I’d like to take you back in time to October 2013. I mean that figuratively, don’t get too excited. Star Wars: The Force Awakens had recently started filming, Assassin’s Creed: Black Flag had just been released, and a referendum on the UK’s membership of the EU still seemed like a neat idea for healing divisions in the Conservative Party. It was also the time a younger, but less good-looking version of myself plopped down $30 on an entry-level pack for Star Citizen.
I had fond memories of playing Starlancer and Freelancer, both of which were created by Chris Roberts, the head honcho at Cloud Imperium Games (CIG), which is behind Star Citizen. Besides, the Kickstarter was already fully funded and it was pencilled in for a 2014 release, so I didn’t have long to wait!
Of course, the 2019 version of me finds that idea most amusing. My ironic, bitter laughter rings out as I type. Star Citizen is now notorious for many reasons, not least because it still doesn’t exist. In spite of a lengthy development time and a frankly mind-boggling amount of cash, there isn’t a whole lot to see in terms of actual output.
But then that’s not to say there isn’t anything. There is an alpha version of a few different sections of the game available for backers whose package includes a (theoretical) copy of the (theoretical) game. I played about with it a year or so ago, but gave up quite quickly as it was a bit of a mess. Poor performance coupled with minimal actual content meant I didn’t see much point in sticking around. However, a couple of weeks back, I thought it was worth checking in to see how things are going.
Spoiler alert: I needn’t have bothered. The alpha currently contains three sections, ‘Arena Commander’, which is a dogfighting simulation for single and multi-player, ‘Star Marine’, which includes a couple of FPS modes, and ‘Universe’, which is a section of the persistent online… well, universe. Now, this is an early stage build – if anything that has been in development for nearly seven years can be called ‘early stage’. As such, it would be easy to complain about performance issues but, although I am 100% going to do that, I have more fundamental concerns.
The first thing I need to say about the Star Citizen alpha is that you should have a book handy. The loading times for both the initial start and certain game modes can range from ‘noticeable’ to ‘interminable’. Without exaggeration, it took over 10 minutes on a couple of occasions. I started with the Star Marine section first; I mean who buys a space-sim to fly around in spaceships, right?
There are currently two modes: ‘Last Stand’ is a take on Battlefield’s Conquest mode where you have to capture and hold control points, and ‘Elimination’ is a standard free-for-all deathmatch. The performance issues are, perhaps inevitably, most notable here. After you load into your first game of a play session, it takes a couple of minutes for the frame rate and audio feedback to sort itself out. This is obviously a bit of a handicap.
Once you’re up and running, it’s fine if unremarkable. It won’t come as a shock that there are other, better multiplayer shooters out there, and there still will be even once Star Marine doesn’t run like a bag of hammers. Also, I couldn’t help but notice how better equipped everyone else seemed to be. They were running around with hulking armour and energy shotguns, whereas I seemed to be wearing a futuristic wetsuit with kneepads.
Turns out I had somehow missed the extremely extensive loadout screen. It’s here you can customise your armour and gear, up to and including selecting how many of which spare ammo magazines you want to carry. I was a bit perturbed by the number of skins there seemed to be for each bit of equipment. Usually when I see that, they come in happy little surprise boxes which open in a shower of fireworks, to the detriment of nobody apparently. The real question though is what this first person shooter is doing in my space-sim.
It may sound churlish to complain about extra content. It gives me the same, vague sense of shame I get when I sigh about all the free video games I’ve accumulated and have yet to play. “Oh, however shall I consume all this wonderful entertainment? Woe is me.” In this case though, I think it’s symptomatic of wider issues. There’s a sense that now CIG has accumulated all this money, they’re desperately trying to justify it. Extra game modes, extra mechanics, extra content.
