SPACESHIPS ARE FUN
Forget everything you've heard about Kerbal Space Program (KSP), because the latest version of the alpha, 0.18, is for all intents and purposes an entirely new game. Graphics are improved, interface is improved, stability is improved, and there are a ton of new features that open whole new areas of gameplay.
I shouldn't have to persuade anyone that flying spaceships is fun (this is an EVE online site at its heart). The difference with KSP is that unlike EVE online, the physics are true to their name. Where EVE ships behave more like submarines, KSP has realistic physics: ships keep their velocity in space because there is no resistance, and lose speed when in an atmosphere. KSP's strength, though, is the idea that you're the one designing the spaceships. When starting, players are thrown into the vehicle assembly bay (or the aircraft hangar, because players can also build planes/spaceplanes) and given a choice of components to build with. The system is very simple and intuitive, the difficulty comes in getting the physics right: a lopsided rocket will tip over, one with too much fuel/payload will have trouble getting into space etc.
The closest comparison would seem to be a game like Minecraft: players are given a set of tools and a world and that's it. In KSP, players have to decide what they want to do (just like EVE). Do you want to make a jet that can reach the upper levels of atmosphere? One that can get into orbit and back? Do you want to visit the Mun? The sun? Another distant planet? Do you want to make the biggest explosion possible? KSP lets you do all of the above. And it's still in the alpha stages. To make you adventures entertaining and mean something, players even have little Kerbals, small alien spacefarers, each with their different characters (Jebediah being the bravest one, most of the others will simply scream in terror during the whole trip). Getting that little guy to walk on another planet after a terrifying ride (and likely dying many times beforhand) is remarkably gratifying.
WHY IS 0.18 SO MUCH BETTER?
Developers have done two things: increased the polish significantly, and add a number of features that had been planned/asked for. I won't list them all because the changelog is pretty huge, but I will state the ones that have had the biggest influence, and why I treat this installement like an entirely new game.
In-space docking is an important part of any space sim. Aside from being cool (the station pictured above is mine, and it looks frikkin awesome), docking plays an important logistics role. When wanting to attempt a trip to the Mun for example, like the Appolo missions, it makes sense to have a docking stage with a lander and a return module. The simple explanation is that if you have to bring both the engine and the fuel down onto the other planet with them, players end up using a lot more fuel (as there's more mass being transported), and a landing craft doesn't necessarily make a good spaceship.
Docking has finally been implemented in KSP. Players can build massive space stations and have separate lander craft that can dock back with the main ship. Not only that, but the developers have included fuel transfers, so it's possible to have refueling craft to let players access areas of space that weren't before. Docking has been made that much better by adding 'automated' probes, i.e. ships that don't require poor Kerbals to pilot. In practice this means players can send exploratory probes, but also add parts to stations without populating them with dozens of Kerbals. If one desires, it is also possible to create stations on other planets...
Now some of you may not be familiar with space physics and orbital bodies, but it isn't exactly intuitive. In space, you altitude is what defines your orbital velocity. For example, turning on your engine and gaining altitude will mean that your ship actually slows down, while lowering your altitude means the opposite. This makes rendezvous with other orbiting satellites (such as your space station, or another planet) extremely difficult. There were many protractor jokes in the previous KSP versions, because they were the only way one could actually predict where a rendezvous would occur. This is all history, with KSP having a very simple and easy-to use 'manoeuvre' system that lets players plan where they are going with great accuracy. It means docking become a simple (though precise) exercise, and same goes for going to other planets. The game is now more about building the required ship and some good planning rather than blindly hoping to reach the desired orbital body.
Docking wouldn't work without new docking modules, and players now have a number to choose from. Other new parts include new fuel reserves of varying sizes, science bits (so Kerbals can study space and stuff), electricity (with the requisite solar panels, nuclear decay generators, and batteries), lights, and even an ion drive. What's more, the assembly buildings are now much more streamlined: instead of having to scroll through all the different parts, there are now many more displayed (although smaller, but hovering the mouse over anything gives the player added details). It all comes together to make the building part more fun than frustrating.
In case players didn't have enough places to visit, developers have added two new planets. Given the distances involved in the system, that means the ion drive (which gets its power from electricity) is going to come in useful, as is mid-flight refueling. To make the trip more enjoyable, textures have been improved throughout the game, making gazing down at planets a lot more enjoyable. Completing the experience, KSP now has a music soundtrack that captures the game perfectly: calm jazz in the Assembly Building, and light airy tones when in space.
SUM IT UP
KSP is hours of very addictive entertainment (just one more attempt at this flight...), coupled with gleeful joy at success. Jebediah's first EVA over my new station, after having deployed huge solar panels, had me grinning from ear to ear. And it's only in the alpha stages...