Thursday, May 2, 2019

Floating In A Most Peculiar Way : Star Citizen

Star Citizen does not interest me. Not the simulation, not the game, not the financials. Okay, the drama is mildly amusing, I'll give Chris Roberts that.

Despite having been a Science Fiction fan for five decades I have no affection for spaceflight sims. I never played any of Chris Roberts other games. I tried Elite in the 1980s and hated it. I thought it would be exciting, exhillarating, evocative and thrilling. It was none of those things.

I tried other space sims. They were as bad or worse. They all appeared to have beeen made by people who loved spreadsheets for people who really loved spreadsheets. Worse, they were made for people who live to do things by hand that software does a trillion times better. A more egregious mismatch between concept and execution would be difficult to conceive.

The core problem with space sims is that they have nothing to do with space other than using it as a backdrop. "Space" sims are really a combination of vehicle sims and trading emulators. I'm not crazy about simulators of any kind but vehicle sims are the worst. I do not want to learn all those controls. If there's a vehicle in a game I want to press one button and have it take me where I want to go. At a push I might steer but that's it.

As for trading, I don't mind a dabble, now and again, but I do not want to make a career out of it. I want to be entertained, not stupefied.

Suits you, Madam.

As far as I can gather, the basic gameplay loop in most space sims consists of  first learning to operate imaginary vehicles, most of which seem to function like analog-era airplanes, then using your acquired "skills" to make an imaginary fortune, either by running a mind-numbingly repetetive mining operation or an equally tedious import/export business.

The idea that any of this happens in space is irrelevant. The whole thing could as easily involve container ships or trucks. Okay, there might be guns and pirates and explosions because these are video games, after all. It's just more backdrop, though. In the end all that matters is learning those keybinds and parsing those spreadsheets.

With all that in mind - absolutely no interest in Star Citizen and a longstanding antipathy for the genre it represents - naturally, the moment I happened to hear there was a week-long "Free Fly" I immediately dropped everything, made an account and downloaded the game.

It's not about enjoying yourself, is it? Sometimes you have to do these things. For science.

I won't go over the registration and installation process other than to say it was easy and efficient. The final footprint came to 48GB and I went to bed while it was downloading.

There's really not much I can say about this that isn't going to get me into trouble...

This morning I logged in and made a character. Female avatars have just been added so I made a Spacewoman. Gender differentiation is clearly a work in process, something pointed up by the choice in hairdos: all the styles for women were modelled by men.

The final result looked androgynous but it turned out to be something of a moot point because Star Citizen plays by default in first person and even in third person view (F4 to toggle) I couldn't turn the camera to see myself from the front. Doesn't really matter what you look like if you can't see yourself.

I woke up in a prison cell EZHab pod. There are real-life hotels like this. Don't stay in one if you have claustrophobia. Or a morbid fear of waking up with concussion.

I pottered around in my pod for a while, using "F" on everything. I picked up stuff. I dropped stuff. I picked it up again and put it back where I found it. I felt like I was playing a point-and-click adventure. This would make a good engine for one.

Take washcloth. Use washcloth on mug.

The controls were intuitive. WASD to move, F to interact. Didn't really need much else. I looked at the keybind menu, laid out on a virtual keyboard, presumably so you can print it out and stick it to your monitor like we did in 1987. I pressed F on the door and stepped outside.

The space station is very well done. The scaling is perfect, something that almost never happens in MMORPGs. The detail is good, too. I was disappointed I couldn't interact with the vending machines, especially since the introductory pamphlet I found in my pod suggested I would be able to feed myself at Big Benny's. Grab Eat!

I explored all the corridors. I went in the shops. I thought about buying a gun but I checked and I already had one so I saved my money. I stared out of the giant windows at the spinning wheels and the striped planet. I thought about when I went to see 2001: A Space Oddyssey in 1968, the year it was released, when I was ten years old, and how every space game since either looks like that or like Blade Runner. Or both.

