Star Citizen is an ambitious new game which will feature Oculus Rift support. But it’s also much more than that — this is an opportunity to help realize a new generation of space combat simulator, a genre which once upon a time set the PC platform apart from its less auspicious console brethren.
Early space combat simulator titles such as Tie Fighter (1994), X-Wing (1994) and Descent: FreeSpace (1998) series offered a demographic already pre-disposed to sci-fi, lasers, spaceships, and aliens the opportunity to live out their fantasies of saving distant galaxies. The genre offered something more focused than the sprawling, lonely crawl that ‘space trading’ titles such as Elite (1984) excelled at, and allowed those hankering for the chance to pilot craft into battle without the tedium of counting pennies just that.
And so, the genre went from strength to strength in the 90’s, riding the PC gaming renaissance wave and embracing emergent technologies such as CD-ROM and 3D Accelerator Cards to bring ever greater scale and fidelity to the table.
But then, the genre began to fizzle. Stalwart franchises such as Wing Commander (1990) reached too far into FMV’s Pandora’s box and when FreeSpace 2 (regarded by many, including me, as the best Space Combat game of all time) was released in 1999 and sold a paltry 27,000 copies, publishers ran for the hills. Almost overnight, the genre was dead! It was left to non-commercial / community initiatives such as the FreeSpace Open Code Project and the popular Starshatter to stop the genre flat-lining completely.
Resurrection: Chris Roberts, Saviour of the Space Game
Chris Roberts has played his part in the gestation and evolution of the Space Combat sim. His key involvement with the Wing Commander series whilst at Origin and then with the Microsoft published spin-off Privateer means his CV could hardly be more suitable for identifying his suitability for the role as the saviour of Space games. Whilst Privateer was largely viewed as a missed opportunity, no-one could argue the Wing Commander series is a pillar of the modern Space Combat epic. You’d be forgiven for assuming Chris had, bu now, had more than his fill of space sims. But it seems he feels he has some unfinished business to attend to. Speaking to Marc Scaurus at mittani.com, Chris revealed that he’s far from done yet:
Star Citizen is the game, essentially, that I wanted to make when I was working on Freelancer. A very big game, with both single player and multiplayer, a game that you could play with other people on a large-scale. I feel I never really got to realize that dream. Microsoft was the publisher of Freelancer and at the time was very focused on getting the Xbox developed, as well as titles for it. I never got to do Freelancer the way I wanted to – it has always felt like a bit of unfinished business.
A bold statement indeed and one that’s no doubt music to the ears of neglected space sim enthusiasts across the globe. So, has Chris made good on his mission to revive his beloved genre and realise his vision of his perfect space sim?
Star Citizen, PC Exclusivity and Kickstarter
The mission statement is in place. But to make this happen, as with most things in life, money is needed. We’ve already established that publishers across the industry had been running scared of the space sim since the 90’s and, even with the phenomenal success of EVE online, chances are that sourcing funding for such a title from conventional targets would be tough. So Chris instead turned to crowd-sourcing for help. After a shaky start, with a slightly abortive attempt at raising cash independently, the team was approached by Kickstarter:
Well, the website had some issues when we first announced the game. People weren’t able to see their pledges right away and I’m sure some weren’t comfortable going with just some website. I like Kickstarter a lot, I’ve supported multiple projects on Kickstarter, so when we had these issues Kickstarter came to us and said ‘how can we help?’. They’ve been excellent at helping expedite the process of getting a Kickstarter set up for people who want to use them.
The Kickstarter target is set at $500,000, which may seem low for such an ambitious project, but in reality, the Kickstarter is merely a way to test the waters to provide assurance to the game’s real, potential, existing investors that there is indeed significant public appetite for this type of game:
We have investors that have agreed to contribute the balance we need to complete this game as long as we can validate that there is a demand for a high-end PC space game. By meeting or surpassing our target on Kickstarter you tell the world that you want a PC based space sim and allow us to make this game.
As for the tech, Star Citizen makes no bones about its intentions. The teaser trailer should be enough to convince you of that:
Make no mistake, this is a PC exclusive title in every sense. Cutting edge visuals with detailed and resource intensive art assets, fancy physics and support for the latest rendering techniques. Star Citizen leverage’s the power of CryTek’s CryEngine 3 which is, along with Epic’s latest iteration of its Unreal Engine, just about as bleeding edge as you’re likely to get.
Oculus Rift Support
And, of course, Star Citizen joins an ever-growing wave of embryonic game developments to support the Oculus Rift virtual reality HMD. Certainly, space sim is one of the few genres tailor-made for the headset. With the majority of action taking place in a cockpit, with a fixed viewing position, Star Citizen should work well out of the box. However, details on its integration are sparse, Robert’s himself seems to treat support with a perhaps worrying care-free attitude:
I feel like I’m making a game for the enthusiast. If someone not only spent the money on a gaming PC to play Star Citizen, but also dropped 100, 200 dollars on some other equipment, I want to be able to say to them ‘You paid for it, you should be able to use it’.
In terms of development time, it doesn’t take much. Input is input and if I didn’t think we could accommodate all those different types of peripherals, I wouldn’t have the support in the game.
…so we’ll have to wait and see whether more effort is required to make Star Citizen work on the Rift. As with all other titles pledging support for the fledgling head mounted display, integration is a challenge right now. Dev-kits and SDKs aren’t due to ship until December, which leaves an awful lot of guesswork for early developers and adopters alike. However, the prospect of being surrounded by epic space battles rendered in loving detail on a top flight graphics engine makes this writer more than a little… trembly.
So, What Do You Do?
Star Citizen’s promises in terms of gameplay are somewhat overwhelming. A beautifully realised and technically accomplished space shooter with capable physics and a cutting-edge game engine, it also has a dizzying array of features that read more like a wish list than a statement of content. And in fact, it’s in the area of gameplay things start to become a little confused. Robert’s has stated previously that Star Citizen is resolutely NOT an MMO. However, it promises a persistent online universe, populated by 100’s of other Citizens, a full-functional online economy and trading system .. so, how is that not an MMO? Robert’s elaborates:
To be honest, all these classifications are a bit silly. We stated it isn’t an MMO because when people hear ‘MMO’ they think of subscriptions and World of Warcraft. We wanted to reassure old Wing Commander and Privateer fans that this they wouldn’t have to pay a subscription to play a game they love. Obviously at no point does this mean you won’t be able to play with your friends – who doesn’t want to do that? It is an MMO in the aspect of having a big, massive galaxy, a persistent universe, that sort of thing. But it will also have a full single player game, so it isn’t always an MMO.
..so a fully-fledged and focussed single-player campaign as well? Ambitious then, certainly. In fact, if Chris Robert’s and his band of dedicated privateers can pull even half of his promised content off, he’s well on his way to building the definitive Space Combat Sim that dormant fans have long since lost hope they’d see.
But, the sceptic in me finds all of these promises difficult to reconcile. The part-time 10 man development team and the slightly shaky sounding financial investment are two areas in particular that give me pause for thought.
I’m trying to keep my fears in check though, because its been far too long since we got the chance to indulge in some honest, no-nonsense lasers and spaceships and in conjunction with the Oculus Rift, this could be a spectacular rebirth of a dearly missed genre. So, even if it’s been a while since you dusted down your visor and flight suit, if you had just passing interest in such games in their heyday, you owe it to yourself to support this game.