"Mars Horizon," a space agency simulator game, launched a free beta this week and you can sign up by joining a mailing list here, but you better act fast. The deadline to join ends May 1 at 11 a.m. EDT (1500 GMT/1600 BST).
The new game by Auroch Digital, and published by The Irregular Corporation, puts you in command of your own space program — you can choose NASA, Russia and the European Space Agency — with the goal of dominating space with trips to orbit, the moon and beyond. To do that, you'll have to research rockets, spacecraft and satellites to achieve your goals, all while tending to your public support, annual budgets and international diplomacy.
Your success depends on how well you balance the risks and reliability of your vehicles, as well as the actions you select during the missions themselves. Do you want to drum up support by stoking fears of UFOs or take the more reasoned approach by saying there's no alien evidence? (I took the latter.) Should you enter the Space Race with a JFK-esque challenge to go to the moon or not? (Yes, of course!)
Video: "Mars Horizon" wants you to launch your own space program
Related: Approachable space program sim Mars Horizon opens beta signups
The "Mars Horizon" beta only covers the first two eras of the space age (with destinations in orbit and at the moon), but the solar system will await in the game's final form, according to Auroch Digital.
Our friend Fraser Cain at PC Gamer tried out "Mars Horizon" this week and managed to reach orbit with a satellite okay, but his first attempt to put a dog in space didn't fare as well.
"Mars Horizon" presents itself as more of an agency management game than hyper-realistic simulator like "Kerbal Space Program," and that may be a bit more accessible for new players like myself. (Full disclosure: My first "Kerbal Space Program" launch was a success, but just barely because my parachute deployed at liftoff.)
There are tantalizing hints at unlocking Russia's Buran space shuttle, as well as NASA orbiters, before reaching out to Mars and the solar system in the larger game. In my first hour with "Mars Horizon," I watched my first sounding rocket explode and my first animal launch (in my mind, it carried cats, a dog and one very small hippo) fail in a crushing defeat for hippo-kind. I did manage to get an Earth-studying satellite into orbit and my second animal launch went off without a hitch.
For my first game, I played the European Space Agency (ESA) because the real-life agency actually worked with developers on some aspects of the game. (There's a physical card game as well, which you can learn about here.)
And just like in real life, the Russians kept beating me to space. They launched the first human in space (very accurate), followed by NASA (again, points for accuracy), leaving me behind largely due to my clumsy early attempts to balance research and spaceport development.
But when Russia sent a cosmonaut around the moon before my first animal launch, well ... that one hurt. I'm still ahead of NASA, for now, so I better get cracking on that astronaut moon shot.
The free beta signup period for "Mars Horizon" ends May 1. Details on how to sign up are here.
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Email Tariq Malik at email@example.com or follow him @tariqjmalik. Follow us @Spacedotcom, Facebook and Instagram.
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