Can you have a toxic relationship with a game?
We all have had those relationships in our life that are just plain toxic. Those friends, partners (current or ex) who you know are no good for you and at some point regret spending valuable time or money on them. You get rid of them from your life, and all is well. But after a time, they orbit back into your life, and for a short time all the cool things you liked about them come back, and you think, "it will be better this time, they've changed".
I have that relationship with a computer game. Currently, the titles I usually play like The Division 2, are in somewhat of a content gap, so I have found myself searching for something to scratch an itch. This itch has been specific; has to be a game with open-world / MMORPG elements, didn't have a massive grind to catch up and needed to be cheap. The free trial of Final Fantasy XVI didn't hook me as I wanted. I then went back to an old favourite, Star Wars The Old Republic, which was great until the camera aiming mechanic reminded me why I dropped that game. I still had the itch. Then I stumbled across an image in a discord channel. Someone had reinstalled a game I hadn't seen in a long time, one I had been keeping tabs on but not played in well over 18 months. The game was Cloud Imperium's vapourware, Star Citizen.
The story of Star Citizen has become a mix of gaming lore with a heavy blend of memes, lawsuits and online rage. The brainchild of Chris Roberts, creator of Wing Commander, then movie producer then game creator again, he announced his "all things to all people" open-world MMORPG back in late 2011 to much fanfare. Leveraging off Wing Commander nostalgia, and a lack of any decent space sim games in the industry in a long time, he promised something special; the persistent universe of EVE Online, the space combat from Wing Commander, coupled with first-person immersion, seamless transition from space to ship to planets, trading and so much more. Gamers everywhere went bananas; the Kickstarter that initially funded the game broke records. Then a spinoff single-player game was promised, followed by claims that it could never be done came from developers rang from the ether. Then there were changes of games engines, lawsuits from the ditched game engine developers, and after 7 years and now over 250million (yes MILLION) raised, still no actual game.
What was it that piqued my interest and made me spend a Sunday afternoon re-downloading what is effectively still a sandbox alpha? I honestly have no freakin idea. Maybe it was morbid curiosity, as they had just remodelled one of the original ships that I bought god knows how long ago. This ship used to glitch terribly in the hangar and possibly wanted to see the result. Also, I hadn't really been paying attention to the frequent, bordering on spam levels of 'dev contact' in my inbox. I seriously think a good fraction of Cloud Imperium's budget is spent telling people they're making a game, rather than getting on with the bloody job. So I thought 'Hey what the hell, I sunk about $90 into it way back when so let's see what this rabbit hole is like.'
Well, over the past week I have dived pretty deep down this hole, and I think Alice is now asking me to get the hell out. Currently, in Alpha build 3.6.1, there is are several modes to play, but I have been mainly mucking around in the persistent sandbox universe section. There are racing, space combat, and FPS modes; but none have interested me too much. In the Persistent Universe, you can fly several small and medium ships as well as a couple of smaller capital vessels; ranging from single-seaters to crews of up to 5 or 6. The ship models, however, are elaborate - almost everything opens and shuts (including travel toilets in my 315p!). Larger ships include cargo holds that you can pick up and drop or store cargo in, working gun turrets and other cubicles and cabinets. The 1st person interaction is different from most games; with a focus system being implemented. You look to where you want to interact with something, and if you can interact with it, several text options may appear. Click on one and away you go. This takes a little getting used to and is really aimed at FPV google or eye-tracking use. That said, the way it has been implemented is an intuitive method of interaction.
Right now, within the ‘universe’ there is a single system (Stanton) which consists of a sun, 3 or so planets, moons, and various space stations scattered about. Planets and moons have settlements to land at and trade with, and some planets also have megacities that you can land in. Small settlements are similar in configuration - small in size and utilitarian in design; landing at one and walking around does have a feel of remoteness and desolation. Docking in cities (by the way, good luck with that!) opens up on locations that feel busy, crowded and thriving. This feels far better than a particular location within a certain space wizard, iron man style, open-world game *ahem*. The world modelling here has some real highlights - the head office of Hurston Dynamics is a sight to behold, and there is a golf clap needed here to the designers of that.
To flight physics, are ok - with space and atmospheric flight being different (as in gravity can be your enemy), and travel between locations off-world via quantum jump is long enough to be able to grab a coffee but not too long to be too dull. Space combat isn't shabby, although the missile lock system is clunky. While lasers and ballistic weapons behave with some reasonable physics and hit registration isn't bad. Leaving your ship in space and going on an EVA feels like you are in some big, open floating expanse which is pretty cool. Movement in EVA feels non-linear, and anyone who has ever read or watched Ender's Game will start reciting passages from the battle scenes (like the rear is up…). I haven't been in many FPS firefights, but what I have been in is pretty good. No COD / BF4 levels of combat but it fits within the scope of the game. Guns are pretty arcade-like; they don't feel like they have much weight or kick, but they shoot bullets and hurt people.
All that to one side, this game is still as buggy as hell. Some bugs include people, NPC's, ships etc. falling through planetary maps frequently, simple movement of cargo boxes into cargo holds feels broken, while server crashes are commonplace, along with other random bugs. For 7 years of development, I would have hoped for far more focus on basic mechanics. However, it seems the focus is on shiny new ship remodelling; and this is an old complaint about Star Citizen. Roberts and his merry band's only primary source of revenue is from selling concept ship packages. That means they are stuck in somewhat of a development hell between appeasing original backers by delivering an actual game and keeping the lights on. However, where $250 million has gone is slightly hard to determine from what I have seen thus far.
On reflection, my time again with this old flame has been fun. To be fair, I sunk a good 30 or more hours into this over the last week or so and haven't been too disappointed. Has this old flame who used to promise the world and deliver very little changed their ways? Nah I wouldn't say so. I am still very sceptical that I will see anything resembling an optimized completed game any time in the future. As I was told on stream - keep your Star Citizen account and bequeath it to a child in your will; they might be able to play the final release.
But like similar relationships in real life, I am approaching this in a 'take it as it comes' kind of fashion. A relationship where they're fun to hang with now and again, relive with some old stories with them, but don't ask me for a loan. Maybe one day Star Citizen will surprise me, and they're showing signs of heading in the right direction, but I am not holding my breath.