“Greetings Starfighter! You have been recruited by the Star League to defend the frontier against Xur, and the Ko-Dan Armada.”
As someone who grew up during the age of the original Star Wars trilogy, I’ve always loved that kind of action space fantasy. Before I’d ever heard of Frodo and his suicide mission to Mount Doom, I was soaking in the adventures of Luke Skywalker, Alex Rogan, and James T Kirk on the big screen. Our recess playtime was occupied not with team sports, but with imaginary space battles and light sabre duals.
Since the 80’s, many different video games have attempted to satisfy the itch of our generation to step into the shoes of our galactic heroes. In particular, one of my all-time favorites was “Star Wars the Arcade game” which simulated both a tie-fighter/X-Wing dogfight as well as the epic trench sequence from episode IV. The vector graphics combined with a midi-style soundtrack and audio samples from the films (The force is strong with this one!) struck a chord with me as few games have since.
Despite early triumphs, no space game has tried to tackle so many aspects of the genre as Star Citizen, the polarizing, record-setting behemoth. Back in 2014, I watched a slick promotional video showcasing the Origin 300 series space ship, and decided to spring for one. The ship just looked great. It’s a one-person all-purpose jobbie with a modular design that can be modified to fit your play style preferences. I figured I could swing $60 (about the cost of a new game) to take a chance on an immersive space world where I could fly my own ship around. I downloaded the client, shot a couple of YouTube videos doing some of the very limited things you could do in the game at the time, and then mostly forgot about Star Citizen.
Fast forward to June 2017. I signed up for an Audible account. I spent my first credit on “Ready Player One”, since I’ve heard so much about it and wanted to see if it was any good (it’s not bad, BTW). Anyway, listening to Wade enter the Internet world of his time and pilot around the galaxy got me thinking about Star Citizen once again. It had been over a year since I launched it. My old graphics card made tromping around the ‘verse feel like watching an old slide projector on a bedsheet, but my new Nvidia should be better equipped for the job.
My first time logging back in was interesting. You don’t just log into Star Citizen and start playing. You have to choose whether you want to play the Arena Commander (ship dogfighting/racing) module, the FPS module, or the persistent world. I chose to try out the persistent world, since that aspect is what interests me the most. I woke up inside a space station, got out of bed, and looked around. I tapped the clothing locker…hmm, didn’t seem to do anything. I made my way to an impressive looking room with a ring of computer terminals. I found that interacting with a terminal called my ship to one of the landing pads just outside. I made my way to the airlock, entered through the interior door, and pressed the button to open the exterior door into space. Immediately, my view became cloudy and my avatar slumped over like a scarecrow, dead.
It took me a few seconds to realize that when I’d tapped on the locker in my space station bedroom, it automatically changed me from my space suit to street clothes. Being brand new to the game, I didn’t notice that my UI changed slightly when the spaceman helmet was removed. So, I had just waltzed into the vacuum of space in my skivvies. So much for my first flight!
My second try was met with more success. I made it out of the airlock and ran up to my ship. There was another player hanging out on the landing pads but I paid him little mind. I climbed up the ladder into my Origin 300i’s cargo bay. As I turned around to get a better look at my surroundings, I’d noticed that the other player had followed me into my ship! I’ll be honest, I didn’t really know what to do. What is the proper etiquette when some random dude squats in your cargo bay? So I took the only logical course of action. I stared at him until he went away. Most likely, if I got into the pilot’s seat, it would have kicked him out. My ship is only a one-person transport so I don’t imagine they’d allow a second player onboard during flight. Still, I’m not sure if he was just taking a look around or if he was genuinely looking for a ride!
My first flight wasn’t exactly pretty. I was able to take off from the platform using the “forward” key but I had an indicator on my HUD telling me that my landing gear was deployed. I dug into the keybinding options but retracting landing gear was nowhere to be found. I soon learned that the keybinding options are not remotely complete, and the only way to figure out how to do things is to Google the answer, ask in local chat, or just push various keys until something happens. In this case, I asked in chat (landing gear is “n”, in case you were wondering) and was happy to see that people supplied me the answer quickly and without being demeaning. My experience with local in-game chat has so far been either pleasant or indifferent (my questions have either been answered or ignored). Maybe I’ve just been lucky on that front. With as many backers as this game has, I assume there are a least a few trolls out there.
