes reality

“ It would be great to put Kerbal Space Program 2 at the disposal of our engineers: its graphical environment would be a very useful asset for designing missions. I am thinking of the rocket configurator or the immediate visualization of the trajectories ”. Speaking is Ilaria Roma , head of ESA's Systems and Concurrent Engineering, the section responsible for verifying the feasibility, and therefore for planning (from trajectory to cost), each mission the Agency intends to take beyond the Earth's atmosphere. That is, in reality, exactly what the player is called to do in Kerbal Space Program .

“To tell the truth, we have something similar here, but, for example, the augmented reality simulator to pre-visualize spacecraft it is under development. In short, also for reasons of budget and user base, we are lagging behind the gaming industry and technologies ”.

Rome says so while the Private Division technicians, not far away, set up the gaming stations reserved for the international press, who will get their first taste of the new Kerbal a few minutes later. Behind them is a 1:1 scale model of Rosalind Franklin, the rover destined to reach Mars in 2028. Nearby is the Photon - not a model, just her - a capsule identical to the one in which Yurij Gagarin flew, but used for various scientific missions by ESA. And under a reproduction of the International Space Station , hanging from the ceiling, Sara Pastor , the engineer responsible for the European contribution to the Lunar Gateway , chats with Lionel Ferra, astronaut trainer and founder of ESA's Extended Reality Lab, where science fiction and technology converge (we covered this report in the AstroWired podcast).

Simulation and fun

We are at the Estec , in Noordwijk, the Netherlands, the European Space Research and Technology Center of the Esa and it is no coincidence: in addition to making use of the consultancy of the Agency, Kerbal Space Program is the positive answer to the question: "Is it possible to use a video game to learn about space?". That is, to learn the complex laws of orbital flight, the constraints of movement in microgravity and the enormous weight of even minimal errors? Yes, it is possible. And to make it even easier is one of the first goals of Ksp2 .

Like its predecessor, the game consists of two main elements: an editor of assorted launchers, planes and spaceplanes and a physics simulator that allows you to pilot them to complete increasingly complex missions. Together with Elite: Dangerous, it is the video game with the most rigorous approach to the physics of outer space flight. Certainly the one that, on the dynamics of space travel and thanks to the collaboration of a very active community of modders, has surprisingly built its fortune. It may well be rocket science, but it's fun as hell - literally, given how easy it is to lose your pen for some incorrect calculation.

The editor of Kerbal Space Program 2 , the heart of the game (image: Intercept Games/Private Division)

“ I was a fan – says Nate Simpson, now creative director of Intercept Games – the more than two thousand hours of gameplay on the first Kerbal showed me how difficult it was to share the pleasure with friends. One of the main reasons Kerbal Space Program 2 exists is because we believed we could preserve its best features, but together create a fresh path, so that anyone with a general interest in space travel could enjoy it, even without specialist knowledge” .

New commands

Right from the tutorials, Ksp 2 seems to have hit the target: not only because the explanatory videos activated by the menus make complex notions familiar; above all because completely renewed interfaces and command system - first and foremost the redesigned Navball - allow intuitive management of any aspect of the gaming experience. And the feedback, in real time, makes it possible to understand errors in the assembly phase of the vehicles and in the development of the mission. To verify this, it will be sufficient to try the game already in its early access version, which boasts a hangar with over 350 parts for the creation of your own customized aircraft.

Don't be alarmed the fanatics: roam past the atmosphere of Kerbin – the Earth counterpart – hasn't gotten any easier. It is the learning curve of the game that has been effectively softened: "the basic physics are the same as in Kerbal Space Program 1 - confirms Simpson - we have improved the casing and interface to lower the entry threshold, but the core of the game can endlessly. It is not a way of saying: there is literally no limit to the challenges that can be faced and, if one wishes, one can carry out very, very ambitious undertakings”.

The mission

Simpson also refers to one of the most greedy novelties of Kerbal Space Program 2 : the adoption of the multiplayer mode , which will not only transform each player into an agency contributor spatial, but will subject it to collaborative dynamics which are also very close to reality. For better or for worse .

The multiplayer mode of Ksp2 will allow you to tackle increasingly complex missions (image: Intercept Games/Private Division)

“ Already when starting Ksp 2 the player will introduced to the concept of agency – explains Kristina Ness, artistic director of Intercept – everyone will have to choose their own flag, their own colors. When multiplayer goes online, we will support multiple agencies, each in a different launch location on Kerbin. They will group up to four players, who will share the benefits of exploration. Proceeding in the game, especially after activating interstellar travel, it will also be possible to collect resources to support one's settlements, to grow colonies. In doing so, it is as if each player becomes a subcontractor within his own team: he will be able to specialize in the development of rovers, landers or rockets. And all, not least, in competition with other agencies. It is evident how this ecosystem is designed to stimulate the space race ”.

Virtual but plausible, if not prophetic. As, moreover, the involvement of ESA suggests: “when we introduce a new function - continues Simpson - our standard requires it to be realistic enough to allow anyone who wants to learn more to find equivalents in reality. I am referring to space technologies or astrophysical phenomena. To guarantee this accuracy, we need to constantly compare ourselves with industry experts ”.

Yet woe to anyone who tells the Intercept team that their game is educational : “ We are well aware that Kerbal is one of the most educational video games never made - they joke - the fact is that you learn without realizing it. Sometimes you watch the launch of Artemis on TV and discover that you are familiar with concepts such as gravitational turn, circular combustion, mass fraction. They are things that the game teaches during its missions ”.

Ready to launch? Ksp2 is in early access from February 24th (image: Intercept Games/Private Division)

A relationship, the one between digital experience and reality, which not only confirms the profitable exchange of skills and technologies between the videogame sector and the spatial, but also the increasingly central relationship between space, entertainment and daily life. It is no coincidence that ESA has established partnerships with European developers and continues to offer expertise and resources to benefit their activities. In January, the speech at Estec by the founders of KeokeN Interactive, to whom we owe the recent Deliver Us Mars , also recalled this.

“ I believe it is essential for the media and science fiction to normalize space travel to all and internationally - comments Ness - human beings cannot exist as a species of a single planet. Imagining its migration is an ambitious goal for a video game”. And, Ilaria Roma or Sara Pastor would agree, not just for a video game.

“ My biggest goal? May Kerbal Space Program 2 succeed in expanding the universe of its players. And that someone can say, thanks to the game, that they understand the world better ”.

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