For the longest time, I wasn’t even interested in Star Citizen – it was just too massive, too hyped; too many people were throwing their life savings at this game. There was far just too much that could go wrong, at least in my head. To promise a potentially endless and realistic theoretical universe is a dangerous sport in this day and age, especially when I’ve already dropped cash on Elite: Dangerous and its Season 2 pass.

As if to prove my point, No Man’s Sky was released, and managed to show us just how many promises could be broken in one fell swoop. The same but different, No Man’s Sky featured a potentially endless, procedurally-generated universe for you to traverse, where one could discover life in every corner. You were to be drawn through a meandering path to the centre universe, where you’d presumably come across Peter Molyneux speaking as God(us). Instead, you were dumped into the vast expanse of an empty galaxy, watching a rhinoceros with four human arms and a bird’s head stomp by.

Not long ago, I watched the second gameplay video for Star Citizen and I was – ashamedly – very impressed: the environments, characters, interiors, ships all look great. Everything flowed properly, from your bed to the cockpit and beyond – it was a great experience, even through a YouTube video. Considering the cheer that the crowd gave to a door sliding open, I don’t think I was the only one that was pleasantly surprised.

The standout moment of the video is taking the ship from its landing pad into space and to another planet in another system and down to the surface, in one seamless transition. There wasn’t an obnoxious loading screen to break the flow, the environment didn’t pop in after breaking through into the atmosphere. It was a brilliant watch and definitely helped ease my skeptical reservations.

Following the flow of the video, the players land at a new space station and disembark to find their quest-giver and explore the station. This free movement and mobility from the ship is something that is sorely needed in E:D, where you are permanently fixed in your ship’s seat, bound to traverse the universe for all eternity as a hunk of metal and menus. Future patches promise expanding gameplay onto the ground, at least further than a buggy, but it’s still just hovering on the horizon right now.

This brings about a second, equally impressive premise for Star Citizen – looking out through a window, the ship you’d just left on the landing pad (piloted by your friend, I should’ve mentioned) slowly dips into the view and hovers outside. You can see your mate; your mate can see you.

This amount of effort and detail is not what I was expecting. Like many others, I was blown away by Elite’s environments when I first booted it up: the sheer scale of the universe is astounding, the feeling of flying through space is great, and (eventually) landing on planets was just as fantastic as you’d hope. Still, each feeling was fed piece by piece, as it was developed and polished, finished and patched in. For Star Citizen to be delivering those experiences in its entirety, from the get go, is an impressive feat.

That said, I still won’t be preordering Star Citizen. As impressive as the gameplay footage is, it is still just Alpha footage. There is still a whole lot of work to do from here, and many opportunities for that to go a bit Pete Tong. Just remember – you’ve only seen a handful of locations that have been picked by the team to show off at Gamescom; there’s a whole universe that’s still out there, waiting to be planned, built and visited. There are countless ships and lifeforms of all kinds that will be occupying this world. There’s just so much that I’d need to see before I’d part with my money.

Whilst, in general, the interface and UI in game is sleek and looks good in the environment, especially the ship’s flight interface seen in the aforementioned video, the ‘thought bubble’ aspect of the player actions is a little off-putting – it seems a little tacky that an action is stamped over the world in a bold Arial font, or floats aimlessly around a person’s head. I’ll admit that this is a bit of nitpicking from my side, I will always appreciate a clean, smart and uniform interface over anything else – maybe the break away from traditional prompts will work in this application.

Above all else, Star Citizen is a massive multiplayer experience; there will be players spread far and wide, exploring every nook and cranny they come across and taking every mission they are offered. The benefits of seeing every and any player rushing through cities and zones can’t be denied, what will it look like when you’re trying to discuss security jobs with Miles Eckheart with thousands of other players doing exactly the same thing?

I’m no stranger to mob rushing a quest-giver – I’ve played World of Warcraft for long enough to know it’s basically a given right – but will that fit in within a super realistic portrayal of space travel and exploration? It’s not a question I can answer without suggesting instancing or phasing of NPCs and areas, but that just raises the same worry: would the fantasy be ruined as you watch your friend vanish into thin air while you’re talking to someone?

One could also question the use of multi-crew ships, which is just as valid a criticism of Elite: Dangerous. How fun would a universe of infinite possibilities be when you’re confined to the co-pilots chair? Granted, there is the opportunity to cause havoc through the ship as the pilot dutifully ferries you from planet to planet, but how much destruction would you actually be able to cause before you got bored? Back to your not-quite-as-good seat, to stare wistfully out of the window…

It will be interesting to see their development in this aspect: what if you hopped out onto a planet and your friend decided they’d had enough? Would you be able to call in a ship of your own, or order a space taxi to take you home?

There is a wonderful selection of space exploration games on the market right now, but each is lacking in different ways. If Chris Roberts can keep his eyes on the prize, I have no doubt that Star Citizen is going to be a brilliant addition to the roster. The main concern, as expressed above, is that this is still Alpha gameplay footage. As Alpha footage goes, it’s a damn sight better than competing games can pull off – but it’s still the first steps of a huge project.

Before I part with my money, I’d like to know that I can actually get a full experience in a potentially endless and realistic theoretical universe instead of waiting for the next content patch. Still, it’s definitely going to be worth keeping an ear to the ground for news in the near future. The future of ultra-expansive gaming looks bright, but it’s not quite here yet.

Rob Chambers

 

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