SpaceChem Review

24 Feb 2011  by   Paul Younger
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It says something about my family that when they ask what I’ve been playing lately, I can respond with “I’ve been playing a game involving chemical engineering” and (unlike my family – Ed.) they will wait for further details before writing it off as dry, dull and boring.  
It says a lot for SpaceChem then that, on explaining it’s principles further and showcasing a quick puzzle, they watch intently for five minutes, chime in with their own puzzle-solving suggestions for half an hour, and then wander away – no doubt musing about buying it at some point soon.
Truthfully though, there’s no real fear of education here (the chemical reactions are aesthetic fluff), although you might end up being able to recite bits of the periodic table.
SpaceChem is really about two intrinsically linked elements: programming and elegance.
For the most part you’re playing around inside reactors.  The reactors have input zones (where atoms and molecules come in) and output zones (where ‘finished’ atoms and molecules come out), as well as two WALDOs – tiny robots that follow simple instructions i.e. ‘move here’, ‘pick this up’, and ‘bond these atoms’. Programming made simple, basically.
You’re given a goal (usually ‘use these atoms to create these molecules’) and, when you’re satisfied that your instructions will result in a satisfactory conclusion, you click the ‘Play’ button and watch events unfold.
The tutorial levels have you performing simple tasks that familiarise you with the mechanics and the way the WALDOs work – you have your WALDOs call in an atom, pick it up, move it to the output zone, eject it, and make sure that the design loops itself.
Before long, though, you’re unbonding and rebonding atoms, dealing with randomised atom inputs, using sensors to create multiple paths, and even working with multiple reactors; all chained together in a poorly planned attempt at creating the molecules you need. However, your design cannot work just the once; it needs to be able to repeat itself over and again to make sure that your solution doesn’t come unstuck after the WALDOs go around once or twice.
If it sounds complicated, it’s not: the mechanics could easily refer to cooking… call in egg, unbond eggshell, move eggshell to bin, move yolk to bowl.
It is, however, bastard hard. The early levels give you plenty of time to get used to the basic concepts and commands, but later levels take hours to solve. New concepts and instructions are rapidly introduced preventing things getting stale – just as you’ve figured out how to utilise one thing, you’re given another. It feels like your brain is dancing on a razor, and that the razor gets a teensy bit sharper on every level.
But SpaceChem is never less than utterly satisfying. There’s always a sense of hope when you click the ‘Play’ button and watch your machine go to work. If it falls apart as a result of colliding atoms, because one reactor works too slowly and backs up the entire production line, or (if you’re as much of an idiot as I) a reactor never actually calls an atom in – forcing you to tweak it slightly and try again.
When it eventually works out though, there’s an immense sense of pride to be had; a real feeling of “I did this, it’s clever and it functions”.  There’s also a strange and hypnotic beauty in watching the WALDOs go about their business. So much so that, over the past few days, I’ve been calling in uncomprehending and unprepared passers-by to look upon my mighty works.
And then the game tells you that your design is slower than the average, that you’ve used more commands and/or reactors than are needed because (rather than design it to work perfectly from the ground up) you’ve just bolted bits on until it finally pumped something out.
See, in possibly the best twist since the invention of the corkscrew, the drive to make your reactors more streamlined, more efficient, and more pleasant to look at is buoyed by a leaderboard sey-up designed to pull on your pride-strings. It’s almost impossible to use less reactors, less commands and do things faster than everybody else so, if your design takes less time to finish than the average, you think “Well, I might’ve used more reactors and more commands, but I was faster.”
Then you think about how you could have done things more efficiently.  Perhaps you check YouTube to see how other people did it thanks to an in-game upload system. You then reload the level (which the game has saved for future tweaking) and adjust things slightly. It’s then suddenly 6am and your bladder alerts you to the fact that you haven’t been to the toilet for eight hours.
Then there are the challenges. Challenges which ask you to complete particular levels either insanely quickly or by using only one reactor. While you’re always striving to do your best, these let you know that seemingly ludricruos propositions are entirely possible. And then it’s 6pm and you’re still on the same level.
Miraculously, all of this is achieved while attaining excellent production values.SpaceChem won’t win any awards for its tech but, the 2D graphics are attractive and the brilliant soundtrack makes you feel as though cautiously tweaking command inputs is an important and heroic task. The story – told in little text snippets, unlocked every few levels – is well-written. Genuinely well-written; “I’d read it if it was compiled as a short story” kind of well-written. The titular SpaceChem company is a bit of a shady super-corporation, with all sorts of nasty goings on beneath the shiny veneer, and I’m genuienly interested to know the details.
But the sad thing is that I doubt I ever will. SpaceChem is really,really hard, and I suspect only the most determined and skilled of players will ever see it through to the end. My brain pretty much shut down when I looked a recent task and I sincerely doubt I’m alone; I think the majority of players will en up at a point where a level is just too much to take in. Much as I want to play the next level to see what insane challenge is on offer (and to advance the plot a little more) I’m unbelievably daunted at the prospect of what lay in wait.
Yet I can’t help but compel you to buy it. I’ve thoroughly enjoyed the exorbitant amount of time I’ve spent with SpaceChem and I’ll certainly be going back to tweak earlier designs and (with increased mental fortitude) tackle the next level.
Despite the way it looks in screenshots and despite the dry-sounding premise,SpaceChem is one of the finest, most smartly-crafted and most intrinsically beautifulpuzzle games I’ve played in years. It channels Rube Goldberg-‘em-up The Incredible Machine, both in its desire to create something simple, elegant and precise and in the joy of simply watching your held-together-with-metaphorical-duct-tape solution work. You really should experience that joy for yourself.

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