The State of the Stars

Star Citizen is many things to many people. With a tremendous pile of cash, several complex parts built to eventually merge into one game, and one of the founding fathers of space dogfighting at the helm, it’s almost impossible to avoid the gravitational pull of its heft. It attracts dreamers and skeptics alike, firing at its unorthodox payment model or proclaiming it will be the only game you will ever need to play.

Several months ago, I decided to investigate the furor for myself and bought one of the basic ship packages: it included the game (whenever it comes out), access to the dogfighting simulation, a training mode, and a fully-modeled hangar so you can walk around your lovely slice of space. The training mode was the highlight of the bunch: by taking you through the motions while a faux Top Gun track rips in the background, I finally understood the magic that left others gasping in rapturous wonder whenever Star Citizen trotted out one of its promotional videos. The sense of beauty, scale and precision hit me like a ton of bricks, and left me craving even longer trips through the galaxy.

Sadly, that glimpse into space-flight heaven was over all too soon. The multiplayer dogfighting, Arena Commander, expects you to fight with a ship built for combat: despite rudimentary laser cannons on the front, the ship I foolishly backed is built for space truckin’ and not much else. And as much as I love admiring the lovingly crafted interior and exterior of my flying big rig, you can only stare for so long before you get bored and wander off to the next distraction.

ScreenShot0000

I forgot all about Star Citizen until recently, when I heard rumblings of an actual hub to explore(!) that wasn’t the cavernous hangar you’re thrown into at the start of each session. I dusted off my flight stick (just in case), redownloaded the hefty 25-40 GB client, and after scouring that damn hangar for a good ten minutes, I finally discovered an elevator to the outside world.

ScreenShot0002

One button press and loading screen later, I emerge from the elevator into what looks like a lobby, complete with a stoic man in armor staring me down.

ScreenShot0003

What’s that sign to the right of stoic spaceman? It’s a warning, asking for visitors to leave their guns behind. It only takes a second before I register that I’m dealing with the spaceport equivalent of the TSA.

ScreenShot0004

As I waddle through the nearest doors and into a full-body scanner operated by a less-than-enthused guard, I feel… giddy? Surely, excitement isn’t the intended response when dealing with the same folks that leave your baggage stranded in a state you left long ago. But there’s something *right* to the proceedings, an attention to detail that almost convinces you this is what interplanetary transport stations will look like hundreds of years from now. It’s the miscellaneous labeling, the sterility, the operator who would rather be anywhere else. It all adds up to a facade that feels beautiful in its mundanity.

ScreenShot0006

Of course, capturing the intricacies of the dull alone wouldn’t make for a very exciting world: you need some pop, a vista or two that glues you to the screen and makes a part of you wish you could be somewhere else entirely. Thankfully, once I’m past the security screenings, Star Citizen hits me with something truly special.

ScreenShot0011

Now THIS feels like a real center of activity. Impossibly high, metallic structures are everywhere, but they’re spaced just right so you can take in the size and fresh air. The city feels practical enough to act as a suitable place to set up shop, yet fantastical enough to remind its citizens and visitors “Hey, we’re in the future! Isn’t that AWESOME?!?”

I walk to my far left, over a walkway that acts as a vantage point for bits of the city that exist both above and below. I’m hit with the desire to lean over the railing, staring with glee as I stand between plenty of flying ships. It brings back memories of Nar Shaddaa in Dark Forces II: Jedi Knight, sitting on the edge of a camera as it flew through impossibly crowded alleyways and ship paths. Instead of watching that cutscene for the millionth time, maybe I’ll just chill out here in the future.

ScreenShot0031

Of course, it wouldn’t be a city without a few shops, would it? I wander to the doors of G-Loc, Star Citizen’s premier (and only, for the moment) bar, only to find something altogether strange….

ScreenShot0023

Despite the game not mentioning the presence of other humans in this slice of what’s to come, I am suddenly face to face with what’s most assuredly another player, doing his damnedest to get a buggy into a place it doesn’t belong. Aside from a few up-close-and-personal pictures like this one, I try to keep my distance: I’m not very interested in finding out what happens if another player somehow manages to kill you.

ScreenShot0025

This is the farthest our intrepid troublemaker manages to drive inside the bar before the immovable stools block it from further entry. Despite the driver’s lack of courtesy, the car does manage to liven up an empty bar tended by a virtual mannequin.

ScreenShot0035

Truth be told, these immovable “humans” sitting behind each and every counter are starting to bother me. While they may fill the roles of shopkeepers and bartenders someday, for now, they act as placeholders of the worst sort: they are automatons awaiting orders that have yet to exist, standing in a world doing its best to present a semi-believable simulacrum of the future. It’s not like that one player shoving his buggy into a bar helped create any sense of realism, but that’s to be expected whenever you give players free reign over a shared digital space. Simply removing the dead-eyed desk clerks until they serve a real purpose would go a long way toward making a more pleasant showcase.

ScreenShot0014

Speaking of troublesome players, quite a few had spawned when I went back outside, several of them behind the wheel of the same buggy model wedged through the doors of G-LOC. One rammed the side of said bar until it exploded in flames, along with the fool driving it. Others turned their attention to the poor citizens on foot, running them over as soon as they emerged from the full-body scanner. I successfully outmaneuvered one particularly irate driver until he got the best of me, and I ended up here.

ScreenShot0015

Of all the buildings present in this slice of social Star Citizenry, this was easily the most underwhelming. If you stuck me in one of these medical facilities and asked me if I was living within Mass Effect, Deus Ex: Human Revolution or Alpha Protocol, I wouldn’t be able to tell you, nor would I care. Surely the future of medicine could be more exciting than gray and white boxes, accented with a few sparse colors here and there. That said, they patched me up for free, and I’ll take affordable health care over a sense of style any day of the week.

ScreenShot0039

There’s a few more empty shops and vistas to gawk at, but this new social area ultimately serves the same purpose as the hangar: it’s a “look, don’t touch” preview of what will (hopefully) be an ambitious, lively sci-fi world. There’s not much here for anyone who craves adventures or trading moon minerals. It almost feels like Cloud Imperium Games’ answer to the naysayers, demonstrating that Star Citizen is more than a set of fancy 3D miles and a pile of promises. It’s reminiscent of GameTap’s short-lived URU Live revival, offering an expansive world inhabited by unfulfilled ambition. With any luck (and a lot of work), Star Citizen will have a slightly happier ending. Until then, I’ll be sharing at ships, dodging jerks in flammable space buggies and staring at… whatever this is.

ScreenShot0044