All right, cutter. Time to polish this tap shoe
Do you remember the opening cutscene to Starcraft? No, not the one where Gerard DuGalle watches from a battlecruiser as a Zerg swarm overruns a colony. That’s what you get when Brood War is installed. No, I mean the one where a group of space hicks is salvaging wreckage and a fleet of Protoss show up to cleanse the planet. Have you ever wanted to be one of those space hicks? No, I don’t mean get vaporized by space elves.
There’s something serene about the whole zero gravity scene. Surveying the wreckage, celebrating the potential haul, and dying in the hostile vacuum of oblivion; it’s something that struck me in my younger days, and now Hardspace: Shipbreaker is making it a reality. Err… They’re making it an interactive experience.
Hardspace: Shipbreaker (PC)
Developer: Blackbird Interactive
Publisher: Focus Entertainment
Released: May 24, 2022
Work sims have exploded in popularity recently. While managerial games have been around almost as long as video games have, getting down and dirty with a job is a reasonably new phenomenon. There’s the argument of “maybe just get a job doing X” that comes with these games, but I’d rather take bites out of the mud at the bottom of the trenches than pull up a blanket and live in them.
For that matter, it can be hard to hit a special sweet spot with work simulators. It has to be fun, and some of these games equate that as being weird or hilariously janky. The streamer crowd has latched onto these for that reason, it allows them to demonstrate some sort of fantastical ineptitude while still being entertaining.
Hardspace: Shipbreaker is interesting because it’s not particularly weird, nor is janky. It has a sense of humor about things, but it’s not poking fun at itself. Rather, it presents a satire of the modern workplace and our corporate overlords. Except it does that really effectively, so if you have ever had a really sucky boss and worked under the heel of unfeeling, unfamiliar management, it’s probably going to hit close to home. Heck, I worked in IT for nine years. It’s not the most grueling work, but Hardspace: Shipbreaker managed to find all the nerves my old supervisor used to poke.
All right, cutter. Time to peel this banana
That’s fine and everything, but it’s not necessarily the main appeal of Hardspace: Shipbreaker. From the first day of the job until you decide you’re finished, you float in zero gravity, through the empty corridors and crawlspaces of various industrial ships, popping them open and peeling them away.
The job is simple. There are three types of scrap, and each on goes into a different space bucket. It’s up to you to figure out how to recover every piece that you can and get it in the right spot. This requires cutting, plucking, and even exploding parts off the ship’s body.
It starts off easy; don’t electrocute yourself and be careful with that cutter around those big, red barrels. Eventually, you work your way up to much more dangerous kit. There are thrusters that you need to cut the fuel to while everything starts to burn. There are reactors that you need to prep, pluck, and dump before it vaporizes you and a large section of the ship. Then there’s explosive decompression, which can sometimes be an inconvenience, and other times a catastrophic setback. Time is money, but scrap is also money, and it’s worth more in one piece.
All right, cutter. Time to shave this gorilla
The act of peeling apart a ship is just so satisfying. A clean scrapping is like space music. Watching your tethers pull off the outer shell and deposit them in the proper spot is like napping in a hammock. But then there are tense moments, like when you find the atmospheric regulator in one section of a ship is busted, so you need to do a “controlled” explosive depressurization. Or when you pull a reactor and realize that the path you made isn’t quite as clear as it seemed a moment ago.
If that thing does go nuclear, your employer, Lynx Salvage, has you covered. They’ll just boot up a clone and send you back to work. It’s probably the darkest little corner of Hardspace: Shipbreaker’s sense of humor. It at least made me take care of my mortal shell so death wouldn’t send me into another existential crisis. Oops, it’s happening again, let’s move on.
That’s in the standard mode; death isn’t permanent. There’s a limited way of playing that gives you a set number of lives to spend. Then there’s a permanent death mode if you’d rather not laugh in the face of space-god. Finally, there’s a more freeform mode where you don’t need to worry about death or a shift clock. None of them are really touted as the true way to play, but the whole cloning thing is brought up for narrative reasons.
All right, cutter. Time to grind this stripper pole
Hardspace: Shipbreaker is quite a long game. There’s a perpetual appeal in deconstructing spacefaring vessels, but there is a start and end to the main career. In the beginning, you’re saddled with colossal debt to Lynx, and that’s given to you as sort of a red herring for the game’s main objective. As you gain experience by hitting salvage goals and level up, additional objectives open up and the narrative progresses to a point of termination. It’s all a rather satisfying progression, but it takes a long time to get there. Luckily, it’s helped up by a lot of different ship configurations to mess with.
I also have good news and bad news about the soundtrack. Bad news first: it’s mostly country. The good news is that it’s not modern pop-country. You won’t hear lyrics about beer, the idealized virtues of small-town life, and the life lessons you learn while driving a truck. You won’t hear any lyrics at all. See, the good news is that it’s just atmospheric, twangy country. Acoustic guitars, fiddles, and then you pull that reactor and panicky techno overlaps it. As someone who detests modern country, the soundtrack didn’t really bother me. However, my brain insists that there are only about three tracks to the whole thing and refuses to stop playing them for me.
One thing to note is that the narrative can get pretty drawn out. A lot of the time you’re staring at a wall listening to a character talk over comms. You never actually see these characters. It does a decent job to show the worries of the working class, but if you just want to go and cut ships apart, then I can see it getting a bit frustrating. It never really bothered me. I found the characters to be pretty likeable
Hardspace: Shipbreaker is successful in just about everything it attempts. Not only is its gameplay extremely replayable and constantly satisfying, but it also manages to stack it all on a very solid narrative foundation. Tangibly, it feels like keeping your head down while forces bigger than you decide your fate. Gross. But if you don’t want all the horrible management talk and resistance to unionization to drag you down, you can just go in and hack some ships apart. It’s a serene zero-g experience while a wasp flies around in your helmet. Ignore it, and maybe it will leave you alone. Except probably not, wasps are jerks.
[This review is based on a retail build of the game provided by the publisher.]