It’s been 10 minutes in the vacuum of space. The shuttle’s atmosphere has been vented, the top and bottom hull panels carefully cut off, and the nuclear reactor swiftly disposed of in a nearby barge before it melts down. I’m knee deep in floating scraps of titanium, my breath echoing loudly inside the spacesuit’s helmet amongst the string chords of the radio’s Americana country music, and I carefully reach out my hand towards the fuel pipe. The vibrations of the coursing liquid travel through my arms to my ears, and I ready myself; pulling the fuel pump release lever, I take out my laser saw tool and fire it at the now-empty pipe, cutting through it… and the hidden, charged power cell behind it. The electricity arcs out, ignites the now disconnected fuel cells, and causes the whole ship to disintegrate in a massive explosion, sending me flying through the abyss towards the walls of the nearby space station. The last thing I see, aside from my outstretched hands poised to blunt the impact and thousands of small hull shards flying by me, is the crack in my helmet as my face slams into the hull.
That’s Hardspace: Shipbreaker, a first-person game that puts you in the (space) shoes of a zero-g blue collar worker tasked with disassembling spaceships in Earth’s orbit. And I have to be honest – it’s been a long time since an Early Access game impressed me like this.
Starting off as a newly-hired employee of LYNX’s “Pave the way to the galaxy” program, you are sent to Earth’s orbit to break ships apart for a living, salvaging everything you can to pay off a preposterous 1 billion credits debt. In classic megacorp-satire form, you pay not only for the accommodation while you’re up there, but also for the rental of your spacesuit, helmet, tools, and even the air you breathe – all while carrying a daily 0.001% interest on your already astronomical debt.
In order to pay that, you must methodically take down ships in a salvage bay without turning everything into scraps. Each craft is a double-hulled vehicle, made up of a mix of metal plates and beams alongside a complex system of electric, mechanical, and fuel systems. Your standard laser tools are unable to cut anything that isn’t aluminum and titanium, forcing you to look for cut points to separate the nanocarbon hull panels from the ship’s skeleton and throw them into either the processors or the furnaces waiting on both sides of the ship.
To do all that cutting, you need to scan the ship with a togglable X-ray-like visor that shows connections points, fuel pipes, and electrical systems (as well as objects such as furniture, crates, and computer terminals) and then make your way into the ship through an airlock in order to vent the ship’s atmosphere safely. Cutting the ship without doing so can result in a catastrophic depressurization that can catapult the ship clear across the bay or blow the hull to smithereens, which at best ruins some of the salvage and at worse causes a chain reaction that turns the whole vessel into floating debris, and air is not the only thing that presents a danger – fuel lines must be disconnected manually or through an utility key, power cells need to be removed, and the nuclear reactor starts melting down the moment it is unplugged from its casing.
The latter is a particularly important part of the salvage process, as a ship’s reactor explodes into a blinding (and brilliantly auditory) antimatter detonation shortly after removal that often disintegrates everything around it. As such, you need to move most of the ship out of the way to provide a clear path for the reactor from its casing to the recovery barge floating below the salvage bay. While you can move most small pieces with a handheld energy grapple tool, most of the ship panels and nacelle engines – as well as Class 2 Reactors – are too heavy to be lifted directly and must be tethered with energy ropes that automatically tie things together by pulling them towards each other.
The thing that ties it all together is the amazing physics system behind it, and how detailed and versatile everything in Hardspace is. The grapple can be used to pull and push ship pieces, but can also be used to pull and push yourself if the thing you’re trying to move is too heavy. The laser cutter can either be fired on a single focused beam, or as a horizontal/vertical 10m line that cuts plates any shape you want – there are no pre-baked pieces, and you are free to cut plates into one, two, or a thousand pieces for removal.
While the game is extremely relaxing, I did find it a bit more against crazy experimentation than I expected, as some of my more elaborate experiments simply refused to work. After playing for 15 hours and upgrading most of my equipment, I was still unable to pull the first, lightest ship whole into a furnace – in fact, the craft refused to move an inch even after using over 50 tethers on it, all tied to the same spot. Similarly, long cuts seem unable to detach big pieces from each other – I tried cutting large rectangular aluminum plates and whole ships in half on multiple occasions, and the game just insists on acting as if they are still stuck to something even when they’re not.
Meanwhile, big pieces and mass just refuse to move when acted upon by your tools, and the only times I was able to get a ship to really move was through depressurisation – even reactors explosions resulted in less ship movement than simply letting O2 out. In a game that focuses so much on player agency, I expected the ability to throw a whole ship into a furnace and sacrificing 70% of your paycheck except its metal would be a no-brainer, and a great moment of cathartic sandboxing.
