Few people outside of the small community of crowdfunding backers have actually played Star Citizen. Polygon spent a solid week with the game, learning to fly all over again. These are our first impressions.
There's no question that the hype surrounding Chris Robert's spaceflight simulator Star Citizen is massive. The man who made the Wing Commander series is now closing in on $70 million in crowdfunding for its spiritual successor, and Roberts expects to crest $100 million this year. But with that many zeros in the budget of what is essentially an unfinished indie project, there's a lot of skepticism, and even some outright suspicion that this is all an elaborate fraud. Even backers joke about it. One fan-made manual is titled the The Big Star Citizen Admirer's Manual, or The Big SCAM for short.
But there's a bit of truth behind every joke. Robert's team is huge — now over 300 strong — and many believe that they don't have enough money deliver on the game's four massive systems, which include a space combat game, a massively multiplayer online game and a first-person shooter. And given their aggressive development schedule, this game is expected to be released commercially next year.
So how does it look right now? In a word, extraordinary.
The playable module now available to all backers is called Arena Commander. It's a dogfighting simulator that allows for free flight, racing, battles against AI controlled ships and multiplayer dogfights. With a top-of-the-line graphics card it looks stunning. One map takes place in high orbit around a cloudy planet and the sense of depth and detail in the surface below gives me a real sense of vertigo.
The initial barrier to entry for me has been setting up my controls. The presets for my current flight stick and throttle, a Saitek X-55 system, were buried in the menus. I actually had to reach out to tech support for help finding it. Then there's the decision to default the yaw axis to the left and right movements of the flight stick and map roll to the stick twist — the exact opposite of a terrestrial flight model. For anyone used to flying virtual planes it will feel a bit like rubbing your belly while patting your head, but it's easy enough to fix by remapping the axes in the controls panel. It took me a few days, but once I got everything locked in I was off to the races.
Star Citizen creates an amazing sense of inertia
What's immediately apparent about Star Citizen is its sense of inertia. It's impossible to turn on a dime in space, and violent changes in direction will cause you to drift. What that means, however, is that classic maneuvers from space operas like Battlestar Galactica are relatively easy to pull off. Charge in one direction at full speed, tap a switch to kill your forward thrust and you can spin in place, firing backwards in the direction you came from. The whole time your avatar is jerking back and forth subtly from the changes in g-force and tiny bits of space debris are rocketing past your canopy, all to help you better experience the direction of flight at an otherwise stationary computer screen. The effect is impressive.
The other unique aspect of Star Citizen is the dynamic, cinematic camera. The default view is from inside the cockpit, through the eyes of your avatar. With a hat switch you can lean your whole body left and right to see around the ship. Add a Track IR system and you can actually move your head inside your space helmet, giving you finer control of where you're looking. But then, with the tap of a button on your throttle, you switch to a chase camera outside and behind your ship. Tap again and you're perched over the nose, looking backwards. Once more and you're inside the cockpit, behind the heads-up display, looking back at your avatar. The transitions are seamless and the effect is dramatic.
It's a good sign to see this kind of attention to detail
The most impressive element of the game, to me, was the ability to land on a platform in orbit and get out of my ship and walk around. I looked down, over the edge at my feet and the planet below ... and stepped off. Instead of falling I floated and soon found that I could maneuver in zero gravity. I had a jetpack.
It's these little details that make Star Citizen feel so realistic, and make it such a rich experience. It's a good sign to see this kind of attention to detail.
Of course there's all manner of bugs right now. My ship doesn't sit on the landing platform so much as it jitters violently like an epileptic seagull. When I climb the ladder to get back into it there's no sure way to enter the front seat instead of the back, and the only way to move between the two is to exit the craft and try again. When I take off, the ship starts to spin crazily to the left, out of control, until I roll to the right. Even loading into and exiting from the Arena module is a hit-or-miss proposition, as likely to crash to desktop as it is send you into your proper orbit.
With a week of test-flights under my belt I feel confident with the flight mechanics. I'm able to make combat turns and evasive maneuvers effectively, and have even spent some time doing close-in passes through the superstructure of a space station. If the controls don't bug out, I can put my ship through the eye of a needle if I have to.
The next obvious step is to enter into the ring proper and engage in multiplayer battle. Wish me luck.