It’s beginning to look a lot like
Christmas a game. Maybe not a lot, actually, but certainly a little. Star Citizen [official site] 2.0, as the latest alpha update calls itself, is out now and tries to expand the scope of the long-in-the-making, $100 million space game in addition to improving its core fight’n’flight aspect. So the big question is: is now the time to give Chris Robert’s record-breaking comeback a try if you’re not someone who’s already backed it?
Star Citizen 2.0 is an enormous improvement and there’s so many more reasons for optimism, but the answer’s still no, I’m afraid. With the important qualification “unless you particularly want to see this particular videogame evolve and get to try out new features as and when they’re released rather than all at once.” 2.0 makes some sizeable leaps from the state of arrested development the public builds of Star Citizen have been in for around a year, but there’s no escaping that you’re playing a very, very early version of the game with most of its bells, whistles and mechanics still absent.
There are also all sorts of technical problems. Foremost of those is that performance is diabolical. I’m averaging 20 frames per second at 1080p on a GTX 970 for me, no matter which official settings I use. User-modified INI files can get me to 30, but it still regularly drops as low as 15, and much of it looks awful, particularly textures – if I want it to be playable, it looks a bit Quake III much of the time.
Fine, it’s an alpha, those things will almost certainly improve over time, but above and beyond anything this needs a proper graphics settings menu, not simply Low/Medium/High/Very High. Or maybe stereotypes are true and most people who backed Star Citizen really are crazy-rich, so they’re all running triple-SLI Titan Blacks and don’t have this problem. I am not one of those, and so I feel a little nauseous from treacly and jerky framerates. I genuinely couldn’t play this for long.
Sadly, there are dozens of other minor technical and to some extent design issues which are getting in the way even when I do have a bearable framerate. It crashes quite a bit, I sometimes hit an “all instances full, please try again later” message in the persistent universe aspect and there are crazy clipping errors when I get in and out of my ship. At one point I briefly wound up inside someone else’s ship even though it was supposed to be mine; it took off into space with me awkwardly pogoing around inside the cabin, then simply disappeared entirely and left me floating in space.
It’s not impossible this is an actual feature – i.e. you can board ships but get left behind when they hyper-jump – but mixed in with the general animation and clipping mayhem around ship-boarding, it’s hard to say. I’ve also found myself barred from entering my own ship, which in one instance resulted in my being stranded on a distant space station despite standing right next to my craft. I was forced to suicide or restart to get out of that one.
These are, all being well, transitory problems, and only to be expected from an alpha build, even if it is calling itself 2.0. Arguably a more fundamental problems is the enormous amount of downtime that results from its simulation first/play second mentality – I really don’t need to very slowly cycle through a de-pressurisation chamber every time I want to walk over to my ship. I don’t need to watch the slowly open the doors and then the slower climb up the ladder animation every time I want to get into the ship. The slow wake-up-in-your-shoebox-sized-room process when I start a game (which I must every time I load it up in its current state) is now driving me spare. Ordering my ship from a computer terminal then working out exactly where the landing pad it’s on is this time is becoming extremely wearisome.
On the other hand, all this stuff is charming, it’s part of the fantasy, and it’s been meticulously created to look and feel fairly convincing. I wouldn’t not have it there, because it’s all part of what this game is trying to do, but I’d appreciate a few ways to shortcut around it when I’m in a hurry or simply don’t feel like seeing the same airlock animation for the three hundredth time. I don’t really know what the answer is there, and I’m sure there’d be outrage if all these bells and whistles of spacefaring life were excised.
I’m building to why there’s real reason for optimism, honest. I just want to get all the Buts! out the way first.
Combat and flight doesn’t feel quite as mechanical and unsatisfying as in earlier builds: there’s a noticeable improvement. The physics that has gone into it is beyond me, but it certainly feels more there now, the gap between it and Elite Dangerous in that respect now narrowing. Sadly I don’t feel the same awe, the same “ohmygod in space” thrill that I get from Elite, but it’s very hard to say if this is down to the controls, the physics, the art style, the sound design, the performance or some combination of the lot.
Hopefully time and under-the-hood improvements will sort that out, but no guarantees as yet. More positively, it seems to involve less downtime and waiting around than Elite – landing gear sorts itself out, jumps between planets are quicker and involve fewer steps – but so far it’s a small universe and that may change.
I should also acknowledge that my experience in terms of fight’n’flight excitement is hamstrung quite a bit by having a very overtly shitty starting spaceship, and I’m deeply frustrated by its slow speed and lousy pew-pew entry-level lasers. In a faster, better-armed ship I’m almost certain I’d feel more excited that I do right now, and in that we get into the issues around whether SC’s big-money microtransacted ships is good thing/bad thing.
I’m not going to go much into that stuff at this point, other than to say I can feel the strong temptation to go out and spend more money in order to have a better time, and that does make me feel uncomfortable. Of course, further down the line it will become more feasible to go out and earn a better ship in-game, but right now it’s pay or suck it up.
Terrible performance, tons of bugs, only adequate flight/fight feel: so why am I so much more positive about Star Citizen than I ever have been before. Well, because, for the first time, it’s now visibly a platform for the game to come rather than a few disparate, proof of concept elements.
In Star Citizen 2.0, you can wake up on a space station, order up a spaceship, get into it, fly off into space, hyperspace over to another station, land, get out, walk around (or jet around in low-gravity), maybe even shoot some guys. At no point during that will you ever see a loading screen. It’s seamless. It’s there.
Space. All yours.
Sure, it’s a bit rickety, no individual element is yet gosh-wow and the framerate’s on the floor, but it’s got the foundations of you-as-spaceman down. There’s a platform it can build a universe on top of. You can fly to assorted spacestations for repairs, and in time you’ll be able to wander around the shops at them too, there are minor missions to take on, and there is partial freedom to attack anyone else you encounter.
Star Citizen’s all-important persistent universe module has had its big bang, and given time we’ll see real life in it. OK, there’s an argument to be made that, with all that money, perhaps we should have been at this point a whole lot earlier, but it’s a huge step on from the proof-of-concepty Arena Commander dogfight module we’ve been stuck with for quite some time.
It feels like there’s a game waiting to happen now. There’s so much work to be done, especially if it’s to live up to that $100m in banked revenue, but pyramid scheme fears can now begin to dissipate (depending, of course, on quite how crucial expensive additional spaceship purchases turn out to be in the long run).
I can’t say whether it’s going to be a groundbreaking space game, because there simply isn’t much in it yet. But I also can’t say that it won’t be, and that’s important. It has, for instance, modelled an impressively large space station city, which reminds me a little of Deus Ex, filled with imposing architecture and shops-in-waiting, and currently populated by tens of players with exactly the same face, all hoping around in confusion.
There’s not really anything to do there yet, but they’ve made the place, and it’s an appealing place for sure. The idea that one day I’ll land here after a challenging series of fights, go for a wander and a restock on foot and feel like I’m home is delightful.
Don’t buy it yet, though. Not unless you want to see the sausage getting made. It’s not ready – but one day in the not-dramatically-distant future, I believe it will be ready.