Once my landing gear was retracted, my ship flew much faster. I’m not sure why, since there should be no atmospheric resistance in space, but maybe my ship has a built-in safety precaution. Even so, pointing my ship towards the nearest satellite relay and watching the distance slowly tick down made me realize that there must be an even faster way to travel, because otherwise I was going to have to spend hours and hours of sitting around doing nothing just to get to a quest objective. I just started punching keys, and eventually my HUD changed to a display that, if my reticle hovered over a destination, it would highlight as if I could travel to that spot. I pressed enter (the chat window came up). I pressed spacebar. I even tried pressing backspace, but could not get my ship to fast-travel to the highlighted destination. So, to YouTube I went. And there it was – the “F” button (because of course it is). So, I tabbed back over to the game and tapped “F” to engage my quantum engine, and WOW, was that fun! Say what you will about RSI and their development of this game, they’ve got the feel right, and the quantum drive feels *just* like traveling at light speed in Star Wars. I could spend several minutes just jumping between satellites!
Once I had flight movement more or less figured out, I exited my flight chair and opened the hatch to my ship. It was time for my Major Tom moment. I stepped out of the craft….and I was floating in space. I’m not sure if the ship is supposed to have some kind of artificial gravity, but stepping outside the craft certainly feels different than walking around inside of it. Also, traveling by personal thrusters is really, really slow. If you need to do a spacewalk for a mission, make sure you get as close as you can to the objective with your ship first, otherwise you’ll be floating for what seems like days. And maybe that’s ok if you’ve got Space Oddity blaring out of your speakers on repeat, I’m not here to judge. But for me, I’d rather get out, complete the mission, and get back in.
After my first few flights, I decided that I liked the direction the game was headed enough to go take another peek at the available ships on Star Citizen’s website. I’m not going to spend $70 or more on another ship, mind you, but I was curious what the price floor was for the smaller models. To my surprise, Star Citizen now has an “upgrade” option. You can upgrade to a ship of equal or more value by paying only the difference between the price of the ships. With this in mind, I took a peek at the other Origin 300 series ships. I could upgrade to an “explorer” model for $10, or a fighter for $15. I decided that both exploring and $10 were more in my wheelhouse, so I upgraded my boring old 300i to an Origin 315P, with the hope that when the game is fully developed, the advanced long-range scanner equipped on my new ship would help with my space exploration ambitions. For now, the only perceptible difference is that there is now a broad yellow stripe on the front of my ship. Yeah, yeah, I spent more money on a nonexistent feature for a nonexistent game. But I haven’t given them anything since 2014, and seeing the kind of progress they’ve made got me a little excited.
Speaking of ships, I noticed that mine, when viewed from the website, has several modular slots (weapons, engine, shields) that can be modified and upgraded as well. Disappointingly, I learned that the only upgrades that can be performed at the moment are in the form of equipment rentals for Arena Commander (PvP) dogfights. I don’t really have any interest in Arena Commander, nor do I want to continue to rent upgrades for all eternity. Supposedly, more permanent upgrades will someday be available in the persistent world. I hope this is the case, because the default mini-cannons on the Origin ships (Ominisky IV Lasers) feel more like pea shooters than a viable defense mechanism.
How do I know this, you ask? Well, I got into a little scuffle over a communications array against some space pirates. Once I finally figured out quantum travel, the missions to repair communications arrays started to make much more sense. You know, because I could actually get to them. Unfortunately, sometimes there are mean NPC ships guarding the arrays, and if there are more than, say….one of them, I usually end up dead. I guess those moments are when it would be beneficial to be playing with a fleet or as a member of a crew on a much larger, more powerful ship. And here I’ve been hoping to go it alone for a little bit. I’m not sure how viable of an option that’s going to be, unless my long-range scanners (when they’re put into the game) can detect trouble far enough in advance for me to make a clean getaway.
Due to this game still being in alpha testing, it has many, many things to iron out. I’d say my biggest complaint at the moment is lack of clarity regarding keyboard commands, and little documentation on the subject. I still haven’t figured out how to pull up my quest tracker (the Internet says F9, but that key doesn’t do anything for me), and I had to hunt for such simple things like “how do I retract my landing gear?”, “how do I travel faster?”, and “how do I exit my pilot seat?”. A lot of things are non-intuitive, like the removal of my spaceman suit by tapping a locker. Or the fact that there’s no way to retract your ship’s ladder, other than to just take off. Also, even with my new Nvidia GTX 1060 the movement can be hitchy and blurry. I hope that performance tweaks are somewhere on the radar.
But I’ll give it to them, for what little it seems RSI has done in five years, they’ve done most of it very well. The graphics/atmosphere is somehow both gritty and polished. The sound effects are fantastic. The dogfighting can be fun, but also frustrating. Moving within the world is non-instanced and seamless, whether you’re traveling through an airlock onto the landing pad, or stepping out from your ship into the vastness of space, it feels like one big world. The current build has started to show me what could be possible with this game, and I’m hearing that Alpha 3.0, which includes such notable updates as planet landings, item interaction (fueling, power supplies, radars, quantum drives etc.), cargo, and character customization could boost my hope even more. The question remains though, after five years in alpha testing, has RSI bitten off more than they can hope to deliver? Can the final product hope to match the inflated expectations of the backers/community?