Windows Central Verdict
Dressed up as an unassuming blue-collar employment simulator, Hardspace: Shipbreaker actually clamps down on the injustice of a capitalist system where the health and safety of employees is overlooked in favor of just getting the job done. Gameplay can be a little slow, but the narrative payoff is worth the wait.
Social commentary on capitalism and employer/employee relations
Procedurally generated ships
Open Shift mode eliminates time limits
Slow placed gameplay feels daunting until story beats pick up
Why you can trust Windows Central
On the surface, Hardspace: Shipbreaker seems like a fairly mundane blue-collar job simulator. We've seen plenty of these job simulators, like Farming Simulator 22 and PowerWash Simulator, strike gold among players who are looking for a satisfying job experience without having to break their backs to actually do the job. Hardspace: Shipbreaker does up the ante on this formula, however, by setting the job to be done in outer space and arming players with a grapple gun and laser cutter. Things aren't all that they appear, however, as Hardspace does have an alternative story than the one you may be expecting to find.
Hardspace: Shipbreaker — What you'll like
The game opens with players going through the application and sign on process for Lynx Salvage, an intergalactic corporation with whom the most desperate seek employment from in a bid to get away from a crumbling and disaster-riddled planet Earth. Lynx Salvage is more than happy to take on would-be-Shipbreakers and train them under their wing, however it doesn't take long for the player to rack up more than 1.2 billion (that's billion with a b, folks.). You see, Lynx Salvage can't just hire you and send you into space free of charge. Shipbreaking is dangerous work, and it could lead to injury or death. You'll need spare parts so you can be reconstituted if you meet an untimely demise.
And you will, ultimately, meet your untimely demise. There's a plethora of things that can go wrong while you're breaking down abandoned spaceships for salvage. Get to close to a furnace and it will indiscriminately suck you in. Hit a fuel tank while you're cutting down salvage to something manageable and you're destined to cause a vacuum blast that will hurtle you out into space. There's nothing in the way of concern for employee safety, though, as Lynx Salvage is adamant that your payment towards debt be paid promptly each morning.
Originally on its release Hardspace: Shipbreaker drilled this in as being an important threat by putting a timer on each mission. However, the version hitting Xbox and PC Game Pass as a Play Anywhere title has been updated to include a variety of difficulties and options. Players who want a less stressful experience can forgo timers and oxygen deprivation in favor an easier time getting through the story. It's not all a walk in the park, however, as players will still need to earn upgrade tokens to improve their tools to take on various types of ship salvage. Players will also need to keep an eye on the integrity of their space suits, repair tools, and purchase fuel for their thrusters if they want to stay on the job.
All of this surface level job simulation does serve a greater purpose, though. At its core, Hardspace: Shipbreaker is a story about the importance of valuing people over profits. The role of a shipbreaker is glorified and commodified, but the actual employees are treated poorly and riddled with debt. Their genetic material is harvested (painfully, no less) for the purpose of reconstituting them repeatedly after death so that they can continue working even more. Safety comes in at a staunch third place for Lynx Salvage employees, and this leads to a game that really drills home how unsustainable this extreme degree of late-stage capitalism can really be. That narrative is by far Hardspace: Shipbreaker's great accomplishment. It may be a pretty game with a satisfying simulation foundation, but its biting commentary is truly where it shines the brightest.
Hardspace: Shipbreaker — What you won't like
For all of its beauty, simplicity, and gripping narrative Hardspace: Shipbreaker falls apart the hardest when it comes to the actual gameplay. There's a fine line to tread when it comes to blue collar simulator games in that you want a game that feels like the job you're doing but you want to eliminate the parts of that job that are slow, tedious, or monotonous. As a shipbreaker you only have a couple of options for how that game play gets broken up. You choose your ship, use the scanner to look for weak points, cut the thing apart, and send the valuable scrap down to its designated destination. That's all well and good, and slicing through the ships can even strike that 'satisfaction' note. However, the fact that you're slowly floating around in space, devoid of gravity, makes navigation feel like a chore.
Everything about the in-space movement system feels like a chore that takes way too long to accomplish. Even with camera sensitivity turned high, it feels like a constant battle against the sticks and the controller to move to a point of frustration. There reaches a point when that kind of struggle and monotony is involved that it can zap your willingness to enjoy what else is going on around you.
Hardspace: Shipbreaker — Should you play it?
There's a lot to like about Hardspace: Shipbreaker just on principal. The game is nothing short of gorgeous. Even the grungy spaceships that are being broken down for salvage are incredibly detailed and feel hand crafted despite actually being procedurally generated. The varied difficulty options make the game accessible to a wider variety of people, as players who are looking for a challenge can opt for limited reconstitutions and oxygen or time management to up the stakes. Meanwhile, players who just want a story about a good ole space revolution against a cruel and uncaring horde of corporate overlords can limit their struggles and get right to the narrative.
The only hold back for Hardspace: Shipbreaker is the slow and tedious nature of the work itself. While the slow, hard labor makes sense within the context of the game it does still lose some elements of enjoyment for the player who feels like they're fighting just to move in the world. Hardspace has an important story to tell; one more people could stand to hear, even. It just seems like possibly loosening up some of the simulation aspects to be a little more forgiving and faster paced could benefit the players who don't want to have to fight against the game itself just to get through its story.
Welcome to the world of futuristic blue-collar labor where you are a lowly shipbreaker doing one of the most dangerous jobs Outerspace has to offer while a soulless corporation thrusts you over a billion dollars into debt and reconstitutes you from spare parts after every death just to get their money's worth.
Cole is the resident Call of Duty know-it-all and indie game enthusiast for Windows Central. She's a lifelong artist with two decades of experience in digital painting, and she will happily talk your ear off about budget pen displays.