After years of delays, the sequel to beloved space simulator Kerbal Space Program (KSP) has finally been released—though only after a fashion.
In lieu of a full release, the highly anticipated Kerbal Space Program 2 has been officially released by developers Intercept Games Squad into Early Access on Steam on February 24th.
Fans of the original game and many others were anticipating this release, but early reactions suggest that “early access” is well-named. KSP2 is ambitious and may eventually live up to that ambition, but reactions show that it’s still early days.
Kerbal Space Program
As SpaceQ readers may remember, we’ve covered the space sim before; both in a 2020 article discussing the game’s value as one of the rare few space simulators on the market, and in a video series by Terranauts’ Iain Christie where he used KSP to (among other things) recreate Project Mercury. After its humble beginnings as a comparatively simple space sandbox in 2012—also in Early Access—KSP became a full-fledged game with a thriving mod scene, a huge community, and a seemingly endless number of YouTube videos of people showing off their creations.
In our earlier article, we described the game as “daunting at first, then disarmingly simple.” KSP has you put together rockets and spaceplanes from an enormous array of snap-together parts, then launching them with the aid of the tiny green froglike “Kerbals.” Players will try to launch, inevitably fail, then enter what space communicator Scott Manley called the “Kerbal feedback loop;” “you build the rocket, you fly the rocket, things don’t work, then you go back and try again.” Successes in things like reaching orbit and landing on the Moon (Kerbal’s Moon is called “Mün”) fuel the desire for further exploration and construction, teaching players a surprising amount of both orbital dynamics and rocket building.
(Polygon’s Clayton Ashley called it “one of the greatest pieces of edutainment ever created, and I don’t use that despicable portmanteau lightly.”)
Thanks to its success as both a game and simulation, it’s also won the praise of real-life space agencies and space companies. ESA, NASA, SpaceX, and Boeing, have praised it for making space travel more accessible to understand and yet teaching players how challenging it can be.
KSP 2 in Very Early Access
Announced at Gamescom on August 19th, 2019, Kerbal Space Program 2 promised a lot to Kerbal fans. Part of that was a serious graphical upgrade to modern standards, but also a brace of new features. The KSP2 website promises “a new generation of engines, parts, fuel, improved variants, procedural parts systems and much more,” an “overhauled vehicle assembly interface,” “rich new environments to explore,” as well as futuristic interstellar travel technologies that will let players travel beyond the “Kerbolar System” and established whole new colonies for their little green friends.
They also said that Kerbal fans would get the multiplayer mode that they’d badly wanted in the first game, and keep the extensive game-modding support that they already loved in it.
At the moment, however, the early-access version of KSP2 released on Feb 24th has yet to deliver on almost all of that. Interstellar travel and colonization isn’t present, the parts list is actually less extensive than the first game, there’s no multiplayer, the “next generation technology” is nowhere to be found, and even current Kerbal features like a career mode aren’t yet present in the new game. There’s also no mods.
It is very much a game in early access. Like the early-vintage Kerbal of 2012, it’s primarily a simple sandbox for building rockets and planes and sending them into orbit. While there is an extensive roadmap for adding all the promised features on the KSP2 website, showing that they plan to add science gathering, colony parts, interstellar scale parts, and new star systems, they do not provide dates for any of those upgrades. For now, the sandbox is what players get.
Upgraded Graphics and Better New Player Experience
Nevertheless, some promised features are present. UI upgrades for both building and launching rockets are in the new game, including highly-anticipated features like rocket blueprints, as well as dynamic wing generation for the rockets and planes. KSP2’s early access build also features revitalized sound: including more realistic rocket exhaust sounds, a proper countdown to launch, and even heroic music as the rocket rises into the sky.
Importantly, the early access version of the game shows the team’s commitment to assisting new players. with an extensive set of tutorial in-game “simulations” and a number of charming instructional animations that teach players about (for example) how orbit is achieved not just by travelling outwards, but by accelerating sideways until you’re missing the ground. Part of understanding how to succeed in KSP comes from the realization that (as we put it in our own article on a newbie learning KSP ) “up doesn’t work. Maybe I’ll try going sideways?” KSP2 players learn that from the jump.
