For those that dabble in PC gaming that goes beyond simply looking at the top trending titles on Steam, you might have noticed a burgeoning and ever-expanding world of simulators and games that aim to recreate a specific job, skillset, or pastime. Okay, so that sentence might be wordy, but we’re talking about experiences where you drive bus routes through cities, fix boats in a garage, wash driveways with a power washer, manage train routes, grow crops on a farm, and construct a building.
And with that, even though Hardspace Shipbreaker features a narrative set in a futuristic world where space travel is commonplace – at its core it’s a sim. With something like Farming Simulator drawing countless fans that aren’t farmers but want to chill and manage a farm, the appeal here is along the same lines. In Hardspace Shipbreaker you are as the title suggests, a Shipbreaker responsible for pulling apart and salvaging valuables from decommissioned spacecraft in low orbit.
Like with many sims, it’s the premise that drives interest. For me, the idea of using a laser cutter and grapple beam, and tethers to rip apart a spaceship for parts sounds pretty amazing. Like, say, describing the premise of Resident Evil to a survival horror fan or Elden Ring to an open-world RPG aficionado. If the premise grabs you, as it did me, then the opening hours of Hardspace Shipbreaker offer up low orbit zen-like bliss as you cut and grapple and move about in zero-g.
Playing on Xbox Series X (which would be the same on PlayStation 5) the zero-g controls take some getting used to in that you’re rarely completely still and have to manage roll, thrusters, aiming, and scanning in a fully immersive 3D workspace. It’s kind of like the old-school PC game Descent, in that it’s easy to get disoriented and lose the sense of which way is up. But, the process of salvaging is kept fairly simple – which is great. The furnace is red and fiery so pieces of a ship that need to be destroyed will be labeled red on the scanner. Blue precious metals go into the blue-coloured drop-off, and green for valuable tech and items like fancy cockpit chairs to salvage.
All of the deposit spots are large and neatly arranged around the ship you’re working on, which helps keep a sense of flow as you’re working. Once you complete the Campaign tutorial though, things get a lot more involved. Taking on the role of a day-to-day Shipbreaker, a worker, in a satirical and hilariously cynical future is the order of the day. Once a time limit enters the picture, 15 minutes represent a single work day and you’re then tasked with pulling apart more complex ships with pressurised cabins, hazardous conditions, reactors, and more.
Setting-wise you’ve become a Shipbreaker because you’re over a billion dollars in debt, and if you die whilst working on a ship you’ll have to pay to be genetically reconstituted and get back to work. Dealing with fuel tanks is a dangerous business. Likewise, whenever you need to refill your thrusters or get more oxygen, it all gets added to the tab. This then leads into the narrative and progression and almost never-ending feeling that comes with playing Hardspace Shipbreaker. There’s a variety of ships to work on, which can take multiple days, rewarding you with small amounts of money to pay off your debt, experience points, and tokens to spend on upgrades via the Lynx Corporation company store.
And there is a tonne of upgrades to work towards, from simple things like upgrading the capacity of oxygen tanks to improving the strength of your laser cutter and getting new explosive tools to play with. One of the great features is how each new tool added to your Shipbreaker arsenal is met with a detailed tutorial that plays into the story involving other Shipbreakers on comms. With the cynical and over-the-top sci-fi tone, there are themes around labour unions, worker’s rights, and more peppered throughout the Campaign.
As with many games that have a strong sim core, you can opt to simply play without time limits or story elements and enjoy the leisurely pace of pulling apart a spaceship. That said, the pace of the Campaign is glacial, upgrades come thick and fast at first but then slow all the way down. The focus is clearly on being a Shipbreaker, with the narrative serving more as space-window dressing.
And Hardspace Shipbreaker nails the feeling of pulling apart spaceships in low orbit, where everything from the art direction to the country music-inspired soundtrack to the first-person perspective and low orbit sights and sounds add to the immersion. It might be a bit of a grind and repetitive to get your Shipbreaker status all the way up and pay off your debts, but that’s all part of the deal of a life working on rigs in the distant future. And there’s a simple joy that comes with learning a new job.
Hardspace Shipbreaker is a sci-fi-inspired sim that puts you in the role of someone that spends their time working in low orbit pulling apart and salvaging old spaceships. And with all great sims, the premise is only a part of the appeal with the end result delivering pure low-orbit job immersion.
A simple start, great tutorials, and intuitive controls to match the complexity
Impressive modular spaceship designs
Genuinely funny and cynical sci-fi setting and narrative
Immersive sim action in space
Fun country-music-inspired soundtrack
Campaign and skill/ability progression is both slow and grindy
Dealing with pressurised cabins takes a while to get the hang of