After about half an hour I found the airlock and worked out how to use it. There was a warning, telling me to be sure I had an undersuit and a helmet. I checked my mobiGlas. Sorted.

I stepped outside. Then I got back in the airlock. Not much to see and I was worried I might fall off the edge. Ironic foreshadowing, much?

Without any great difficulty, I found the terminal where you can call valet parking and have them bring your ship around to the front. I had a choice of five ships. I must be pretty darned successful. Knowing my complete and utter incompetence when it comes to controlling imaginary vehicles I picked the one that looked like it would be the slowest and most sedate, the Aegis Avenger Titan.

The screen told me which Bay to go to so I went and there was my ship. I opened the rear cargo door and walked up the ramp. I couldn't figure out how to shut the door behind me so I left it open. There was another door, which went to the pilot's cabin. I clicked on the flight chair and scanned the controls.

They were surprsingly simple. I switched on the engine, hit the space bar (appropriately) and the ship lifted off. At this point in any space game I usually spin out of control, start to feel nauseous and log out.

Remember this door. You're going to need it later.

That didn't happen. In fact, Star Citizen wins a lot of points from me for what actually came next, which was that I had an adventure. A stupid, dumb, idiotic adventure, created wholly by my own ineptitude and appalling decision-making, yes, but kudos to the game for allowing the whole nightmare pantomime to play out in real time.

I had the ship roughly under control but I had no clue where to take it or what to do next. In a moment of inspiration I started fiddling with the buttons on the dashboard. And I shot myself into space.

It wasn't like I hit the Emergency Eject. I had to select and choose the option. I sort of knew it was a bad idea but it seemed like it might be something to do.

Are you sure you closed the trunk properly? I can hear a knocking sound.

When you're floating in space, fifty meters from a slowly spinning spacecraft, you get to re-evaluate your decision-making skills at leisure. My first thought was "I'm really glad I never shut that cargo bay door". Sometimes it pays to be careless.

Unfortunately, although the ship was turning on its axis quite sedately, it was still spinning too fast for me. I made a few attempts to get through the door but after the ship caught me a good clump, setting off damage warnings and spattering blood across the inside of my helmet, I decided to try something else.

I could see the space station in the distance. I had some form of propulsion in the suit. I figured I could aim for it, find an airlock and get back inside.

Five minutes later the station looked exactly the same. I wasn't even sure I was moving but when I turned to look for my ship it was so small I could hardly see it. If there's one thing Star Citizen nails it's scale.

Objects may be closer than they appear. Or farther away. A lot farther.

I checked my oxygen. It looked fine. I pressed down harder on W and kept going. After another five minutes I could tell I was getting closer but I still had a long way to go. Another fifteen or twenty minutes and my suit began giving me "Oxygen Low" warnings.

I wasn't too worried. There was a timer that told me I had 29 minutes left and by now I was close. The huge station filled my view. I scanned it for doors. Couldn't see any. Carefully I eased down to land on a flat surface, which is when I found that artificial gravity in Star Citizen is a local affair. No walking outside of designated areas.

With the timer ticking down I searched with mounting anxiety for any sign of a way in. I couldn't find one. There were places where I could see corridors inside the structure but no airlocks. Twenty minutes of air left and I was starting to panic.

Then I had an idea. As I was approaching the station I'd seen a spaceship launch and fly away. It must have come from the launch pad where I'd found my own ship, or somewhere very similar. There would be airlocks there. Wouldn't there?

Open the pod bay doors, HAL, I'm coming in!

I stopped searching and started watching. The clock kept ticking. Then I saw it. A small craft spinning up and away from ahead and to the left. I fixed the spot in my mind's eye and started my jets.

In no more than a couple of minutes I came in sight of a familiar flat surface: a launch pad. In the end it wasn't Hollywood close. I had about fourteen minutes of oxygen left when I opened the airlock and stumbled to safety. It was close enough for me, though, that's for sure.

I found the whole experience highly instructive. The trademark Star Citizen "realism", which is what Chris Roberts is shooting for and what many of his staunchest supporters are counting on, is recognizeably present already. It may not be worth $300m but it's not nothing.