There’s something to be said for “learning by doing.” Still, these animations and tutorials do help to give them a head start before they start blowing up Kerbals. The excited reaction to KSP2’s “welcome approachability” from IGN’s Simon Cardy, a Kerbal newbie who was “swept up in the possibilities” while building his first rockets, shows that new players can easily jump into the sandbox.
More established players, however, are expressing concern about the lack of key tools like thrust-to-weight ratio numbers in the vehicle-building part of the game and proper orbital transfer planning and burn times in the flight portion of the game. One popular YouTube reaction video with over 100,000 views pointed to these things especially as major disappointments for experienced players who see these things as must-haves.
(Scott Manley, perhaps the most famous Kerbal player in the world, was more positive in his take on the game. He acknowledged it was still early days, but still praised the game’s improved graphics, new sound, and especially the dynamic wing generation.)
Performance Issues and Cost Questions
Both new and experienced players, however, are pointing to two key issues that will need to be focused on by Intercept going forward: performance and stability. While Kerbal Space Program can run on relatively affordable hardware, KSP2’s “recommended” graphics card is a beefy Nvidia RTX 3080. Even discounting the rest of the cost of a computer, those graphics cards cost over $700 on its own—and that’s assuming you can find one in the first place as graphics cards are still scarce. Even the “minimum” card, an RTX 2080, is beyond the budget of many potential KSP2 players.
Even with top-of-the-line hardware, performance still suffers. The game suffers from a large number of bugs as well, as even Cardy acknowledged in his otherwise-positive preview. This is common in Early Access games, and early Kerbal players often made jokes about the “Deep Space Kraken” that would destroy their ships for no reason.
As Manley acknowledged in his impressions video, though, the early version of the original Kerbal was only 8 dollars. The “early access” version of KSP2 is US$50. That’s as expensive as any number of fully-stable and fully-featured games that will run on much less expensive hardware. This disconnect between stability, performance, and cost is likely why a growing number of players are requesting refunds on Steam for KSP2, and why its Steam reviews are currently “mixed.”
Nevertheless, Intercept seems to be acknowledging the issues and concerns. Community Manager Michael Loreno posted on Twitter that they acknowledge the current high system requirements, and they reflect its unoptimized state. He said “this is not the min spec for 1.0 or even through the life of early access as well…your experience will continue to improve over early access.”
He followed that up with an extensive post on the subject on their Steam page. Loreno said that their priorities for features were “1) get it working, 2) get it stable, 3) get it performant, and 4) get it moddable.” He said that many features were currently in “non-optimized forms,” in order to allow them to “unblock” features and aspects of gameplay that they wanted players to be able to access. He pointed to upcoming optimizations to fuel flow/resource systems and an upcoming “overhaul” of terrain optimization as two changes that will make the game more stable and less resource-intensive.
Intercept Creative Director Nate Simpson also posted on the Steam forums, saying that “many new features will arrive as we continue development,” and pointed to their own forum as a source for updates and guidance.
Very Early Access
Put together, these varying reactions suggest that there is promise here, but that the game is still very early. That doesn’t mean it won’t be good; now-beloved modern classics like Hades, Fortnite, Rust, and of course Kerbal Space Program itself have had long early access periods with steady iterative progress.
But as Kerbal super-fan Scott Manley said in his own preview video, “there’s no rush.” Almost everything that players can expect from Kerbal 2, besides the tutorials and the upgraded graphics and sound, can be found just as easily in the original KSP. And as Manley said, the modders have made it so that Kerbal 1 looks almost as good.
SpaceQ readers who want to take a chance on a very early product, and are willing to excuse some growing pains, might consider Kerbal Space Program 2. But for the rest, we still recommend the original game as a great way to learn and teach the art and science of space exploration.