Hardspace: Shipbreaker drops you into the game a billion dollars in debt and without much of a game plan of how to struggle out of it. It presents you with your first shift ship breaking, salvaging resources off of out of commission space vessels. A day at a time, I guess? Well, the thing I quickly realized about this game was that it wasn't about all the zeros trailing your balance, it was the day-to-day work and the story told along the way that mattered.
A few minutes into my first shift I wandered too close to a collector where you deposit materials harvested from the ships, and the gravity well that is meant to suck salvage got a hold of my person instead. Full throttle trying to escape the unsympathetic grasp of physics was not enough, and I was slowly dragged into the collector and lost my life. I was frustrated. More so when only a minute later I did manage to position myself back to the ship, and caught my suit on fire overheating my cutting laser just trying to center the beam on the objective. I was not enjoying this first foray into the game mechanics. I was most displeased at how fiddly the movement was that led both to me getting sucked into that industrial trap, and prevented my reticle from centering on the target - making my beam power too long, causing it to burst into flames. Here I was thinking there was no oxygen in space to light a fire...and yet, these were all lessons. Lessons that would pay off only minutes later.
The very first thing I learned was that I had to come to grips with was the movement. Floating in zero-g with little more than thrusters to try and wrangle control of your personal space and trajectory is not at all intuitive. The movement alone in this game is likely something you have never, or at least rarely experienced before. Frustrated at first, I later did begrudgingly realize how Hardspace: Shipbreaker was trying to faithfully recreate a zero-gravity experience, and making no bones about not giving you training wheels to learn how to do that.
Think about all the other games you've played, and think about how often they truly toss you out into 3D space with no guidelines in place... not often, right? And that's probably because, well, it's hard. When you don't have gravity tethering you in one dimension, or some crutch like gravity boots taking the open expanse of space and porting it back into a 2D plateau, then everything is more difficult by a factor. Every thrust needs a counter-thrust. Every bit of momentum has to later be balanced with an opposing force. Every drift is subtle enough to throw a precise cut off as your aim floats in relation to your person.
The majority of this game plays out in the ship breaking yard. You are beset on each side by collectors - one furnace for raw materials, one collector for pieces to recycle. There is also a barge below you for reclaimed items like door controls, pilot seats, and cargo containers. Your primary weapons are a cutter to slice the ship up and a gravity gun to either drag the broken pieces around, or blast them off into the distance, preferably in the direction of the appropriate receptacle: furnace, materials, barge. But before you can start to send any of the items to their destinations, before you can even begin to break apart the chunky beasts into pieces light enough to even push about, you need to come to grips with the controls. Simply orientating yourself in zero-g without limits on any axis, and learning to counter that frictionless momentum which is often your worst enemy.
It's not just the rapid zero-g momentum of being thrust into a gravity well, it's the minor rotations and drifts that make that precise cut needed to separate raw materials meant for the furnace from the stuff headed to the collector. There is no stabilize button. And bit of thrust in one direction has to eventually be countered with thrust in the opposite lest you drift endlessly into the cold of space, or get caught by one of those collectors and the cold of death. You can extend a hand and stabilize yourself on objects, which can be great when moving about, or especially inside the hull of a ship. Movement is the crux of the difficulty and a constant threat, perhaps more than the debt hanging over your head.
Because the debt, it's a plot device, but it doesn't really effect the moment to moment play. In Randy's preview over two years ago for the pre-release PC version, the debt sat center stage. But the game has evolved in a number of ways since then. You get the helmet scanner at the start, and it's a godsend for directing you on how to approach the ship. The plot has been well developed and moved to the front. While in some ways, the debt almost absolves you of individual mistakes. What's a few grand for an oxygen tank top-up or even a hefty chunk for a new clone after an untimely death when there are still 9 or 10 figures floating on your ledger? And that ended up being the freedom that liberated me from those earliest few minutes of frustration, and moved me into having a grand old time with this game by the end of my first session. The heart of Hardspace: Shipbreaker is really a first-person puzzle game with endless freedom of movement wrapped around a pretty decent little bit of storytelling in the main campaign. There is also a free play mode to just relax into the zen of slicing ships into components and a race mode to compete for top scores.
