If you’re not a rocket scientist, then you’ll find Kerbal Space Program extremely difficult. It takes the science of rocketry, orbital mechanics and space exploration and challenges you to overcome them. And these obstacles will seem insurmountable at first. Simply building a craft capable of going straight up works your grey matter. But eventually you’ll find success, and this opens up tantalising new challenges to overcome. It’s compelling, forever difficult, always rewarding, and surprisingly fun.

The cute, green Kerbals that make up your staff, pilots and astronauts provide an excellent humorous balance to the otherwise serious science and challenge of space flight you’re tasked with. Seeing their faces as they fly through the atmosphere and beyond, turning gleeful or terrified depending on the smoothness of the flight, is funny and heart-warming. It also injects an important modicum of personality, something that drives you to keep them safe and rescue them if things go awry.

And things will certainly go awry. Tutorials teach you the basics of designing your own space craft and planes and flying them around the planet Kerbin and its solar system, but actually doing it is another thing entirely. Designing crafts that balance weight, with thrust capability and fuel enough to get where you want to go, is a constant to-and-fro between the launch pad and the assembly building as you tweak your crafts to perform at their very best.

Kerbal Space Program 1

And you’ll feel forever compelled to better design your crafts, with the cosmos constantly calling to you until you’ve landed on every planet and successfully returned back home, and then even more challenging missions will flood your mind. The moons of all the planets need to be visited, Kerbals you’ve stranded need rescuing, space stations need constructing, satellites need launching, every biome needs exploring on Kerbin and beyond, indeed the options available to you are vast and fascinating.

In sandbox mode these mission are entirely driven by your own imagination. There’s no budget concerns or technologies that needs researching, you have everything available to you and are free to build any craft you desire, no matter how monstrous it is. Career mode and science mode restrict you, with career mode offering you contracts to be completed in order to gain more resources and science to unlock new technology. Here your progress is more tightly managed, making it an ideal place to start as you learn the ropes. But either mode you choose is still extremely difficult, but you’ll find you make just enough progress through failure to keep you hooked; it can get frustrating but it’s remarkable how enjoyable it is too keep failing time and time again.

Kerbal Space Program 2

A big part of that enjoyment comes from the lack of penalties there are for failure. When something goes wrong you can revert to launch or the assembly building as if it never even happened. It’s an almost immediate restart too, with the only loading occurring at the very beginning of the game. However, performance often takes a dip when too much is going on on-screen. The larger and more complex your craft, the harder the framerate is hit. It’s common to see dips into single figures, and this can put a restriction on just how creative you are with your builds. Otherwise performance is admirable, leaving Kerbin and descending into the atmosphere of another planet is fairly seamless, as is shifting focus between multiple crafts once you have a copious amount of satellites and crafts exploring the solar system.

Controlling your fleet of crafts is initially tricky. Kerbal Space Program’s PC roots are still firmly attached and at no point does the controller feel at home with the experience. Many buttons double up on functions, with a tap for one input and holding down for another. Furthermore, you can, and indeed must, switch to a cursor to access the more advanced functions, such as setting manoeuvre nodes to work out required burns for orbits. However, surprisingly the controls turn out to be fairly intuitive, never ideal, especially when accuracy is required, but competent enough.

Kerbal Space Program 3

Indeed, Kerbal Space Program is part hard-core space exploration simulator and part humorous disaster-scenario creator. It’s more skewed to the former, acting as an educational and fascinating glimpse into what is takes for our space agencies to achieve what they do. Yet despite its stiff challenge it’s still hugely enjoyable, and once you do manage to master some off the mechanics it’s also extremely rewarding. There’s always another challenge for you to overcome, and the journey to conquering it is full of explosive failures and delightfully gratifying successes.

Thanks to Xbox and Squad and Flying Tiger for supporting TiX