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A Kerbin astronaut, mechanic, and scientist projected across space above Earth in key art for Kerbal Space Program 2

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Kerbal Space Program 2 makes rocket science far more approachable, but no less complex

Quality of life in space

Image: Intercept Games/Private Division
Clayton Ashley , senior video editor, has been producing and editing videos for Polygon since 2016. He is the lead producer of the tabletop gaming series Overboard.

Kerbal Space Program may be one of the greatest pieces of edutainment ever created, and I don’t use that despicable portmanteau lightly. The space program and rocketry simulator gained a massive following for its dedication to real science, along with the endorsement of several space agencies and space launch companies around the world.

Despite its accolades, Kerbal’s zeal for orbital trajectories and delta-V’s can be intimidating. It is, well, rocket science. For its sequel, though, developer Intercept Games clearly wanted to make these systems more approachable for new players — and new interactive tutorials go a long way toward that end.

None of which is to say that the designers have dumbed the series down. Rest assured, that signature customizability and attention to scientific realism remains fully intact. Even though Kerbal Space Program 2 is designed to ease potential rocket scientists into their new obsession, the many quality-of-life improvements that Intercept Games has introduced are just as much a boon to those who already speak Kerbin.

A rocket in the foreground, and a wide open series of fields around its take-off site in Kerbal Space Program 2 Image: Intercept Games/Private Division

For starters, the game’s decade-old UI is greatly enhanced. Menus are more intuitively organized. Useful actions, like merging designs, aren’t buried inside other menus. Rocket parts are now color-coded by size, saving you tons of time when locating the necessary component. And not only is Kerbal 2’s UI just generally more approachable — it’s also much slicker than its predecessor, with a techy aesthetic and stark icons that don’t get in the way of readability.

The actual act of rocket flying also benefits from this UI refresh. Attractive use of color and larger, clearer instrument panels work wonders in making the HUD feel more like a cockpit.

Time warping has also been greatly improved. Like many simulation games, Kerbal Space Program lets you speed up time while hurtling through space, and because space is very, very big, you can speed it all the way up to a factor of 100,000x. The original game’s time warping was robust enough to handle all the physics simulations while fast-forwarding, unless your engines were firing. Any long-distance missions, like those that used efficient ion drives, were a slog. The sequel now lets you time warp while you’re accelerating, making the farthest-reaching missions much less boring. I suspect this will make interstellar missions, which require you to travel even greater distances after future updates, just as enjoyable. You can also completely pause the action mid-flight to troubleshoot problems.

I also appreciate the small details that increase the thrill of launch: a Kerbinese countdown, jets of coolant water below the launch platform, and a rousing score that builds up to ignition. It remains to be seen how much of a leap the graphics will be over what was possible with the first game’s mods, but it certainly looks a lot prettier than the original base game. Vegetation! Dynamic lighting! Shinier rockets!

An image from Kerbal Space Program 2 with a space ship HUD layered over a solar system view of the planet Kerbal and it’s moon called Mun, along with the system’s star in the distance. The UI shows an orbital arc for a space ship capsule looping around the Mun.
For all Kerbinkind.
Image: Private Division/Intercept Games via Polygon

Much like the original, Kerbal Space Program 2 is launching in early access, so not all of its features are available just yet. For now, the game is only a sandbox, with no campaign objectives or scientific research activities. I’ve also encountered a fair share of bugs. For instance, I was simply unable to load some of my campaign saves, so I’d recommend saving often! More frustratingly, the game locked up for around a second whenever I switched from rocket view to map view while piloting my rocket. Since I sometimes quickly hop between these two perspectives during critical maneuvers, this lag was especially annoying. The game also effectively locked up after one particular crash, making it incapable of booting up in the aftermath. The game wouldn’t launch without crashing, despite multiple restarts and a full reinstallation of the game, until it was made fully available this morning. Though I can cut a little slack to an early access title, this kind of instability is a big bummer. A lot of love and attention went toward improving Kerbal Space Program — I’m hopeful that will ring true again. But for now, that remains to be seen.

However, if you’re content with a spacefaring sandbox in which you can painstakingly construct experimental rockets and (hopefully) launch them out of orbit, you’ll find a lot to love here. It’s a promising trajectory, and Intercept Games has already announced that future updates will include features completely new to the series, including space colonies and online multiplayer. For all of the hurdles that Kerbal Space Program required you to mount, it was a revelation once you made it to the other side. Kerbal Space Program 2 is already shortening those hurdles, and I can’t wait to see how many new rocket scientists it attracts.

Kerbal Space Program 2 is available on Windows PC. These impressions were written using a Steam download code provided by Private Division. Vox Media has affiliate partnerships. These do not influence editorial content, though Vox Media may earn commissions for products purchased via affiliate links. You can find additional information about Polygon’s ethics policy here.