Hardspace: Shipbreaker is unique and utterly brilliant

Hardspace: Shipbreaker has just launched in Steam Early Access, and I’m utterly hooked. It turns out that taking spaceships apart is a brilliant idea for a video game.

But before we get into the nitty gritty of how this all works, I just want to single out the spaceship design for high praise. The developers Blackbird Interactive have clearly been influenced by Chris Foss, who created some amazing artworks for the covers of sci-fi novels back in the 1970s. There’s a clear homage to his signature checker-board paint designs in Hardspace: Shipbreaker, and the angular space stations in particular look wonderful.

So, the game itself is set in a terrible industrial future where Earth’s resources have been squandered and evil mega-corporations rule the roost. You play a debt-ridden employee who signs up to one of the most-dangerous jobs going in an effort to get back into the black: breaking up old spaceships in orbit above Earth.

After an intro in which its explicitly made clear just how little the Lynx Corporation values human life, you’re given a training vessel to take apart and introduced to your main tools – a cutter and a grapple beam. The cutter can be focused into a precision beam or be flipped to cut a horizontal line that can slice up large panels, while the grapple beam can be used to wrangle objects from a distance. The grapple can also fire tethers that connect objects and slowly drag them towards each other, which is very handy for sorting chunks of debris. Each bit of the spaceship needs to be sent to one of three places – the salvage barge, the processor or the furnace, which are handily located around the derelict – and once you’ve sliced off a chunk of hull, you can tether it to, say, the processor and then happily turn your back on it, knowing that it will be dragged right on in.

And being able to quickly turn your attention elsewhere is essential, because you’re on a strict 15-minute time limit to salvage as much of the ship as you can. The Lynx Corporation charges you daily interest on your massive debt of $999,999,999, so you need to make sure the worth of your salvage on each shift exceeds the interest you pay – and if you happen to die while working, you’ll be charged a hefty ‘resurrection fee’ to be cloned again.

Death is a constant threat, too. There are all sorts of hazards to look out for, like electrical shocks from power cells, fiery death as a result of accidentally cutting into fuel pipes and explosive depressurisation caused by cutting into the hull without draining the air from the cabin. Then there are the nuclear reactors, which are worth a hefty $500,000 but are prone to melting down once they’ve been extracted, so you only have seconds in which to safely deposit them into the salvage barge.

Essentially, each ship is a puzzle you have to solve within a set time limit, working out where the fuel valves are so you can shut them off, carefully removing panels around the reactor so you have a path to remove it safely, and scanning the ship to find valuable items like power cells. And on each shift you’re also given a series of specific objectives to grab specific items – meet these and you’re rewarded with upgrade tokens to improve your tools and spacesuit.

You quickly learn to prioritise the most valuable parts of the ship, but in your haste it’s all too easy to nick a fuel pipe and blow the hull to smithereens, leaving you with a floating soup of far-less-valuable shards. But if you just want to take your time and methodically harvest every single nut and bolt, there’s also a free-play mode with no time limit.

I found the gameplay loop to be incredibly satisfying, and with each run I was getting more and more efficient at scavenging derelicts. It helps too that the zero-G controls are wonderfully implemented, and they became second nature very quickly – no mean feat in a game where up and down don’t really exist. The only real criticism I have at the moment is the lack of variety in spaceships – currently there are just three main types, with several variations on each, and after nine hours, I started to get a little bored harvesting the same old ships again and again. But we’re being promised far more ship types in the official release, so I can’t wait to come back and discover what has changed in the months to come.

The developers reckon Hardspace: Shipbreaker will spend around a year in Early Access, so it has already become one of my most highly anticipated releases of 2021, but I’d urge you to check out the game in its current state, too. There’s about 15 hours’ worth of gameplay there at the moment, and it’s an absolute blast.

Hardspace: Shipbreaker is being developed by Blackbird Interactive and published by Focus Home Interactive. It’s currently in Steam Early Access, with a full release planned for next year, along with console versions.

Disclosure statement: preview code for Hardspace: Shipbreaker was provided by Indigo Pearl. A Most Agreeable Pastime operates as an independent site, and all opinions expressed are those of the author.

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