Rendezvous at 140,000m

Docking two spacecraft is notoriously hard, in real life as well as in Kerbal Space Program. Making use of this nifty guide I was able to get close, and after quick saving/loading through a few bad misses, managed to dock the final part of Clowder Station.

I also took the opportunity to swap out Jebediah for Rayvis Kerman. Jeb's a little too precious to risk losing in a random space junk strike.

And then the launch vehicle carefully deorbited, taking its main fuel tank with it, leaving Rayvis in charge of a slightly skew-whiff space station.


Getting kind of busy up there...

The scary part about putting a space station in orbit around Kerbin is viewing all the junk you've left up there and trying to pick an orbit that doesn't intersect with any of it. And the rocket that puts it at that altitude has to be extra careful about any junk it leaves behind, what with it spending time on an identical orbit.

So, after undocking the first part of Clowder Station, commanded by a lonely Jebediah Kerman, Bob Kerman was careful to deorbit his big fuel tank before separating the final lander stage and leaving Jeb in orbit.

The final touch was switching the vessel type to "station" so it shows up with a nice icon in the tracking station. Next step: docking the other half of the thing. A.k.a the hard part.


Teething Problems

As the next step in conquering space, I decided to put a space station in Kerbin orbit. Of course, just sticking something in orbit is trivial, so I would be trying to dock two different space station parts together - docking being one of the hardest things to do in Kerbal Space Program, or indeed actual space.

Did I say putting things in orbit was the easy bit? The launcher I threw together seems to have a strange flaw where if it's throttled up towards the end of one of its stages, it suddenly spins out of control and explodes (the crew module is mercifully left intact and able to parachute back down to Kerbin).

Spoiler: I will actually complete the space station before realising that the issue is with some incorrectly connected fuel lines causing some of the engines to run out of fuel before others, throwing the rocket fatally off-balance.


No Kerbal Left Behind*

While the Auto-Kitten 1 arced along its slow orbit to Eve, poor Bob Kerman was still trundling around on the Mun.

Unfortunately, the Auto Kitten 1 was such a pleasure to drive because of the many lessons I learned the hard way with Bob's rover, and realising that I was never going to get him to any interesting locations, I decided he should turn around and make the arduous return trip to Kerbin.

*Except Hudbles Kerman.


Any landing you can walk away from...

Keeping my desire to go ever higher and faster in check, I did manage to get my space plane to the north pole of Kerbin, and bring it carefully down close to the smooth ice, nicely lined up for a gentle landing and ice cream picnic.

And then I suddenly remembered that I've managed to safely land a space plane in Kerbal Space Program exactly once and my chances of doing it at this crucial moment were low enough that I should just separate the cockpit and parachute Rayvis Kerman down to the ice - humbled, but in one piece.



After a lot of failed space planes sent spiralling into the sky while Jebediah Kerman descends safely to the ground in a detached cockpit, I finally managed to design an aircraft that can go crazy-fast and make very careful turns without going into a spin.

And the higher you climb, the faster it goes - well past the speed of sound, right up until... well, right up until the engines stop getting enough air from the attenuated atmosphere and flame out, putting the plane in a fatal spin.

I made a good bid for the north pole of Kerbin in this kite before finally succumbing to the temptation to go just that little bit higher and faster and dooming the expedition to failure. The worst part was starting to get the plane back under control, just as the engines sheared off.


By the Seaside

After my initial decision to land on one of Eve’s large flat areas led to the discovery that the planet has vast, dark oceans, I quick-loaded and brought my automated rover down on solid land instead.

Having successfully avoided the sea, the next obvious step was to drive to the nearest coast and check it out from a safe distance.


Humane Exploration

With poor Hudbles still stuck on Duna, I decided to experiment with unmanned unkerballed spacecraft. This is the Auto Kitten 1, which can safely land a remote controlled rover on another world (as long as it has a thick enough atmosphere to slow a parachute).

Duna was the obvious target, but it seems to be in a tricky part of its orbit relative to Kerbin (I swear I will learn about transfer orbits properly one day), so I picked Venus-a-like Eve instead.


It’s a Party on Minmus

And thanks to the Triple Cat 2, more than one kerbonaut was invited.


Super-Size Me

The Triple Cat 2 was the first successful rocket I made using the larger size components.

There was no such spacecraft as the Triple Cat 1, and if there had been, any Kerbals to have flown on her would be very much alive.


Practice Makes Perfect

It still makes the Space Cheetah 2 handle like rubbish, but having moved the wheels further forward on the rover, Bob Kerman was able to successfully land it on the Mun and go for a ride. Truth be told, I should probably have moved the wheels as far forward as possible, but as long as I don’t go too fast, it's a pretty smooth ride.


