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Hardspace: Shipbreaker is relaxing until an explosion propels a hunk of nanocarbon into your face

(Image credit: Focus Home Interactive)

Most people dream of flashy sci-fi jobs. They want to be space marines, the first humans to land on uncharted planets. Or they want to be diplomats, making first contact with new lifeforms. Even long-haul space trucking has its devotees, nothing but you and an album of jizz music and the call of the intergalactic highway.

But me? I'm a Shipbreaker. Or a Cutter. I'm not quite sure about the terminology.

I'm not quite sure about anything, to be honest. I've had zero training. I signed a contract, agreed not to unionize my fellow scrap slingers, and then they handed me a big red laser and pointed me at the nearest ship that needed deconstructing. Ten seconds later, I died. It turns out you’re supposed to depressurize the ship before blasting a hole in its side.

Hardspace: Shipbreaker, which released in Early Access today, isn't quite as relaxing as I expected. At least, not at the beginning. I thought I was in for the space equivalent of Car Mechanic Simulator. You know, pump up the dad rock, slice and dice some spaceships, remove the valuable components piece by piece. And that's sort of what Hardspace: Shipbreaker offers.

There's a key difference though: Usually when you remove a car engine, it doesn't explode.

In Hardspace: Shipbreaker, seemingly everything explodes. Reactors? Explode. Pressurized doors? Explode. Fuel tanks? Explode. Power cells? Explode. It would be dangerous even if you weren't firing a laser into the whole mess.

Ideally you'd receive some training to help mitigate disaster. There's a tutorial now, but whether by bad luck or the magic of Day One Patches I wasn't treated to one when I started last night. Thus I missed out on probably the most important aspect of Hardspace: the part where you learn how not to blow yourself up.

It made for a confusing start, so definitely don't skip the tutorial. You have three tools: A grappling hook, the laser-slicing tool from Dead Space, and a more focused laser beam. Obviously the first thing I tried—having fought in many Star Wars—was carving dumb shapes into the side of the ship with the laser beam. Unfortunately it doesn't work that way. All it's good for is heating a single component until it melts, or more likely until the laser overheats and explodes in your hand.

As I said, everything explodes.

The Dead Space laser cutter is more satisfying, with a dynamic dotted line showing where you're about to slice. Line it up, click, and gorgeous orange goo appears along the edges of the now-loose panel.

What do you do next though? This is where I got lost for—I don't know. An hour? At least? Ships in Hardspace are made up of dozens—maybe hundreds—of pieces. Panels, metal pylons, clamps, fuel tanks, thrusters, lights, seats, airlock controls, and so on. Each of these pieces belongs in one of three places: The Furnace, the Processor, and the Barge. Or if you prefer the technical terms, "The Orange Hole," "The Blue Hole," and "The Green Hole."

Scrap metal goes in the Furnace/Orange Hole, valuable metals like titanium and nanocarbon go in the Processor/Blue Hole, and more immediately useful components like seats and thrusters go in the Barge/Green Hole. If you forget, there's a HUD element dead-center to remind you.

More often than not I hurled myself into the Processor along with my space-trash.

You cut, cut, cut and then you sort, sort, sort. That's it. That's the whole game—except as I said, half the items you need to sort are primed to explode.

I said you have a grappling hook, right? For the first hour I thought the grapple was the only way to move items around in Hardspace. It was the most boring hour I've spent in 2020, and that's saying something. I'd cut a panel off the ship, then grab it with the grapple, and then sloooowly pull it towards the proper garbage disposal. And then more often than not I hurled myself into the Processor along with my space-trash. Was it accidental? The first time, yes.

The time-honored ritual of hitting every key at my disposal eventually revealed the wealth of opportunities I was missing though. The grapple does more than just pull trash around. Tapping "F" allows you to propel objects in any direction (even though this isn't mentioned in the controls at all). 

Not only that, Hardspace: Shipbreaker has tethers. That's right, it's not Car Mechanic Simulator at all. It's Just Cause. Right click with the grapple equipped and magic space rope connects any two objects together, and then starts pulling them towards each other based on relative mass.

Tethers are a much more efficient way to catapult space junk into the proper receptacles. They are also a much more efficient way to get yourself killed. Chain six chairs together, then watch them turn into a deadly foam-covered flail. Lob a panel at the Processor behind you and enjoy the frantic alarm klaxon in your helmet as 10 tons of metal junk comes flying straight at your head. Yank the reactor out of its socket and marvel as electricity arcs into the entire ship and lights everything on fire.

They're fun. Trouble is, tethers are also very limited at the outset. You get 10 tethers for each job, and then you have to return to base and buy more. You can upgrade your tether capacity—and many more aspects of your gear—by completing certain tasks, but it's slow going moving up the Cutter ranks.

Very slow, and very repetitive at the moment. After three hours I finally moved up from "Beginner" to "Novice" rank and unlocked the next tier of ships. I was looking forward to dismantling battleships or cruisers or whatever after spending hours deconstructing the same two-room cargo haulers and civilian transits over and over. Alas, after clocking in for my eighth day on the job—and this clone body's second day—I discovered that the next tier of ships were pretty much identical to the old, only with a few more bits attached.

I'm not saying I deserve better, as I promptly removed the reactor without flushing the fuel lines and blew the entire ship (and myself) to smithereens. Still, I already feel like I'm going through the motions. The basic Mackerel ships are fun to explore the first few times, discovering how all the pieces link together and how best to strip them for parts. Developer Blackbird Interactive did a great job designing the ships for Homeworld: Deserts of Kharak, and that same sense of grimy lived-in future tech exists here as well.

But, well, it's still the same basic ship layout time after time. The Free Play mode allows you to deconstruct ships without the career mode's restrictions, and there I can see a new "Gecko" model that's bigger and more complex. I'm still hours away from reaching that point in my campaign though, and I don't know how many Mackerels I have left in me. 

Maybe it's time to hang up my laser cutter and put this budding career on hold, go be a pilot or something. Just for a little while, until Hardspace: Shipbreaker has had a chance to grow into Early Access a bit and add new ships to the mix. I'm sure the docks will be waiting when I come back. Hell, they're probably safer without me around.