SpaceEngine Early Access Review

To infinity and beyond.

If you’re the kind of person who plays No Man’s Sky or Elite: Dangerous primarily to explore and see what each new solar system holds, SpaceEngine is a cheaper, lighter, but also more technologically impressive take on the same experience. As a bonus, it also makes for a good astronomy tool.

You see, SpaceEngine isn’t really a game, but more of a simulation of a one-to-one scale 3D model of… the entire universe. Like the two aforementioned games, SpaceEngine creates billions and billions of systems and planets through procedural generation, but all you really do is look at them with a free camera you can move at any speed in a ‘Planetarium’ mode. I’ve heard multiple people call it ‘Carl Sagan’s Cosmos: The Game.’

From lone developer Vladimir Romanyuk, SpaceEngine has been in a free open beta for a few years, but the latest update just hit Steam Early Access for $25. That update, version 0.99, turns SpaceEngine into a significantly sleeker product I could justify paying for, even if some instability and incomplete features remain.

SpaceEngine’s main achievement is a level of seamlessness No Man’s Sky and Elite haven’t quite attained, with no loading screens or transitions between planet atmospheres, solar systems, and entire clusters of galaxies. Flying through canyons on one planet, past its moons, and then through interstellar space as the real stars in the distance blur past, Star Trek-style, delivers a more mesmerizing sense of scale than probably any other space game yet. The chilled techno music that constantly plays is a perfect touch. No aliens though, beyond perhaps an exotic grass texture if a planet has ‘life’ amongst its physical stats.

Version 0.99 looks significantly better than the free beta, mainly because of improved planet textures and a new lighting mode that automatically adjusts exposure to mimic the human eye. It has a more natural look that reminds me more of NASA photos than sci-fi.

SpaceEngine includes an extensive suite of photo and video capture tools, some of which are new to 0.99. You can also edit, export, and build celestial bodies with a dizzying array of sliders, then share them through the Steam Workshop.

Purely judging it as a tool, SpaceEngine is a great way to visualize the scale of outer space, which many people struggle to do with real-life or 2D models. Like Elite it goes for hard space simulation, including our own Solar System along with real catalogued systems and scientifically plausible procedural ones.

The variety in that procedural generation compares pretty favorably to Elite, too. There’s a search engine for known objects, you can accelerate or reverse time to observe orbits, and even eclipses are simulated. People have already used earlier SpaceEngine betas for education. 0.99 adds a 2D chart for every solar system similar to the one in Elite, as well as an extensive tutorial for the Planetarium interface, which I highly recommend.

You actually can fly ships in SpaceEngine (and edit them for Workshop), but that part is still in an early state. What’s there, though, has a far steeper learning curve than Elite or No Man’s Sky, requiring players to wrestle factors like relative velocity and inertia, and actually crunch numbers for hyperspace jumps. Romanyuk plans to stick as much as possible to hard sci-fi in future updates. So far there is only an unofficial online manual to help anyone who tries to pilot, but hopefully, an interactive tutorial is planned.

SpaceEngine runs fairly smoothly on a decent PC, and 0.99 seems more stable than the older version (which you can still download). Sometimes textures might take a while to load depending on how fast you move, and things can slow down if you set a parameter somewhere higher than what your CPU can handle – and crashes do happen at extremely high speeds.

Romanyuk has an extensive roadmap for SpaceEngine that includes what looks like a hard sci-fi version of No Man’s Sky’s survival gameplay. Previous updates were few and far between, but Romanyuk says the commercial release should lead to faster updates. As is, SpaceEngine is a robust and fun toy chest for anyone even slightly interested in astronomy.

[Reviewed on PC]