Star Citizen: Hour Two

Hour one was installation and patching.

It was actually pretty fast. One of the first things you notice about Star Citizen, in Alpha (1.34) as I write this, is how incredibly polished and solid the supporting website, signup process, and installer, etc. are. It’s beautiful and functional and slick. Until you get to the actual gameplay, there is nothing about this game that seems alpha.

The Star Citizen telemetry tool gives you interactive and fine-grained information about how well the game will run with your specific CPU and GPU based on data from actual players.

Some back story to skip…

tl;dr I really, really, really like space exploration games

On an afternoon in San Francisco in 1977, I was allowed to play with a family friend’s HP65 calculator, and got hooked on computer games (Lunar Lander) and programming.

Lunar lander was my gateway drug to computer games, and Elite was heroin. Since then, many games have attempted to fill this niche, Privateer being a notable entry. All I wanted was to be able to walk around on a planet, climb onto a spaceship, and fly to another planet. And so on.

In 2012, when Star Citizen was first announced, I did not hold out much hope for it. Chris Roberts, the creator of the Wing Commander games, was never a favorite designer of mine, and his post-Wing Commander career gave little reason to be encouraged. The whole thing sounded like a vanity project that would lean into all the things I disliked most about Wing Commander (notably, ridiculously complex controls, such that the games came with keyboard overlays in the box (much like Final Cut Pro, except Final Cut Pro doesn’t really need them).

So one of Chris Roberts’s foibles that Star Citizen hasn’t addressed is his penchant for insane keyboard controls. This isn’t the current keyboard map from Star Citizen (the current version makes more use of color coding). At least so far, we’ve gotten by without knowing most of these.

So, when No Man’s Sky was teased in 2014, it seemed technically very impressive and seemed that, given its very realistic release schedule (I think at least two years out from some pretty impressive gameplay demos), looked like it might at least get close to the goal. And then, the Elite Dangerous announcement came.

Elite, 1985 version, running on a Commodore 64. In this screenshot the player is approaching a space station.

Elite was one of those games that, even in its infancy, was trying to do a whole lot of really ambitious things right. It wasn’t just groundbreaking and technically bleeding edge, it was clearly a result of very capable developers pushing hard against the boundaries of what was possible with clearly more ambition frustrated by limitations. This seemed like a project worth backing, and I believe I contributed to the kickstarter (or whatever crowdfunding system they used).

A player approaches a space station in Elite Dangerous. Note the design homage to the original.

No Man’s Sky and Elite Dangerous have since arrived, been disappointing, received extensive and continuing improvements, and continued to be disappointing. I’ve had Elite since release and logged a total of 15h on it, and I can’t think of anything good about it except the graphics. No Man’s Sky seems to iterate on the stuff it does well (graphics) while allowing the stuff it does badly (bugs, and a lack of a point) to fester. And both are much, much less ambitious than Star Citizen.

We’re going to need a bigger boat

My mid-range, late model gaming laptop (32GB RAM, 2TB fast SSD) can barely run this sucker. You’re going to want something hefty to run it on. On the website they tell you that if you don’t have an SSD you will not have a good time.

It’s lucky the loading screen is beautiful, because it stays on for a long… time.

No Compromises

Customizing your character’s appearance (for the benefit of other players, I suppose, since as far as I can tell there’s no third-person mode, although you can see your limbs and so on) is very impressive. The simplest method for creating a custom face is simply blending presets together, but there are reactor controls somewhere I believe.

You can personalize your character’s appearance by blending presets, and the results are fantastic. I’m going for Afro-Asian here (actually, a lot like my last Shepherd in Mass Effect, except better, and I didn’t make her hair purple).

You start Star Citizen by waking up in your bed. You’re in a small apartment with a little bit of clutter, it even has a (cosmetic) bathroom. You don’t need to dress yourself, brush your teeth, or evacuate your bowels, but seriously, this is a couple of levels more realistic than anything I’ve played before.

You can interact with individual buttons on consoles in the world. Obviously, I wanted to find my ship and take off, and I knew from watching some video reviews that this would involve finding my way to the spaceport, calling up my ship at a kiosk, going to the hangar indicated, and walking aboard.

The elevator from my apartment allowed access to several floors, I guessed I wanted the Lobby. From the lobby I walked into a stunningly detailed high-tech indoor mall. I found stairs leading down and a tube station’s signage told me I could go left to go to the Spaceport. So I went that way.

A still image cannot convey how impressive this subway ride looks. I have literally been sold on a game by using its public transit system.

The ride on the subway sold me on this game. A little while later, my daughter tried the same thing and turned to me and said “can we run this in VR? I want to do this in VR”. I want to, too. But my laptop can barely run the game at all (~30fps with noticeable stuttering), so luckily it hasn’t been implemented yet or I might be ordering a faster computer instead of typing this.

At the spaceport we’re greeted by more futuristic interiors laid out logically. (E.g. my daughter and I could infer from signage welcoming new arrivals that we were heading in the wrong direction.)

Walking around the spaceport reminded me of visiting a modern airport for the first time.

We had a lot of trouble finding the kiosk with which to locate our ship. At this point my daughter took over control and encountered the only significant bug we’ve seen today. Non-existent elevators. The first one sent us, harmlessly, through a wall. The third one killed us.

Time to get up, and take the subway, again. And at least so far, this was not a bad thing.

I’ll get to flying the ship later, when I’ve done more of it and grabbed some footage. So, to be continued, but so far this is a very compelling game.

To be continued.