Luckily, the work itself is surprisingly enjoyable and relaxing on its own, and even after 15 hours with the game, I still kept coming back for more. A work order system gives you objectives such as “salvage 20 tons of aluminum” or “salvage 10 electrical systems”, and completing them earns you LYNX Tokens that can be used to unlock and upgrade equipments, as well as buying your own tools and spacesuit – which removes the rental fees you pay every day and no longer forces you to salvage at least 500,000 credits every 15-minutes shift just to break even.
As an Early Access game, Shipbreaker is surprisingly polished. An Americana country music soundtrack reminiscent of Rebel Galaxy’s (and a Southern drawl tutorial narrator) set the blue collar worker tone of the game quite well, and little touches like the ability to move both arms independently to grab something, crawl along the side of a ship, or brace yourself for impact are brilliant. I especially like how getting hurt (such as being shocked, hit, frozen, or burnt) can cause a radio malfunction that changes the radio station for a few seconds until your character slaps the side of the helmet to fix it (or how the helmet itself can crack upon excessive damage and start venting O2).
Being an Early Access title, it does of course have some issues. The game launches with just the first act (which is still easily 15 hours long) and only has two very boring and similar boxy ship designs that are as exciting as a garbage truck – and for some reason the preview image you see on ship selection NEVER reflects the ship you actually work on, which is infuriating. Shipbreaker also doesn’t explain some of its mechanics properly, with no explanation whatsoever about how to perform a grapple pull or how to disarm fuses without shocking yourself (or how to remove a Class 2 reactor from its casing besides cutting the bars around it and dragging the whole thing out). That last bit often highlighted a bug the game currently has, where dragging compound pieces into the barge results in them not being processed, making some work orders impossible to complete.
Performance-wise, the game is understandably heavy even in high-end systems. The framerate constantly drops inside pressurised environments or when cutting plates, but the game crashed only twice during gameplay in nearly 20 hours (although it consistently crashed on exiting the application whenever I had just disassembled a complex Class 3 ship or higher). One particular issue I found a bit harder to swallow was a shameful lack of 16:9 resolutions; you only get 1080p and 4K, with nothing in between – a problem given how bad performance is. I resorted to modifying the .ini files to run the game in 2K, but just like 4K, it caused the HUD to be horribly distorted.
Still, given the state of the launch, I have no doubt those are all temporary issues. Hardspace: Shipbreaker launches with three career modes (an unlimited lives one, a 30-lives one, and a permadeath one) and a free play mode, which has no 15-minute timers, unlimited O2/power/fuel/tethers, and virtually lets you freely play in a full sandbox environment – a great way to just experiment or relax with the game at the expense of no personal career progression. It even has a deep lore behind it, complete with data drives found in missions with audio and text logs to discover.
Moving forward, there’s a few things I would like to see in the game – more info about base tools stats, a throw/push function for the arm buttons, and a customisable HUD would be a great addition, the latter complementing the “No HUD option” the game ships with (I would especially like to see how much money I’ve salvaged so far, as the game only shows LTs, which are vastly less relevant compared to the half-a-million credits expenses you constantly worry about every day in the bay). The 15-minute timers are also a bit too arbitrary and restrictive, and while the game does allow you to work on a ship over multiple days, going over the recommended ship limit does not recharge your tethers and fuel and O2, essentially punishing you for going after big ships and potentially adding an insurmountable skill ceiling to some players and forcing them to grind. More important, however, would be the addition of better ship designs; the two models and its variants the game currently has are uninspired and boxy, and the designers would do well to look for more elaborate inspirations that actually give you something other than a giant metal box with layers to work on.
All in all, I am very impressed with Hardspace: Shipbreaker. It is a polished, addictive, capable game full of soul and heart, which somehow manages to make the cold darkness of space with the oppressive debt of a corporation a warm place to be in. It’s been a long time since an Early Access game impressed me, and even longer since I’ve actually wanted to go back to a game after reviewing it, but Shipbreaker got its tethers on me – I’m going to keep playing it after launch, and I can’t wait to see where Blackbird Interactive goes with it.
HARDSPACE: SHIPBREAKER VERDICT
A surprisingly polished game that’s as immersive and exciting as it is relaxing, Hardspace: Shipbreaker makes disassembling ships in Zero-G a blast.
TOP GAME MOMENT
“Cleaning the plate” (fully disassembling) a whole Class 4 for the first time.
Deep lore and world-building
Controls are a blast
Progression system is interesting
Disassembling a whole ship can be a chore, especially small lights that add very little to the process
Performance is quite bad
Ship design is uninspired, which is a concern point given how much time you spend with each ship
Level up grind is a bit too severe, as unlocking any new stuff past the tutorial takes hours working on way too many similar-looking ships with things that you're already used to handling
About Marcello Perricone
Passionate, handsome, and just a tiny bit cocky, our resident Time Lord loves history, science, and all things that fall from the sky.