With the release of Alpha Patch 3.0.0, Star Citizen’s persistent universe (PU) has received a major upgrade. After a few hours with the latest build, it’s very clearly still a work-in-progress. New features like atmospheric flight set the game apart from its peers, both in the fidelity of the experience and in the science fiction that underlies it. But a poor user interface and pernicious bugs make it incredibly frustrating to play.
The Alpha Patch adds three new, planet-sized moons to the game and, along with them, the ability to perform planetary landings. Figuring out how to get from point A to point B took quite a bit of work. Here’s what I’ve been able to figure out so far.
When you drop into the PU, you’re placed on board the Port Olisar space station, above the planet Crusader. The planet’s three new moons — Yela, Daymar and Cellin — are tens of thousands of kilometers away. To reach one, you first need to open up your MobiGlas, which is a holographic menu system that you project from your left wrist. It’s cool, but also unnecessarily complicated. The color choices and various bugs in the display mean you can hardly read it at times. Nevertheless, you use the mouse and keyboard to manipulate a holographic map in front of you, choose a destination and then hop in your ship.
But let’s say that that you want to go to the moon Cellin, and it’s on the other side of Crusader from you. You obviously can’t fly a straight line from Port Olisar to Cellin without crashing into Crusader.
Also, since the game is nowhere near finished, Crusader hasn’t actually been built yet.
Instead, you have to travel between a series of navigational beacons that sit in high orbit around Crusader. Once you move to the right beacon, the planet is no longer in the way, and you’ll be able to plot a straight line to Cellin.
Movement from beacon to beacon is accomplished via your ship’s quantum drive. It folds the space in front of your ship and allows you to travel at about one-fifth the speed of light. That means the hop from Port Olisar to the correct navigational beacon only takes a few seconds. Once Crusader is out of the way, it’s only a few seconds more until you’re in orbit over Cellin.
Here’s where things get a little screwy.
Let’s say that you want to reach a particular point on Cellin, like a mine or a farm. They’re scattered all around the surface of the planet, and each of them shows up as a blue square on your heads-up display along with its linear distance from your ship. But some of those locations will be on the other side of the moon from you. Right now, there’s no indication that they are.
I flew into Cellin at 1,500 kilometers per hour before I figured that out.
The workaround is that pilots must use dead reckoning to guess if the point of interest they want to visit is on the hemisphere that they’re facing, and then use Cellin’s own set of navigational beacons to move to the correct side of the moon and begin their descent.
What’s frustrating is that, outside of using a ship’s quantum drive, spaceflight is relatively slow, given the distances involved. Elite: Dangerous solves this problem with an in-between speed, called supercruise, that lets you orbit a planet relatively quickly. But in Star Citizen quantum flight and navigational beacons is the only way to go. It’s an in-fiction choice, and one that makes gameplay dramatically different.
Back to my two crash landings.
I was aiming at a landing point that was on the other side of the planet from me. That was clearly a mistake, but one that was very easy to make. As I began my descent, I had some 800 kilometers to go, so I pegged the throttle at about 1,500 kph and sat back.
Minutes passed, and my concentration drifted.
When I looked back at my screen, my HUD was telling me that I had another 300 kilometers or so to go. But the ground completely filled my view. I became disoriented and unsure of where my horizon was.
Cellin is basically a barren wasteland. With no points of reference like buildings, cities, rivers or towns, it was difficult to tell just how close the ground I was. Imagine standing in a perfectly white room and running at a plain white wall at full speed, and you’ll begin to understand the dangers involved.
The first time it happened, I died on impact. The second time, I bounced.
Losing the horizon and misjudging your distance from objects like the ground and mountains is a big danger for real-world pilots. Becoming “instrument rated” is therefore a big step in the life of a budding pilot, as it means that you have the skills and the experience necessary to use the instrumentation there in the cockpit to keep yourself and your passengers safe.
Right now, Star Citizen’s other features, including its instrumentation, are both incomplete and buggy. That makes flying ships close to the surface much harder than it should be.
Testing the Alpha Patch was further evidence that the team at Roberts Space Industries and Cloud Imperium Games could stand to focus a bit more on the basics of flight. To me, the joy of a spaceflight simulation is the joy of maneuver. If you’re not having any fun simply flying the ship around, then you’re not having any fun at all.