Hardspace: Shipbreaker Preview – Hands-on with the Dystopian Sci-fi Puzzler

New PC game Hardspace: Shipbreaker may feel like work at times, but that's the point. Here are our hands-on impressions of the sci-fi puzzler.

Hardspace: Shipbreaker
Photo: Blackbird Interactive

Hardspace: Shipbreaker, a new sci-fi puzzler from Canadian studio Blackbird Interactive, is the story of a worker, who, in order to escape a miserable existence on a resource-depleted Earth, applies to work at Lynx, a spaceship salvage mega-corporation. But the promise of a better life in space is a lie.

In the opening moments of the game, you’re prompted to sign a contract that gives Lynx control over not only your life but your DNA too. If you suffer an accident or die on the job (you will die a bunch), Lynx uses your DNA to create a clone so that you can continue working in perpetuity — or until your “debt” to the company is paid off. The sum, a growing tab that covers everything from your travel into space to room and board to the rental fee for all of the equipment you use on the job, is so high that there’s no realistic way you will ever actually be able to free yourself from Lynx.

And so it goes. Day after day, you cut into ships to recover valuable metals and equipment for the company only to find yourself more in debt to Lynx after every shift. But this is a small price to pay to escape poverty back on Earth, right? Lynx seems to think so. You even get a beautiful view out of the deal!

Blackbird uses this dystopian backdrop to create an excellent satire about the modern workplace (and the one still to come) that will remind some of Boots Riley’s brilliant anti-capitalist flick Sorry to Bother You and Terry Gilliam’s surveillance state satire Brazil. Sure, hitting the Lynx salvage yard for your daily 15-minute shift of resource hunting sometimes feels like actual work, but that’s kind of the point.

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To Blackbird’s credit, the gameplay loop is absolutely addicting. A puzzle game at its core, Hardspace: Shipbreaker sets you to work on extracting as many valuable resources as you can from a variety of ship classes. The more scrap you deposit, the more money you make to pay off your debt. Each type of ship, ranging from the smaller Mackerel-class transports to much larger (and more dangerous) frigates, provides its own kind of puzzle that you must learn to traverse and efficiently cut down to its most basic parts. Learning to work your way around all of the different ships quickly and efficiently is key to your success in Hardspace: Shipbreaker. After all, the more resources you recover in a single shift, the more you offset the daily fees Lynx charges you for essentially keeping you alive in space.

Completing work orders — long checklists that tell you what Lynx needs you to extract from each ship — also earns you valuable credits that you’ll need to upgrade everything from your spacesuit and helmet to the grapple and laser cutter that make up your main set of tools. Better gear means completing objectives faster and more easily. And the more work orders you finish, the faster you unlock higher certifications to work on bigger (and more difficult) ships that pay more money.

The endless gameplay loop has a sort of hypnotic effect. After hours of recovering things like easy-to-cut aluminum, the thicker and more valuable nanocarbon that makes up the outside shells of most ships, and the extremely volatile reactors that power these craft, the grind to complete work orders can start to feel a little mundane. But I also found myself taken with the routine of waking up inside of my HAB each morning, upgrading and repairing my gear, and setting out for another 15-minute shift, excited to see what valuables I’d find in a new ship.

At its best, Hardspace: Shipbreaker will make you feel like a happy little work drone. It helps that cutting through ships for treasure and avoiding the many potential hazards that come along with the work is a lot of fun. While I found the ship’s many systems and zero-g traversal a bit disorienting at first, made all the more frustrating by a tutorial that doesn’t always clearly signpost what you’re supposed to be doing, I was pleasantly surprised by how quickly things started to click once I learned the game’s somewhat complicated controls.