Another, somewhat more niche example is the walking speed. When I first started the Star Marine mode, it seemed like my avatar was walking through cold treacle. At first I put it down to lag, but then I found the sprint button and I shot off like I’d just seen the last bus home pull away from the stop. It turned out that walking speed is variable, and bound to the mouse scroll wheel. This immediately raised two questions. Firstly, why is the default walking speed set to ‘geriatric snail’? Secondly, why is walking speed variable at all?
Regarding the first question, if I was an embittered cynic (and I am), I might suspect that keeping the walking speed down helps smooth over the cracks in the performance issues. The second question is easier to answer though: I mean, why not make it variable? They’ve got money to burn, and it’s not going to incinerate itself. The problem – with this in particular and from what I’ve seen in general – is that Star Citizen has too many ideas for its own good. Every creative endeavour needs a bit of editing and refining, but Star Citizen seems to just be layering more and more concepts on top of each other.
After Star Marine, I moved onto the dogfighting simulation of the Arena Commander mode. Star Citizen aims to accurately model the physics of spaceflight, as opposed to the more arcadey feel of something like Rebel Galaxy Outlaw. As such, it takes a bit of getting used to. If you fly too quickly, then your momentum makes it hard to turn. You need to be accurate with your shooting as fighters are fast and small. Inevitably, there are a plethora of settings and options and commands to learn before (I assume) you can fully understand how it all works. However, the basics are easy enough to pick up.
Arena Commander seems a lot more stable than the other modes, too. Perhaps the larger areas and lack of human character models makes issues less noticeable, but it does feel a lot smoother. Ships are well modelled, and crumple and fall apart when damaged in a most satisfying manner. After quite enjoying pootling about in single player for a while, I took my basic starter ship and hopped into the multiplayer deathmatch mode. It was there that I became well-acquainted with the vacuum of space.
Turned out my little space van wasn’t well equipped for combat. Especially when compared to the heavily armed space fighters everyone else was in. Better ships can be ‘rented’ with Rental Credits, earned by completing multiplayer matches. Fair enough, I thought, briefly forgetting that CIG’s idea factory also extends to its money-making methods.
You can also accumulate RECs by having a monthly subscription to the digital newsletter. In addition, Star Citizen allows ships to be purchased directly from its Pledge Store. This is currently one of the primary sources of income for the game. Any ships you’ve bought can also be used in Arena Commander, assuming CIG has finished making them.
Given Star Citizen raised over $235 million in funding, it’s a fair bet many participants in Arena Commander have purchased their ships with real money. As such, it has more than a whiff of pay-to-win about it. Indeed, this is a wider concern for when/if the game launches. Purchased ships will be immediately available for use in the Persistent Universe portion of the game at launch.
Chris Roberts has dismissed these concerns; however, I’m really not sold on his reasoning. In a statement last year, he wrote that the Persistent Universe “doesn’t have an end game or a specific win-state” and that “you win by having fun, and fun is different things to different people”. One reason this rankles with some though is that the original Kickstarter clearly had “no pay to win” as one of its main selling points. It wasn’t pitched as “no pay to win as we fundamentally disagree that the concept of winning applies to our game”.
I agree that MMORPGs and the like don’t have a ‘win state’. But if, on day one, my futuristic Ford Transit gets vaporised by someone flying a star destroyer, then the winner-loser relationship in that scenario will be quite clearly defined. The ships and in-game currency on offer may be framed as rewards for backers, but they are essentially micro-transactions which give advantages in PvP situations. Albeit rather expensive micro-transactions.
But what about that Persistent Universe? There is a small slice of it available in the alpha, and it has both promise and problems. Again, performance in populated areas of the starting space station is pretty awful. Terrible frame rate, alongside an AI which has NPCs endlessly trying to walk through solid objects does not give a good impression. As expected, there is a lot of detail to everything, for better and for worse.
To launch your ship, you need to call it up from the docking computer, find the correct launch pad, ensure you’re wearing a space suit before you cycle the airlock and then find and board your ship. Once you’re in you need to activate the ship’s main power and engines before taking off. It’s all very immersive, and I’d probably enjoy it more if the demo ran better. It’s certainly a fun novelty.
