One Giant Leap25 Nov 2014 0
The timing couldn't be better: there was a successful landing of the Rosetta Spacecraft on a comet and Interstellar was trailing its own blazing path in the movie theatres. The past few months were also abuzz with the Mars missions as well as the debates on the constraints placed on NASA's budget as the last of the Space Shuttles was being decommissioned. The message was clear: space is indeed the final frontier, but it is incredibly expensive and dangerous to explore. Space programmes around the world have, on one hand, excited the imaginations and ambitions of a generation, and, on the other hand, represented a massive political and bureaucratic problem. The space programme in America especially, for years, was a unique mix of dreamy futurism, political high drama, and harsh, calculated reality. No other single programme undertaken by human governments has produced such a rich renaissance in modern culture inspiring students, writers, directors, and politicians. It is this hefty legacy that is now offered to players in Buzz Aldrin's Space Program Manager.
The title itself may seem rather low key. Aside from the prestigious name of one of the most famous astronauts in man's history, Buzz Aldrin's Space Program Manager seems like a humble appellation. It evokes, perhaps, the simple pleasures of a flight simulator program, or, at best, something along the lines of Sim Farm. At least, this was certainly the expectation I had just from hearing the name the first time. In some ways, these expectations turned out to be right. On the surface, it is a simple manager game where the player takes control of either the US or the Soviet Space Programmes in either campaign or sandbox mode and endeavors to train engineers, technicians, astronauts, and develop spacecraft to send probes and people into space. Eventually, the goal, at least in the campaign mode, is to reach the Moon before the opposing faction does. There is also a fictional Global Space Agency that the player can play representing all of humanity.
Nonetheless, with games today having such lofty titles and grandiose claims, this particular manager nearly flew me by on a near miss. However, when I first started up the game and the sounds of Mission Control rumbled through my speakers, I was immediately arrested by the atmosphere the developers put into this opening scene. There were no fancy graphics or impressive animations. No, wisely, the developers chose to let the faces of the men and women involved in these projects leaning intently against their consoles speak towards the gravitas of this experience. Here was an opening that laid the drama of space out in front of the player. The careful and meticulous technobabble taken from samples of actual mission dialogue held no pretense of voice acting. Instead, the player suddenly found himself being surrounded by technicians, engineers, astronauts, and pioneers looking at him through the screen as if to ask the player, even before the game starts, if he's ready to take these missions seriously. I was immediately impressed - it evoked a sense of responsibility in me as if the nation was now watching my progress and I had to bring those men up there home safely.
The drama and romance of the space programme is one aspect of this game that, I believe, the developers have rightly placed a lot of their attention towards enhancing. Even before I talk about gameplay and mechanics, I have to affirm and recognize this excellent choice. I imagine that if games such as this were created by massive studios with terabytes of resources, it would have sullied the experience to have these moments represented through expensive polygonal characters. Instead, the developers have chosen to take real images of the sights, places, and people involved in man's endeavors towards Space and have integrated them seamlessly into the visual style of the game. This was not just some space simulator, this was an homage. For a player such as myself who constantly seeks for deeper connection and immersion into games, I think this small offering has achieved this level of triumph. Most games people just want to play: this is a game that I was happy to experience.
Once the player selects which game mode he wishes to play, he will be taken to the main screen where the facilities of whichever nation he has chosen is displayed. There are several sites enumerated such as Headquarters or the resident laboratories which house the various engineers and scientists as well as a museum and public relations office. The campus is where the player can construct or upgrade buildings and access the various functions of each site. The Vehicle Assembly Building, for example, allows the development of various rockets and Headquarters is where the various programmes are managed. The lack of an automatic tutorial makes it a bit hard on new players and it took me a few tries of going around to get the hang of where everything is and what its function entails. I have to admit that one of the least attractive parts about this game is that the interface is not as intuitive as I would have liked it to be. The ?Back? arrow on some of the tabs when accessing the Headquarters menu, for example, is something I would expect to take me back to my previous screen, but, similar to the way the ?up? button works on some operating systems, it merely takes me higher up the organizational tree to a menu I completely have no wish to be in. Some of this clunkiness in the interface can be a bit confusing for new players and can be a tad frustrating later on in the game when there might be over half a dozen programmes going from Mercury to Saturn open at the same time. Thankfully, it doesn't take a rocket scientist to eventually get used to the controls, but it does take some initial investment.
The main thrust of the game is to successfully complete missions in space in order to gain prestige. Prestige and meeting various goals will help in securing future funds for budgeting and to help expand the facilities. Objectives are set every few years and can be accessed through the public affairs office. The game is turn based with the player setting commands for one season before ending his turn and seeing the results. After resolving any launches into space after the turn is ended, a news report is given briefing the player on any developments, builds, missions, etc. It's actually not so dissimilar from the turn based mechanics in Total War games.
