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Star Citizen’s next update could arrive this month, so is now a good time to get into it?

Let’s talk about what the project is, and what it isn’t

Concept art for the Hurricane heavy fighter in Star Citizen.
Cloud Imperium Games

Star Citizen, the ambitious collection of spacefaring games from Chris Roberts and his team at Cloud Imperium Games (CIG), is closing in on a major milestone. The 3.0 update to the early alpha version of one of its major products is now in the hands of a select group of testers. If things go well, 3.0 could be in the hands of the general public by the end of this month. Here’s what that means, and how you can get involved.

What is Star Citizen?

The project to create Star Citizen is, in reality, an effort to create two massive AAA experiences simultaneously.

The first piece is a single-player game called Squadron 42. It is billed as the spiritual successor to the Wing Commander franchise, and will feature the acting talents of Mark Hamill, Gillian Anderson as well as other top-shelf Hollywood talent. The first public showing of that single-player game was delayed one year ago this month, and no firm release date has been set since.

The second piece of Star Citizen is referred to as the “persistent universe,” or PU. The vision for the PU, as expressed by CIG, is to create an online, multiplayer universe where many thousands of players can contribute to a vibrant virtual community. It is expected to include both player-versus-player and player-versus-environment combat, both on foot and from the cockpit of player-owned ships. It will have all the trappings of a modern MMO, including a player-influenced economy, player-controlled factions, bounty hunting, multi-crew ships, mining, tourism and trade.

So far, elements of the PU have been rolled out as four distinct modules. These include the Hangar Module (where players can view their ships and assorted virtual pre-order tchotchkes), Arena Commander (a PvP and PvE dogfighting experience), Star Marine (a tactical first-person shooter) and the Social Module (an early alpha of the persistent universe).

Concept art of an in-game pub, which exists in the Social Module of the game right now.
Cloud Imperium Games

In the past, these modules have themselves been conflated with stand-alone games. But, in marketing materials circulated at this year’s Gamescom, CIG now considers them to be “additional gameplay elements [which] double as standalone training environments.” In truth, these four modules all contain elements that will be present in the final Star Citizen persistent universe.

Prior to February 2016, Star Citizen was sold as a bundle that included all of the above. Since that time, CIG has elected to split the products up. Now consumers have the option of purchasing a pre-order of Squadron 42, or a pre-order of the PU and its associated modules.

So, in brief:

There are larger bundles, going all the way up to $15,000 — a so-called “completionist” bundle that is no longer sold on the website and only available by personal request. But, it’s important to understand that all of this is being sold as a crowdfunding endeavor — sort of like a privately-run Kickstarter.

With more than $159 million raised so far, it just so happens that it’s also the single most-funded crowdfunding campaign of any kind, on any platform, for any thing. Nevertheless, buyer beware, as returns so far have proven to be both challenging and controversial.

A large starship eases into orbit around a blue world, ready to begin a salvage operation on an wreck.
Concept art of a ship specially designed for salvage work.
Cloud Imperium Games

What is 3.0?

The 3.0 update to the Star Citizen persistent universe is effectively a massive upgrade to the game’s Social Module. It will add new gameplay systems to the product for the first time and dramatically expand the playable area.

The biggest selling point will be the procedurally generated moons, named Yela, Daymar and Cellin. The smallest of those moons will have a surface area of more than 851,000 square kilometers, which will dwarf the entire landmass of The Elder Scrolls 5: Skyrim. I know this because it’s a fact that Chris Roberts likes to point out at least once during every public demo, usually when he’s flying over a single mountainous valley where the entirety of Bethesda’s game could fit comfortably.

Not only are the moons in 3.0 big and luxurious, players will be able to seamlessly enter their atmosphere from orbit and fly around unimpeded by loading screens or transitions of any kind. In this way, Star Citizen will leap-frog its closest competitor, Elite: Dangerous. That game has allowed players to seamlessly land on planets since 2015, but so far that access has only been allowed on planets without an atmosphere. In Star Citizen, fans of the simulation spaceflight genre will be able to get out and smell the roses, so to speak, for the first time this generation.

To give 3.0 some diversity, CIG will also add a planet-like asteroid called Delamar. On it will be an abandoned mining facility called Levski, complete with all the trappings of a traditional MMO hub area. That includes missions, vendors and living quarters.

In additions to refinements for ground-based and ship-to-ship combat, 3.0 will include a rudimentary system of trade. CIG says that players will finally be able to use the cargo holds in their ships to buy and sell commodities.

Finally, 3.0 will add several new vehicles to the game. These include the MISC Prospector mining ship and three vehicles used primarily for surface exploration, including the Drake Dragonfly (a two-person speederbike), the RSI Ursa Rover (a six-wheeled, Mako-like ground vehicle) and the Aoapa Nox hoverbike.

Of course, to use these and other vehicles in-game you’ll need to own access to them, which, in some instances, may require an additional purchase.

There are other improvements on the way in 3.0, including major enhancements to the game’s user interface. Star Citizen uses a novel in-game holographic projection called MobiGlas, and much of that system will begin to come to life this time around. You can also expect enhancements to the game’s netcode as well as graphical optimizations.

Is it finished?

If you decide to take the dive into Star Citizen, you should know that the game is unfinished. Actually, it requires potential owners to re-conceptualize the meaning of the word “unfinished.”

In point of fact, the upcoming 3.0 update for the persistent universe — as I’ve described it above — isn’t even a proper alpha right now. It exists only as a pre-release candidate of an alpha, which is in the hands of only a small group of testers. When it drops, it will still be an alpha, which means bugs and significant gameplay impediments should be expected at nearly every turn.

To my knowledge, no one in the press has yet laid hands on a playable version of the single-player game called Squadron 42. What’s interesting is that the entire Star Citizen project is in a state of radically open development, where individual milestones for multiple teams are shared in voluminous monthly updates, including huge blog posts and a whole host of videos on CIG’s YouTube and Twitch channels.

But nowhere in all of that information is there a release window, and Chris Roberts himself patently refuses to pin a date, a month or even a year on anything he’s making.

As far as the persistent universe goes, the current version is buggy to say the least. I enjoyed the time that I spent with the Arena Commander module in early 2015, but since then I’ve been beset by all manner of bugs and instabilities in the Social Module. The last time that I logged in, about eight months ago, I fell through a bathroom door and was ejected into space without a pressure suit, where I quickly died.

After that experience, I figured that I’d put it aside for a while and stick to watching streamers enjoy it secondhand. But once 3.0 drops, I’ll be right there alongside the rest of the community. My flight stick is ready to go.

CIG tells Polygon that 3.0 could come as soon as the end of this month. Their goal is to launch it sometime near the fan convention, called CitizenCon, which will be held on Oct. 27. But they won’t make any promises.

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