On the Important of Testing

Fancying a carefree drive across a cratered landscape, I tried sticking a rover on the side of the Space Cheetah 2 (basically the Space Cheetah 1A with some solid rocket boosters to help get it into orbit with more fuel remaining).

I knew the rocket would be a bastard to control with this weight pulling it off-centre, but only when I got it to the Mun did I discover that the rover didn’t stand up straight and was useless.


To Duna and… ah, forget it

As an exercise, I tried designing a rocket that used nuclear engines and getting it to Kerbin’s red neighbour, Duna. After a slow and awkward transfer orbit, brave Hudbles Kerman parachuted the crew capsule down to the surface.

Given that it's going to be a while before I manage to come up with a rocket that can make the round trip, I probably should have landed an automated rover instead...


To Minmus and Back

The obvious next step was to land on Kerbin’s more distant (and inclined) moon of Minmus. Space Cheetah 1 was more than up for the job, but I decided to use the slightly refined Space Cheetah 1A, with the troublesome mk1 lander can removed and some solar panels added to recharge the batteries when I forget to turn the lights off.

After his ordeal on the Mun, Jebediah Kerman understandably sat this one out, his rescuer Bill Kerman (no relation?) instead being the first kerbal to plant a flag on Minmus.

When Scott Manley claimed this was actually an easier trip than a voyage to the Mun, I didn’t believe him - but Minmus’ low gravity really does make landing a lot easier and safer.


Home Sweet Home

It was only in the last moments of my seemingly successful rescue mission to the Mun, that I discovered just how unwise it was to place a mk1 lander can at the bottom of my final stage – a capsule too weak to withstand even a parachute-assisted landing.

In one (alternate) reality, Jebediah Kerman bravely travels to Kerbin’s closest moon, lands with his last sliver of fuel, waits there for 12 days (during which time about half a dozen Kerbals are killed testing various rockets intended to rescue him). Finally, a sleek new rocket lands nearby, taking him all the way back to Kerbin, through its atmosphere and then gently down to the ground suspended from a parachute. But not gently enough to stop his half of the dual capsule from crumpling up like tinfoil and crushing him to death.

Fortunately at this point I had finally learned to quick-save, and in the real (albeit later) timeline, the Space Cheetah 1 does not separate its final stage, coming down to land with a combination of its parachute and the last reserves of its plentiful fuel. It’s still a bumpy landing, but at least both kerbonauts survive.


To the Mun and Back, with a Passenger

After a number of failed experiments, and watching a few videos by Scott Manley (hallowed be his name), I came up with the Space Cheetah 1: a much more efficient rocket, more than capable of landing on the Mun and returning to Kerbin.

Having to land near Jebediah’s stranded lander did make things a little trickier, but I managed to touch down within 14km, and Jedediah covered the distance with his jet pack. And so the two brave heroes boarded the rocket for the journey home, blissfully unaware of its lethal design flaw.


Not Quite to the Mun and Back

After the Space Cat 3 left Jebediah Kerman stranded on the Mun, I tried coming up with a beefier rocket to better make the trip there and back. It soon became clear, however, that I was just scaling everything up, creating bigger rockets that were every bit as inefficient as before.

Here three brave kerbonauts managed to pass over Jebediah at an altitude of a few kilometres, a reckless act that left them with barely enough fuel to get back to Kerbin.


To the Mun and… Back?

Having cut my teeth on Orbiter back in the day, the friendlier and more feature-rich Kerbal Space Program is clearly right up my alley. After messing about a bit in Kerbin orbit, my first proper attempt to reach its closest moon (“Mun”) resulted in a safe touchdown of the Space Cat 3’s landing stage, allowing Jebediah Kerman to plant a flag on a brave new world.

Of course, I did almost run out of fuel during the landing, leaving no chance of a return journey, but that just meant I’d won the opportunity to craft a rescue mission…


Played it: Metal Gear Rising: Revengeance

On the subject of video games that aren't ashamed to be video games, the superbly titled Metal Gear Rising: Revengeance is a prime example. Living by the rule of cool, the cyberpunk themes are plundered for diverse enemies that blur the line between the biological and the technological - in the process covering more interesting topics than the "cyborg modification is bad - yes/no/maybe" of certain other games.  

Revengeance doesn't take itself seriously. It's happy to use the language of video games and it doesn't mind looking silly from time to time if it benefits the overall experience. The gameplay is frantic and fun and, on normal difficulty, I thought a little easy... At least until I reached the final boss battle, which starts out with a giant spider mech trying to stamp on you and only gets more extreme and challenging from there. I emerged from this final onslaught a little like its hero: worn out and pushed to the edge, but mostly just satisfied to have splatted a bad dude and a few hundred of his mooks.