In order to successfully launch missions into space the player must learn to train the various scientists, crews, and astronauts necessary for each type of mission he wishes to undertake. He has a choice on various programmes available that represent the historical goals and missions such as sending a man into space, a probe to Mars, and, of course, landing on the moon. Not all of these programmes are available at the beginning, of course. The more advanced missions become unlocked as the player successfully executes simpler missions. After all, there would have been no Apollo Program if there was no Project Gemini - and no Project Gemini if there was no Project Mercury. One of the things I was most impressed about with this game was the sheer number of missions available. Even in each individual programme, there may be half a dozen different missions to complete all of the possible tasks of that particular goal. For example, with Project Gemini, not only are space flights available as missions, but also orbital flights, long term flights, docking procedures, joint operations, etc. In other words, the game has a depth to it that is tantalizing to explore. This is especially rewarding in the sandbox mode where the player can intently and systematically recreate all of the burgeoning missions that have happened throughout history.
While managing these missions, one also needs to manage the crew and equipment. Each season represents an opportunity for one's scientists to increase the reliability of equipment such as rockets or payloads as well as training themselves. Each scientist, engineer, or technician has ratings on everything from propulsion to probes to space suits allowing the player to select which of his best people are working on which piece of hardware. Perhaps a particular scientist is better suited for researching rockets and so the player may choose to assign him to the Saturn V R&D division. Thankfully, for those of us who are wary of micromanaging dozens of scientists, the game also auto-sorts the personnel by the relevant strength in each project meaning that if one brings up the menu to select a scientist to work on man-rated rockets, the ones who have the highest efficiency in that department will always be listed at the top first. Aside from working on the hardware, the player also manages the execution of each mission by hiring and training a stable of mission controllers who are rated in everything from propulsion to crew and payload to ship's systems. Whenever a mission is scheduled for launch, the player also, then, chooses the astronauts and controllers who will manage that mission in the various jobs. Thankfully, the game also allows us the choice of our level of micromanagement style. The player can choose for himself which person will be assigned to which mission station or allow the computer to automatically choose the best candidates in each department.
Finally, with all of the pieces in place: well trained astronauts and controllers as well as improved hardware, the player can then schedule missions to be executed in between seasons. Naturally, all of this costs money and the fidgeting with the budget - whether it's salaries for each worker or the cost of research and development for rockets and maintenance of buildings - is one of the most important aspects of the game. This reflection of the financial realities of NASA and space programmes around the world helps to add another level of complication and management that the player must learn to be adept in. I must confess that in my first few playthroughs, I massively overspent and finding that right balance between functionality and financial solvency is a joy for any player who finally gets the hang of it.
However, despite all of these challenges, the most rewarding aspect of this game is watching the missions go up. The player has a choice to monitor the situation of his various missions through the mission screen which enumerates every stage of the whole mission. There might only be a few stages - for simple test flights, for example - or as many as 28 for a moon landing. I cannot describe the excitement I felt when I first sent a probe up into space. Aside from the iconic countdown and graphics displaying the path my satellite took into the sky, I was also riveted by the superbly chosen music. There was a real tension and hope that, I imagine, was a small, tiny sliver of what the actual men and women working at NASA and other places must have felt. Their national prestige was on the line, and, when the player finally begins sending people into space, the lives of some of the bravest individuals on this planet are counting on their preparation. There is nothing the player can do after sending up a launch in order to affect the outcome. The player has to be confident that he did all he could to increase the reliability of the components and train his people. Watching all of it unfold in front of me, I found myself silently watching the different lights hoping that there would be no failure. Failure was no longer just a simple calculation of how much prestige, component degradation, and financial ruin I would incur, but because the game had done such a great job in immersing me into the role of director, I felt as if the hopes and dreams of humanity as a whole were part of my thoughts. I felt like celebrating when my first probe made it back safely or when my first spacewalk was a success. I found myself truly smiling at my computer screen when the Apollo missions finally landed on the moon, but then I held my breath as I watched them limp back on a slightly broken capsule - thankfully, they landed safely!
There is probably more I could say about the experience of the game. The competition with the opposing faction, for example, and watching how much progress they're making compared to your own efforts really helps to increase the dramatic tension of the experience. However, I think it's best if I simply recommend that players who have any predisposition for the heroic or romantic or scientific should try this particular manager out. It is at first glance a relatively small and humble game, yet it is in this one small step that the fancies of one's heart can take a giant leap.