I have no clue what happens if your character dies in SC. Maybe you just wake up in the Med Bay, maybe it's permadeath. I do know, though, that even playing a character I had just made, in a limited-time demo, I felt the pressure of the situation. If it had been my regular character in a live game I'd have needed a stiff drink and a lie down.

What, you never took a "Can't believe I did that!" selfie?

That degree of immersion isn't my thing any more but it was once. I can see why people are holding on to such hope for this project. Whether they'll ever get what they're hoping for is another matter but I can't help feeling it would be nice if they did.

Once I was safe in station I tabbed out and read up on how to fly a ship. Also how to land on a planet. There's most of a week left. I'd like to get my feet on solid ground and explore on foot. We'll see how that goes.

Whatever happens, I guarantee I will not be doing any more unscheduled EVAs. One adventure like that was plenty.


  1. I gave this a go last night. While at work I watched some tutorial videos (as you do when you're trying not to do what you get paid to do) and in-game I kind of followed them. Got up, found the 'call ship' console, got in my ship, tried to remember the controls. Hit Spacebar, nothing seemed to happen. Held it down... I suddenly flew off the deck and exploded.

    So to answer your question, you respawn back in your quarters.

    So I grabbed a 2nd ship, tried again. When I launched I DID spin out of control but I got it together and flew around a while, then flew to a distant moon, bounced off the surface a few times before sticking the landing. Got out and walked around and called it a success.

    I was mostly interested in whether my system could run it. On "High" settings I really struggled near the station (20 FPS or so) but farther out in space it was OK. A friend who is a fan tells me the game looks really good even at Medium settings and that for some reason turning the music off seems to help, so I may give it another go.

    But I always THINK I like space sims until I play them, then I get bored.

    My favorite bit was that I could follow the actual signs on the walls in the station to find my launch bay and things of that nature. :)

    1. Yes, I liked the realism of the space station, although it kind of falls apart when you try to talk to the NPCs, who still seem to be not much more than placeholders.

      I got a warning when I started playing that I needed all 8GB of my ram free to play the game and I only had 3GB available but it let me play and everything seemed fine. I didn't check what my settings were but the graphics looked pretty good. I didn't notice any frame-rate lag or hitching either. Given that my PC was only mid-range several years ago, that's reassuring.

      I would really like to get down onto a planetary surface and wander about a bit but I don't have much confidence in being able to fly there. Curiously, the pamphlet on the table in your pod tells you a whole lot of stuff about the space station including using the vending machines that I thought was actual in-game tips but which i now think is just flavor. It says there's a free shuttle to the planet below but if there is I couldn't find it.

    2. Here's a 5 minute tutorial on quantum travel, in case you want to head for a moon

    3. Thanks for the link! I watched a couple of earlier ones in that series but I didn't get to that one. Instead I read a long text guide and watched a diferent video and then I went to try for myself. I got as far as having the route set and spooling up but I couldn't get the drive to engage. The the game crashed so I went and played SWTOR instead.

      I can see now what I was doing wrong, I think. That video is very clear, more so than the other one i watched. I'm going to try again. Let's hope the game doesn't freeze on me this time.

    4. I actually had the same problem; I kind of fumbled through it but I think what was tripping me up was the double use of the B key. Tap it to start spooling then hold it down to trigger the jump... I think? And you have to keep the target in the crosshairs. I dunno, it was way back last night, I can't remember things from more than 10 minutes ago. LOL

  2. "I thought it would be exciting, exhillarating, evocative and thrilling. It was none of those things."

    I didn't like Elite much either, but I played the first Wing Commander on the Amiga (with like 5 FPS), and that game was all those things.

    I still didn't back SC and I'm not trying it out now, but maybe I should. Sounds like quite a bit of fun to me.

    1. I don't know that I'd back it, not yet. It is a lot of fun but how much is ready for play I can't tell from this brief exposure. If Chris Roberts ever gets it even to standard Early Access release, though, it's going to be something, alright.


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