The game is designed with keyboard and mouse as well as controllers in mind, but I found that the latter was a bit easier to use in this case, even if pressing down on both sticks to brake and using the A and B buttons to ascend and descend feel a bit awkward at times. In fact, learning how to traverse the scrapyard without accidentally launching yourself into outer space or hurtling into a wall will likely pose the biggest challenge for the first few hours. It doesn’t help that the game’s default controls have moving forward and backward, rolling left and right, and braking all bound to the dual sticks of your gamepad (I used an Xbox One controller), which can make things really confusing when trying to evacuate an emergency situation or while rushing back to your HAB for an oxygen refill. Of course, you can customize all of these controls to your liking, so your mileage will vary in this case.

Getting a handle on the grapple and cutter was a bit more manageable. You can use the grapple to quickly move objects or to zip across the yard. A very useful tether upgrade for your grapple allows you to move multiple pieces of scrap at once as well as heavier parts. The latter activity involves some strategic thinking. Move the wrong piece of a ship and you could dismantle the whole thing, sending pieces of the ship’s hull everywhere.

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The laser cutter is a blast to use but is also the most dangerous weapon in your tool set. It’s equipped with both a “Stinger” head for precise cuts to beams as well as the “Splitsaw” head for longer, faster cuts, and choosing which mode to use at any given moment can be the difference between life and death. While the game pushes you to make your cuts quickly before the 15-minute time limit is up, you also have to avoid accidentally slicing through fuel lines, reactors, power cells, or breaking hull before it’s been depressurized. One dumb move and all hell will break loose.

There’s a real rush to making the first cut on a new ship and that’s nothing compared to removing a ship’s reactor (the golden egg of every salvage job). The reactor is the most unstable piece of a ship, and once removed from its core, you’ll only have a few seconds to deposit it in the salvage barge before it explodes. Speaking from experience, you’ll want to figure out a quick way out of the reactor chamber before you remove this piece of equipment from a ship.

The bigger ships have multiple doors, hallways, pressurized rooms, fuel lines, electrical systems, power cells, and other hazards. Needless to say, navigating these ships will get the heart pumping, but the game does equip you with a scanner that lets you analyze the potential dangers and structural access points before you begin your work. But again, the 15-minute time limit on shifts makes it so that you can’t really sit there drawing maps or formulating a plan for too long.

If there’s a reason why you can only work on a ship 15 minutes at a time, I completely missed it. The time limit feels arbitrary at best since you can always return to the previous day’s ship on your next shift. The same goes for your suit’s oxygen capacity, which is a major nuisance and feels overly punishing at times. At the start of the game, you’re only given 250 seconds of oxygen before you’re forced to rush back to your HAB to buy a refill from Lynx. That means you need to drop what you’re doing and zoom back for more oxygen about every four minutes before your shift is over. Fortunately, you can upgrade your oxygen capacity as you progress through the game. You’ll definitely want to do that as you start working on the bigger ships.

I had a couple of technical issues, none of which were particularly out of the norm for an Early Access game. The game crashed on me a few times, and I encountered a weird glitch at one point where I couldn’t repair any of my tools at all, but a quick restart fixed the problem. Overall, Hardspace: Shipbreaker feels like an incredibly polished product. Despite being an Early Access game that leans so heavily on zero-g physics, Hardspace is a particularly smooth ride.

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Blackbird is focused on developing the game’s single-player career mode to start, with more content on the way after the game launches on Steam. There’s also a “Free Play” mode for those who just want to jump in and start cutting their way through stuff. A “Hardcore” mode is also planned at a later date as well as daily challenges, according to Engadget. I can’t stress enough how much fun it would be to be able to play this game with friends, but Blackbird hasn’t announced any multiplayer plans as of yet. I hope they do eventually add some sort of online co-op to the game, though.

For now, Hardspace: Shipbreaker is off to an excellent start. The core gameplay is fun, the game looks great, and the writing is funny. And if you read between the lines, there’s some great commentary in there, too.

Hardspace: Shipbreaker will be $19.99 for a limited time when it hits Steam Early Access on June 16 before going up to $24.99. The game will also release on Xbox One and PlayStation 4 at some point in the future.