We sent Richard Cobbett to find out what the man who made Wing Commander is now working on. Turns out it's a PC-only space game. And it looks incredible.
I'm sitting in a room, definitely not watching Wing Commander creator Chris Roberts playing a new Wing Commander game. No, it's the brand new, totally original Star Citizen [the single player aspect of which is called Squadron 42, for some reason - Ed], and as I watch him fly a fighter with no resemblance whatsoever to the Raptor with a Broadsword turret out of a carrier's launchbay and into the never before seen Vega Sector, I don't for a second pause to notice how he totally isn't flying past one of the Kilrathi's asymmetric Dralthi fighters. Or anything else that might require an expensive license or getting into bed with EA.
In short, Star Citizen is absolutely not Wing Commander 6, Privateer 3 or Freelancer 2. It is however all of their children in a blender. In a good way, of course.
But first, watch this:
Everything in the Star Citizen demo is very obviously there as a nostalgic hook to Roberts' longtime fans, to the extent that the logo for the space combat portion of Star Citizen currently uses the Wing Commander font. I'd be stunned if the final game follows suit though (not least because I can't imagine EA letting it go unchallenged), and the actual universe underneath it is very different to any of Roberts' past space games.
Here's the hook. Instead of an intergalactic war, Star Citizen focuses on what's essentially the fall of Rome on an intergalactic scale - in real terms, a dynamic online galaxy with barbarians at the gates, and you and your fellow players trying to hold off the collapse.
The game's name comes from the fact that in this universe, citizenship has to be earned. How you go about it though is completely up to you. If you want that Wing Commander flavour, sign up for a tour of duty in the military and you can focus on combat in a solo/co-op part of the universe. For more freedom, grab a ship and just do your own thing, Privateer/Freelancer style, only within a living economy and ever-expanding universe of mystery and intrigue, only with players instead of just NPCs and no one jerk getting to hog the Steltek gun.
As you'd expect, it's not a safe galaxy. Police will deter, though not prevent PvP in safer areas, but there's nothing to stop you taking a pop at anyone you don't like whenever you think you can get away with it. Combat is set to be entirely skill driven, with no MMO style levels. You'll be able to buy and strap better gear onto your ship, but it'll usually come with a flip-side. A big gun may soak up power for instance, so you only get one shot, or a heavy shield generator may lower your speed and manoeuvrability and leave you vulnerable to a more nimble attacker.
And that's just the start. If Roberts manages to implement all the features he wants, Star Citizen will be one of the greatest space games ever. You'll be able to host your own universes for instance, as in Freelancer, mod or add your own spaceships and submit them to the main game for other people to buy. You're never going to be able to sell the Starship Enterprise as a carrier in the main game, but in your own universe? Just don't tell Paramount.
Back in the global world, things won't just be a glorified economy, but a place to explore. Like Wing Commander, systems are linked by jump points. Not all of them will start out explored though. Find a new one and you get to chart it, riding the jump to program the galaxy's autopilots, and naming it. Within reason, of course. Somehow I doubt there'll be much interstellar exploration of Penis, Thrrrp and Panties, unless the moderators get bored.
I'm reluctant to keep on listing features though, because all this stuff is very much future tense. Star Citizen is still a couple of years away - at least - and as much as I'd love to see everything promised come to fruition and be amazing, I wouldn't bet against more than a few bits being put on the backburner or falling through the Molyneux Gap during development. The single-player campaign in particular (which in keeping with Star Citizen's slightly shaky grasp on what makes for a cool sounding name is called "Squadron 42") seems like a great addition for Wing Commander fans, but distinctly snippable if pressed for time.
Roberts does however have working code, showing the space engine, and the parts I got to see were stunning - easily the best looking space sim in raw technical terms, and built to an insane amount of detail. Missile pods lowering before firing. Individual rockets tilting to provide thrust for the physics engine to convert into movement. Flying past the carrier, reminding me of how exciting it was to be able to fly through them for the first time in the later Wing Commander Games, showed it rendered in enough detail to be able to fly up and peer through the bridge windows at the command crew and their funky holographic ball-map thing.
By far the most impressive bit though was the cockpit. I always liked the classic Wing Commander ones, complete with joystick waggling pilot. Now, that cockpit is fully interactive. Not only does he (and I'm assuming there'll be an option for a 'she' in the actual game, but not being a games journalist, Roberts had opted for a guy in the demo) presses buttons, pushes pedals and actually uses the systems around him. It's modelled to the level that if his hand is away from the main controls to press a button, you're temporarily unable to do anything else that hand is responsible for. That's awesome detail. Cockpit views are the best views.
Star Citizen is also firmly a PC game, with a capital PC. No console version is planned, allowing for all the 2-million poly cockpits and shiny details like hoses bouncing away under wings that the art team could possibly want. It's also due to support the Occulus Rift for full immersion, and features out of the cockpit action too. Like Roberts' previous games, there won't be full planetary exploration, but you will get to wander a seriously high-polygon avatar around parts of carriers and hopefully representational slices of various far-flung destinations. In this tech demo, that was just a carrier dock - deserted, though due to be filled with ambient action later on. I'd love to see that expanded to proper social hubs themed around world types.
Roberts has funded the game thus far via private investors, though as suspected, there's a crowd-funding element to Star Citizen as well. It's not going to be through Kickstarter though, instead going for a more fictionalised form of funding - with real money of course - themed around the idea of pre-ordering your spaceship. Factoring in future inflation then, expect to have to stump up roughly $74,050,300 for early alpha access. Or, quite possibly, not.
At the time of writing there was no indication of how much Roberts and his new company Roberts Space Industries hope to raise, but a cheapie retro revival this is not. Star Citizen may be Roberts returning to his personal gaming roots after several years working in film, but it's with a project that wants to take a firm step forward for a long stagnant genre. That's reason enough to be optimistic and eager to see just how Star Citizen evolves from here, even if we will be waiting a couple of years to see it make its big shot for both the stars and stardom.