All too often, computer games focus on glitzy graphics at the expense of fun. Or they label themselves as casual games and offer limited depth. It's rare to encounter a game that offers players a sandbox, where they can simply do whatever they want and see what happens.
I was randomly browsing the Internet when I happened upon a game called Kerbal Space Program, developed by Squad games. It's still in the beta stage, but already it offers an extremely complete and enjoyable experience. The premise is simple -- you build rockets out of various bits and pieces and try to blast your Kerbalnauts into space ... or oblivion, if that's your motivation.
You can build everything from simple, basic rockets, to multistage vehicles capable of visiting other planets in the in-game universe. One of the most surprising things is that even though this game uses a realistic physics engine (it's pretty tricky to actually reach orbit), it's simple enough that even the most casual player can get involved and it will still be fun.
Some of the things that make the game so enjoyable are the charming little touches that are included in the game, from the terrified expressions of your pilots when something goes wrong, to humorous descriptions for various rocket parts (this was found lying on the side of the road ...). They add a sense of whimsy, and some of the malfunctions and disasters that can occur with poorly constructed rockets are downright hysterical.
All jokes aside, though, the game designers were able to add a level of complexity for advanced players -- you can re-create real historical space missions, build jet planes or spaceplanes similar to the space shuttle and create unique rockets. You can even build customized satellites or space stations, or send multiple missions into orbit at the same time.
Players can also send their Kerbalnauts on EVA outside of the spaceship or on the surface of an alien world. The game currently has six planets and nine moons that the player can visit, all with varying challenges and different characteristics, ranging from the Mun, (which is very much like the Moon), to Jool, a planet similar to Jupiter with a system of five large moons.
The game itself offers graphics that are somewhere between cartoonish and photo-realistic. There are times when it's downright stunning. There's also an extremely active online community and a large number of add-ons available, extending the game with autopilots, rovers and other elements.
The demo version of the game is free, and is limited in features. The full game is $23 and is available on both PC and Mac. Regular updates are offered free of charge and new features and elements are routinely added. I think it's worth every penny.
You can buy Kerbal Space Program from www.kerbalspaceprogram.com.
Nick DeLorenzo is director of interactive and new media for The Times Leader. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.