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Kerbal Space Program 2 early access impressions - aim for the stars

Kerbal Space Program 2 is as much a remake as it is a sequel, but it's what's still beyond the horizon that's most exciting about this space-age sandbox game.

Kerbal Space Program 2 early access preview: Two small aliens in space suits floating around meteors

After a few days with the newly launched Kerbal Space Program 2 Early Access build, it’s safe to say that the space race is back on. The goofy green little rocket scientists have returned, and 12 years after the arrival of the original space sandbox game, there are many new horizons to look forward to – although some are still under construction.

Kerbal Space Program 2 is a sequel, technically speaking, but it might be more helpful to think of it as a remake – one of those remakes that, like Dead Space and Diablo 2: Resurrected, feel so familiar that it becomes difficult to tell exactly what’s changed until you launch the original and gasp at how dated it looks.

Just about everything I remember from the original Kerbal Space Program is present and accounted for in Kerbal Space Program 2, albeit with a high-resolution coat of paint over the whole works. The Kerbal Space Center is a tidy looking campus comprising a high-tech launch pad and tower, the tracking station, the Vehicle Assembly Building, and a state-of-the-art training facility, which was my first stop – my rocket science skills have gotten a bit rusty over the past decade, it seems.

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One of Kerbal Space Program 2’s major improvements over the original is its inclusion of several integrated tutorials, which help get me back up to speed on basic spaceflight concepts like achieving stable orbits and orbital transfer – in other words, how to essentially slingshot my tiny capsules around Planet Kerbin in such a way that it will almost collide with the Mun.

An AI character named P.A.I.G.E. guides me through each lesson. Some of these are animated videos, while others let me get hands-on in a simulator-within-a-simulator. New tools in the Vehicle Assembly Building provide better information on my designs – I can see at a glance whether my thrust-to-weight ratio exceeds one, which is a crucial prerequisite for anything that’s meant to move away from the ground. The mission planner tool has more detailed information: I can see exactly how much delta-v (a measure of impulse per unit of mass) I need for each stage of my planned mission.

Kerbal Space Program 2 early access review: A tutorial screen showing a rocket trajectory on a black background

Currently, the tutorials only cover up to orbital transfers, but I’m impressed with the way Intercept Games and Private Division have embraced Kerbal Space Program’s identity as a tool for both teaching and learning. The cheesy tutorial videos and chirpy characters don’t shy away from technical terminology like apoapsis and prograde, but each concept is introduced in such a way that they make practical sense for a layman such as myself. It’s the kind of teaching someone can only do when they’ve become extremely familiar with the practical application of their subject matter, and I wish I’d had instruction like this when I was struggling to learn calculus back in my formative years.

Visually, Kerbal Space Program 2 is a major upgrade over the original, although again, the game’s visual identity is so strong that it’s easy to imagine that this is how it’s always looked. Stand them side by side, however, and it’s striking how much more detail and visual polish Kerbal Space Program 2 has added: beautiful coronas over the horizon, spectacular smoke effects during lift-off, and much more dramatic lighting all help improve its looks – although admittedly, this is still a sandbox simulation game that’s more concerned with function than with form.

One area that’s stayed frustratingly close to the original game is in vehicle assembly itself. The snap function can still be pretty dicey to use, particularly when it comes to placing decouplers and struts in symmetry mode. Solid booster rockets resist connecting to the decoupling mounts I add to the main fuel tank every time, occasionally freaking out and turning sideways instead of simply popping onto their intended connections. This is something I eventually learned to work around in the original game, but it’s a bummer to see it present in a sequel more than ten years later.

Kerbal Space Program 2: A rocket taking off surrounded by smoke

Still, this is only the beginning of Kerbal Space Program 2’s Early Access phase, and so annoyances like that – as well as the occasional crashes I experienced while moving from one tutorial chapter to the next – have a good chance of being ironed out as development continues.

On that note, however, it’s worth pointing out that a lot of the headline features promised in Kerbal Space Program 2 aren’t implemented in the build you’ll play on day one of Early Access. While there are new planets to explore in the local solar – sorry, Kerbolar – system, a handful of new spacecraft parts to experiment with, and the new tutorials, features like planetary colonies, interstellar flight, and multiplayer are still a ways down the road.

Waiting for a more complete version of Kerbal Space Program 2 to arrive is a perfectly reasonable approach for any player to take, but the improvisational nature of humanity’s exploration of space lends itself to Early Access so well that it’s almost poetic. Late last year, if you’ll forgive me for a bit of an indulgence here, I found myself almost overwhelmed by the pathos of NASA’s Opportunity Mars rover, whose story was beautifully told in the Amazon Prime documentary ‘Good Night Oppy.’

It wasn’t the plucky little robot itself that made my heart swell, of course – it was the fact that it represented an effort and genius far too immense for any one person to contain. Opportunity’s 15-year sojourn across the surface of Mars represented decades of hard work and dedication by thousands of humanity’s brightest minds – a level of national effort rarely seen outside of war. The mission succeeded beyond anyone’s wildest dreams, and that’s thanks to years and years of quick thinking and troubleshooting back at mission control.

So it feels in keeping with the tradition of building the plane while it’s flying to hop in right away now that the Kerbal Space Program 2 release date is upon us, as does the original game’s enthusiastic scene of Kerbal Space Program mods. There will almost certainly be unexpected bumps and setbacks along the way, but who better to make that kind of journey with than a bunch of cheerful green Kerbals?