Don't be misguided into thinking that this game spent so much time on recreating the physics that they forgot to make it fun. Because once you can handle the controls, it is fun, quite a bit actually. The plot and few characters you meet out there in the expanse bring the narrative to life. And the puzzle of chipping away at different types of ships alternating between precision cuts on weak points, wide laser cuts across key tiles, using explosives to blast off harder sections, and even carefully plucking off reclaimed salvage before sending the raw materials to the furnace or collector is constantly engaging. It ends up being both challenging and enjoyable.
It's not long before the game starts feeling more like a dance than a chore, and a lot of that is due to how well-paced it is. In the other two modes, free play and race, you are given full loadouts from the start. In the campaign, the very first levels don't even require you manage your own oxygen or fuel resources. They ease you into each mechanic. New objectives are well explained and build off what was explained before. You've also got assistance; NPCs chirp in your ear to let you know it's time to head back for more O2 even if the alarm bell wasn't signal enough. They also coach you after deaths with sagely advice like "don't do that again." Thanks partner, much obliged.
The tone here is very much a space western, a marriage that has been used so successfully elsewhere and is recreated faithfully here. I think that's a large part of what makes the story work so well, you're a small cog in a large industrial machine, but there is a world building going on that places you so neatly into it. This story and these characters could be dropped into any sci-fi epic and feel right at home. There are obvious references like the western appeal of Firefly that fit like a glove, or a toolset that would feel comfortable in the hands of Isaac Clarke shuttling down to the Ishimura; but there's no reason you couldn't let your imagination run will and place the Lynx corporation in Hardspace as a subsidiary of Weyland-Yutani or any other of the magnificent epics that we enjoy in other mediums of games, films, or books.
In this particular space-western, characters mete out their lines with a drawl and the soundtrack has a relaxed guitar vibe to it. It's good for the most part, but I did set up Apple Music through the PS5 to play over some of my sessions. It's a little trick I've thought about often but was inspired to finally execute on by Hardspace: Shipbreaker and have found myself benefitting from in other games as well since taking that plunge. So it's a got a soundtrack that works, but with an Apple Music or Spotify subscription you have a lot more options on hand as well through native PS5 features and integrations.
Between the three game modes there is plenty to do, even if all three are a bit same-y. The race mode pits all competing players on the same ship with the same objectives and timer. A global leaderboard lets you position your best score against the world. The free play mode lets you grab any of the ships and have a go with a full loadout. It can be both great practice and a relaxing one-off if you're not interested in any mistakes costing against your campaign debt. There are three difficulties as well, but that really just maps to revives. On hardest setting you've got one life to live. Die and you are done. Then you have a limited revives or unlimited, but each re-sleeving into a clone will cost a pretty penny on your company balance sheet.
On the one hand it seems difficult to really describe the appeal of Hardspace: Shipbreaker without playing it. I think a big part of it is how unique it is among options out there. In some ways this is closer to a "job simulator" type game. But it incorporates a real skill in conquering the games physics and movement that is supremely satisfying to master. You add that skill to the puzzles of trying to pull apart a massive hunk of metal and resources artfully, and wrap it all up in an excellent bit of storytelling and world building, and I hope that starts to paint the picture of why this game works. You've also got a billion in debt to whittle down if you so choose, so whether you decide to see it through or not, there is plenty of game to enjoy and long road to play before seeing the Platinum trophy ping.
As the poster in your little habitat pod where you sleep, upgrade your tools, or brew a cup of Joe in between shifts says; "Live, Laugh, Salvage." Hardspace: Shipbreaker is a very good game. It stands apart from most of what else populates your gaming library and combines a level of skill, strategy, and story in just the right measures for an excellent experience.
* The product in this article was sent to us by the developer/company.
First picked up a game controller when my mother bought an Atari 2600 for my brother and I one fateful Christmas.
Now I'm a Software Developer in my day job who is happy to be a part of the Gaming Nexus team so I can have at least a flimsy excuse for my wife as to why I need to get those 15 more minutes of game time in...