I question how long that novelty would last though. Is going through all these steps actually fun? Or is it the sci-fi equivalent of navigating a car park? Every other space sim I can recall makes do with a ‘launch ship’ menu button, and I can’t say I ever longed for more. Innovation is always welcome but, like with the variable walking speed, it sometimes feels like Star Citizen is just adding ideas for their own sake.
Getting space-borne was a welcome relief, and is really where Star Citizen shines. The final playable area available in terms of star systems won’t be as big as something like Elite: Dangerous (last time I checked anyway), but it does have the same epic feel. It feels as vast as such a game should, and it looks great. You can currently take jobs and earn credits as you’ll be able to in the finished product, so I took a package-retrieval task.
My objective marker pinged up in my HUD, which was fortunate as the galaxy map I would otherwise use to navigate didn’t load. I fired up my faster-than-light Quantum Drive and off I went. This dropped me a short way from my actual destination; however, I didn’t seem to be able to FTL any closer (possibly because of my map issues). As such, I started schlepping over at a more sedate pace.
I used the time to play around with the cockpit controls. The screens in the cockpit aren’t just for show, they’re actually functional. They’re also very small, so you have to hold F and zoom in to interact with them properly. As you might imagine by now, there are a lot of options, many of which I did not understand.
This was particularly highlighted when I managed to nobble my own ship. It came to a point where everything was turned on but nothing seemed to work. I eventually tracked this down to the ‘stealth’ button I clicked. At the time it didn’t seem to do anything; however, it actually set my maximum power usage to a minimum. The upshot was that when I finally got to my destination, I couldn’t stop my ship.
Much confusion and cursing later, I managed to turn around, get what I came for and headed to the planet I was to deliver the package to. Seamlessly descending from stars to surface was very impressive and went without a hitch. It did appear to be rather a featureless planet though, which was a bit of a shame. It wasn’t until I got to the farm I was heading to that I realised I had no idea how to land. Suffice to say, the package was not delivered…
Looking at that original Kickstarter campaign today makes the initial request seem rather quaint. The original target of half a million dollars was exceeded at the time and was subsequently, remarkably, obliterated since. Star Citizen is still pulling in about $500k a week. As the funding grew, so did the scope of the game. So much so that Star Citizen is now actually four games.
Star Citizen is the name of the Persistent Universe part. Meanwhile, Squadron 42 is the single-player, Wing Commander-style dogfighting game with the all-star voice cast, which is now planned to be a trilogy, with part one currently scheduled to enter beta in Q4 2020. Confusingly, these are being labelled ‘episodes’, even though they’re each apparently 20-hour long stand-alone games, requiring individual purchases.
All told, Star Citizen is still a really promising game. I want to play it. The problem is that it’s just a promise. Progress has been immensely slow. True, it is a very ambitious game, but that’s not how it started out. People seemed more than happy with the original pitch, but CIG kept raising funds. As well as the crowdfunding, they also raised $46 million in private investment. They keep raising and spending money, without producing anything to warrant such sums. There are reports of people ‘pledging’ tens of thousands dollars, alongside reports of micromanagement and poor decision making.
Chris Roberts’ insistence that Star Citizen “has more functionality and content than a lot of finished games”, is frankly ridiculous. It has a lot of stuff but, based on what’s currently available, it’s nowhere near finished. Even if they stopped raising funds today, its development budget would already make it the most expensive game ever made. Or it would, if it was made.
Some people have questioned whether the whole thing is a scam. It’s not – they do seem to be genuinely trying to make this game. But I have to wonder how much money they’ve wasted in the process. There’s also the very real risk that it will never see the light of day. Even if it does, will it be any good? Only time will tell. Probably.
Some of the images on this page are from https://robertsspaceindustries.com/community/citizen-spotlight/13656-Star-Citizen-Screenshots – the rest are the author’s own screenshots.