If you've heard anything about Star Citizen in the year or so, it's probably been bad. It might have been about backers' disappointment, or doubts over what the game can actually deliver, or concerns about its monetisation, or questioning the motives of its creator Chris Roberts. But at Gamescom this week I caught a glimpse of what Star Citizen might become, and it's dispelled a lot of that negativity for me.
When I first backed Star Citizen I was really just wanting Squadron 42, the space fighter campaign that led the Kickstarter pitch. It promised great-looking ships taking part in massive space battles in an engine that realistically captured the zero-G physics of space combat. That's something we hadn’t really seen for years.
But when the Star Citizen project grew, both in budget, backers, and ambition, I worried that the game I wanted wasn’t being made any more. Cloud Imperium Games introduced a first-person shooter module, strings of high-priced custom ships, and a multiplayer arena. Even if the studio wasn’t, I was losing sight of the game I’d backed.
Sitting down with Chris Roberts has reignited my hopes. Star Citizen is one of the most impressive things I’ve seen at Gamescom, though there are some caveats to that I’ll get into later.
Roberts began the demo in a cabin on a station in deep space. Walls of steel framed a porthole out onto a spectacular view of the vast station. At least a mile long, the station had two great spoked wheels set in its centre, rotating like turbines. It looked straight out of ‘70s sci-fi.
Leaving the cabin, Roberts met a group of characters in spacesuits. These were being controlled by developers in the room with us, so I could see their screens and their perspective on the scene.
The group walked to an airlock leading to the station exterior, where they were greeted by a string of spaceships, ready and waiting for pilots. As with everything in Star Citizen, the ships are replete with detail and beautiful things to look at. The two in front of me were single-seater ships, but behind us was a Cutlass, a multi-crew vehicle.
This is where all the work on the first-person module shows itself (the work that I'd worried was a distraction from Squadron 42). Two of the group split off and climbed into the ships. The others approached the Cutlass, opened its rear hatch and climbed in. There was no transition, no loading screen, and the characters don’t disappear once they enter the ships. In Star Citizen you play an avatar who is always present, always accounted for, always visible.
This may not seem that impressive but after getting into the ships and finding their spots in the Cutlass, all three vessels took off and flew 2 million kilometres to an asteroid belt. Again, this was with no loading screens. There was a warp effect when the ships switched on their jump drives but if we’d had two hours to spare, Roberts tells me, we could have flown there, our journey unbroken.
In the centre of the asteroid belt was an even bigger ship, a Retaliator. It was floating, lifeless amongst the asteroids. Its hull damaged, clearly the crew had evacuated. We were going to steal it. Drawing in close with the Cutlass, the crew opened the rear hatch and threw themselves into space. Using small jets on their space suits they floated towards the hole in the Retaliator's hull and pulled themselves inside. From there, one of the group went to reactivate the ship's engines and power, the other went to the flight deck to switch on the life support. When it powered up, lights turned on throughout the ship and its panels came back to life. All the while the two single-seater ships flew round the Retaliator in case of trouble.
The small flotilla then returned to the station and found a landing bay.
The final surprise of the demo was seeing an even larger ship fly above us. Apparently this was piloted by a crew of 90 NPCs, AI you'd be able to meet if you boarded it.
Clearly, what I was shown wasn't a game near completion. It was a lot of disparate systems that are starting to fall into place. Cloud Imperium Games has managed to make world where you can seamlessly travel from a station cabin to a ship to an asteroid field, jump into space, take over another ship and return to the station. The tech underpinning Star Citizen is impressive and graphically it's one of the best looking games I've seen – but its not yet a complete game. The demo I saw is a statement of intent, but I like what it's saying.
As a result, the demo wasn't without its bugs. One of the players got caught on the door while trying to make his space jump; instead of passing out into space, he stayed on the spot, spinning violently fast until he entered a dev command to stop it. At one point in an earlier demo a door refused to open, leading to Roberts walking into a locked door for 20 seconds while the team tried to work out what was wrong. These bugs are to be expected in an unfinished game, but it reinforces the point that there's still a long way for Star Citizen to go.
Those problems aside, Star Citizen is finally starting to come together. The last two years of delayed modules and change of focus have all been to serve a purpose. This is one of the most ambitious games ever attempted. I don't know if it will ever be completed, but as a backer, I'm along for the ride.