Played Them: XYZZY Best Individual NPC Nominees

If you want to read my dissection of three well received characters from the interactive fiction games of the space year 2012, follow this link.


Played it: Dead Rising 2: Off the Record

When you’re being bombarded with marketing for humourless, over serious, AAA-budget western games, it always feels like a breath of fresh air to play something that’s not ashamed that it’s a video game: something that presents a world with consistent rules and does its best to make you laugh.

Like previous instalments, Dead Rising 2: Off the Record locks you in a semi-open environment with thousands upon thousands of slow moving zombies, and lets you lose to find makeshift weapons, play mini-games, rescue survivors and defeat “psychopath” bosses.

I found the level of challenge, at least in this version, to be tough but fair. It may punish you, but only to try and make you a better player. It may require a bit of dedication, but I didn’t feel that it showed the same contempt for my time that some games do. It allows you to run wild and have fun, but rewards meticulous planning and timekeeping.

It also brings us more Frank West. Okay, he’s yet another white male lead, but in a sea of angry bad-asses out for revenge, it’s easy to like this good-humoured fuck-up with a paunch - a man with groan-worthy one-liners who frequently ends up the butt of the joke himself.


Played it: Zone of the Enders: The Second Runner (HD Edition)

The thing I liked best about the first Zone of the Enders was the cool overworld map, representing a space colony orbiting Jupiter - from which you could descend to more specific arenas full of enemies to be confronted or avoided. The 2nd Runner opts, instead, for a linear progression of levels, some of which allow exploration, but many of which are frantic set pieces.

In every other respect, however, this is a vast improvement on the original: the gameplay requires strategy; the different weapons are all useful in their own ways; the characters are more interesting (even the slightly annoying main character of the first game reappears as a more mature ally); the settings are more varied – and so are the challenges.

In the first game I often wasn’t sure exactly why I failed or succeeded. In The 2nd Runner, it was almost always clear that I failed because I sucked at whatever I was supposed to be doing – whether that was being ganged up on by mooks, learning the rapidly changing attacks of a boss, negotiating a minefield, shooting down giant spaceships or escorting a character who makes Ashley Graham seem like Liberty Prime – and I succeeded by practicing, paying attention and experimenting with different strategies.

In summary, this was probably the most fun I had swearing at my TV so far this year.


Played it: Project Sylpheed

After the first mission of this space combat game, we’re treated to the funeral of a character who died during the opening cinematic. Aware that players were given no reason to care about this poor soul, the script makes sure to tell us that “he was a kind man, loved by everyone”. This represents the story elements of Project Sylpheed in a nutshell: events that are on paper dramatic and in execution ham-fisted and artless.

Fortunately, the cut scenes are brief and usually more interested in giving us close-ups of the spaceships that’ll be exploding than providing insights into the inner lives of the characters. The story serves its purpose in terms of justifying why our nimble starfighter should be blowing up red ships and not blue ones, and that is what we will spend by far most of our time doing.

Speaking of time, let’s get this out of the way: each part of every stage has an arbitrary time limit, rarely justified and frequently contradicted. Failing the mission because you didn't shoot down that last lousy fighter in time is pretty frustrating - especially when all that would have happened had you succeeded is the timer would have reset and a bunch more enemies would have spawned. Together with the emphasis on escort missions, it’s often hard to believe your failure is your own fault.

But the battles you get to participate in - dominate, really, with your prototype fighter locking onto dozens of enemies at a time and taking out capital ships with a single torpedo - are massive, colourful and exciting. Swarms of fighters leave spiralling vapour trails between massive spaceships that blast out colourful laser beams and arcing missiles. And you rocket through the whole mess blowing things up left, right and centre. Project Sylpheed looks like the battles I imagined I was taking part in when I played Wing Commander, way back in the day.

The sheer cool factor inspired me to rise to the challenge of these tightly timed escort missions, learning to prioritise targets and dispatch them quickly. And, well, I had fun. I got a real sense of achievement from completing these uncompromising missions, earning points to spend on customising my fighter with huge and even more explodey weapons. And when I did finally reach that last ham-fisted cut scene, I couldn't help but view it with some strange fondness.

Project Sylpheed may be a quirky game with a number of significant flaws, but as the space sim genre is on the cusp of a Kickstarter-funded renaissance, it’s also a solid example of what a modern spaceship game can look like.

Disclaimer: I played the game on normal difficulty, with no DLC weapons and without skipping any missions.