Chris Roberts' space combat simulation Star Citizen, the spiritual successor to the Wing Commander series, is the most successful crowdfunding endeavor of any type. Ever. With more than $76 million raised from nearly 850,000 backers, the game is reportedly on its way to a 2016 commercial release.
This weekend Star Citizen dropped a large update, version 1.1, focused on the game's Arena Commander dogfighting module. It adds, among other things, a more capable landing system, new flight physics and an improved damage model for one of the game's smaller ships.
I've put in a few weeks messing around with the early access game, but to be honest I've been biding my time, waiting for the 1.1 update to dive into the full dogfighting experience.
This is the story of my first ship-to-ship, multiplayer kill in Star Citizen.
Upon launching into Arena Commander each ship boots up with a sonorous greeting. Not unlike an obsequious elevator from The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, your war machine welcomes you every time you arrive in the game's battlespace.
"Origin Jumpworks at your service," said my M50. "Core systems ... operational."
Other ships are a little more, shall we say, sultry in their delivery but over a few nights I'd grown fond of my tiny ship's slightly halting, computerized delivery.
The M50 is a sports car, when it comes down to it. Lightly armored, poorly shielded and with only a few hardpoints to attach weapons, flying one is a bit like driving a Miata; great visibility, mainly because you're an arm's length away from each fender.
I appreciate that its canopy is delightfully oblong and clear of obstructions. Also? The M50 is fast as hell.
The M50 is fast as hell ...
I'm orbiting over a blue world in a dense asteroid field. Massive terraforming machines sit in geostationary orbit, blasting the surface of the planet with ... beams of ... something. It's not important right now. What's important is that those giant derricks and gently rotating space rocks serve as cover for the five other pilots whose ships have just dropped into orbit across the map.
It's a race to the middle of the map, a race that no one wants to win. First ship there has at least one, probably two other pilots on their tail firing away. I hold back, watching on my HUD as ships pair off in little duels.
I've spent enough time in the game to know that my M50's starting weapons are incredibly underpowered. On my third monitor I've actually got a Twitch stream up, someone I found with a Twitter search as I was turning on my Track IR and positioning my X55 joystick and throttle on my desk for the night. I needed advice.
... but you've got to get in close.
Bzerker01 seems nice enough, and he's been doing this for longer than I have. With his help, I've rented two Sledge II Mass Drivers with the pittance I won landing several effete hits in my past few battles. Apparently they're the most over-powered weapons in the game right now. The flavor text says something about their EM signature and multiple ammo types. These details don't interest me.
"You've gotta get in close," Bzerker01 told me. "Real close."
That I can do.
As I slink around the edges of the battle I can see two different dogfights beginning to shape up. There's a pair of wicked little Mustangs going after a 300-series ship and every once in a while they overlap a Gladius chasing a Hornet.
It's immediately clear that whoever is flying this Hornet has absolutely no idea what they're doing.
They're making long, showy arcs across the length of one corner of the map, giving the Gladius three or four seconds at a time to line up shots at a comfortable distance. But the Hornet — the ship itself at least — is no slouch. It's basically a futuristic, up-armored Apache attack helicopter loaded with missiles and gimbaled weapons. It can take a licking, and dish it out under the right circumstances.
I'm watching the Hornet's shields fail on my HUD and suddenly, brutally, the Gladius launches a single missile right up its tailpipe. It's highlighted by a spinning triangle on my screen and it bears down mercilessly on the Hornet and detonates just as the pilot is pulling back on the throttle to dodge an asteroid.
The Hornet cartwheels twice before it slams face first against the asteroid and breaks up. The light around it on my HUD winks out.
First blood goes to the Gladius.
Whoever is flying that ship is a raptor, able to stand their ground against the other birds of prey in this arena. I decide to ghost him, and play the role of a carrion bird picking at him and his prey alike.
Before long the Hornet spawns back in, and he's out for revenge.
You might call it kill-stealing, but I call it the best I can hope for under the circumstances.
Before long the Hornet spawns back in, and he's out for revenge. He makes a beeline right for the Gladius, and I slip in behind him, keeping about 2,000 meters back and out of his effective engagement range.
As the Hornet bears down on his target the Gladius decouples his engines, maintaining his forward velocity while he spins his ship 180 degrees and throttles down.
The Hornet can barely keep a bead on him as the Gladius lets loose with a defensive burst that splashes across his nose. The Hornet overshoots, and then pulls up on his stick like a pilot in a terrestrial airplane, trying to get back behind the Gladius. But that doesn't work in space.
The pilot in the Gladius punches his Newtonian brake and stops dead, tracking the Hornet with his nose and lighting him up.
It's at this point I should have switched targets to the Gladius, but instead I wait for him to whittle away at the Hornet's shields and then open up the crippled ship with my own twin mass drivers.
With a puff of blue the Hornet's shield's collapse. One more volley and his ship's engines cut out and he rolls forward. His graceful arcs end like a dead horse skidding into a puddle of mud.
Scratch one Hornet.
Of course, now the Gladius is behind me, and its pilot smells blood.
I punch the boost on my throttle, which I've mapped to a big friendly red button that may as well be labeled "PRESS HERE IF DEEPLY SCREWED."
In my ears my avatar's breathing increases, and little bits of debris begin to trace lines around my canopy. Pretty soon I'm going entirely too fast.
It's at this point that either my computer, or the Star Citizen server, decides to burp. My screen freezes with a string of angry red laser blasts screaming in over my left shoulder.
I turn into the fire, hoping to squeeze between the Gladius' bursts and spoil his aim. I turn to look over my left shoulder, but the Track IR is unresponsive. My view is still frozen and all I can hear in my headphones is the sickening sounds of my aft shield giving way.
When my visuals come back online I'm in among a big mass of asteroids, just a few hundred meters from colliding with one of the bigger ones.
"Warning. Collision. Zenith," the M50 says calmly. "Collison. Fore." I make a mental note to investigate shutting it the hell up later.
It's at this point in the dogfight that I make a poor life choice.
With a rock above me, a rock below me and a skilled pilot glued to my butt, I twist my stick, rolling my little red sports car of a ship to the left, and push down, slipping inside a narrow channel between three huge chunks of proto-planet.
The gamble pays off. The fire behind me begins to lessen.
When I've made it through the gap of jagged, spinning space shit I decouple my engines, spin hard to the right, recouple them and hit the boost again, making a hard right-angle turn alongside one of the larger asteroids.
My avatar is huffing and puffing, his peripheral vision narrows and the screen fills with a red tinge as all the blood rushes to his head. I'm moving the stick in real life, but on the screen nothing's happening. I'm not sure if the game has burped again or if I'm currently passing out.
There in the center of my field of view I can see a warning for incoming missiles and I begin hammering on the chaff launcher.
As the red clears from my field of vision I hear two booms fading away on my left rear.
Unless he's got gear that I've never seen, I know now that the Gladius is out of missiles. Feeling lucky, I decouple my engines again and whirl back around to bring my twin Sledges to bear on the punk.
My field of view goes nearly white. I'm pushing against the edge of the human body's ability to remain conscious due to lack of blood flow to the brain. My stick goes dead again as the Gladius slams headlong into my canopy.
He didn't kill me, and I didn't kill him... technically. But I can only imagine that, somewhere on his end of the internet, another one of Chris Roberts' citizens is just as angry about this collision as I am.
Especially when the server boots us all back to the lobby before the game ends, and before awarding any points.