Sunday, 6 March 2011

SpaceChem on Steam

SpaceChem has been out since the start of 2011, but just hit Steam, the iTunes-style game downloading community from Valve (who you may remember from such computer games as Half-Life...).

We took the chance to have a look at this futuristic logic puzzle and try to work out whether it's any good or not.

While any game has its good and bad points, SpaceChem manages to leave a pretty wide gulf between the two - it has excellent points, and terrible points. The gameplay itself, thankfully, is absorbing and intricate; it's mostly just the presentation that lets it down.

Weirdly, the above video does a far better job of outlining the principles of SpaceChem than any of the in-game literature. It's also a chance to hear the incredible soundtrack, composed by Evan Le Ny, which helps to keep the frustration at bay on the more challenging levels.

The Basis

SpaceChem actually has some pretty firm scientific grounding behind it. You are a space chemist, given the raw materials available on the planet where you are based and tasked with converting them into more complex, useful molecules.

In order to do so, you must build Pipe Mania-style routes around the screen, guiding the atoms together and creating (or destroying) bonds between them. It's a cyclical process, so you have to make sure everything has a nice rhythm to it, while also avoiding any unwanted collisions between the wrong types of atom.

The Excellence

Some parts of SpaceChem really are superb. The logic involved in solving even some of the earlier levels is intricate but, for the most part, fathomable. Within a relatively short space of time you're built up to multi-layered levels where you must not only convert input molecules to a differently structured output, but then feed those into a second or third reactor and repeat the process again.

The simplified science behind the game as a whole is also pretty interesting - it wouldn't actually teach anybody chemistry, but it could help anyone who's struggling to get to grips with the Periodic Table of the Elements and topics like covalent bonding for the first time. Compared with some of the levels of SpaceChem, GCSE Chemistry is a cinch.

The Terribleness

There are just a few elements that let down SpaceChem, and thankfully they're all cosmetic. You'd be forgiven for thinking, on the first run, that you'd accidentally launched a free Flash game, for example. The intro and menu screen are pretty basic, which is fine, but then you start a new game.

In-game graphics are fine. Sim City-style planet shots and sleek, minimalist screens for the in-reactor sequences. It may just be me, but in the reactors - where the entire point of the game is to create spot-on circuits to convert the molecules - I don't get a particularly visible background grid to build on. This is compounded by the fact that each reactor has two circuits - one red, one blue - that are offset slightly from one another. The outcome of that is that neither lies exactly along the gridlines of the background.

Tutorials are brief and unhelpful - they don't really give you much insight into the gameplay and they don't go into enough depth about the controls. You get told in passing, for example, that you can switch the different icons between applying to the red or blue paths, but it's not made crystal clear that the blue path can trigger the 'alpha' input (which usually 'belongs' to the red path) and vice versa, or that the two can similarly output the finished molecules to either of the release zones.

The Verdict

SpaceChem is an absorbing and complex game with sufficient gameplay to keep things interesting for a decent length of time, enough logic to avoid becoming overly frustrating, and clear outcomes for each level that let you know what's required of you quickly and with good clarity.

However, it is let down by its packaging, like a Da Vinci helicopter design scrawled on a ketchup-stained napkin. You'll basically have to teach yourself how to play the game, because the tutorials don't do their job, and if you make it through the first 20 levels without resorting to a walkthrough, you're a better man than me.

Final Score: 64%

SpaceChem from Zachtronic Industries, available now at the Zachtronics Industries Store and on Steam

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