Friday, May 3, 2019

Four Stars Out Of Five (Such An Easy Flight) : Star Citizen

Sometimes you just have to admit you were wrong. I said yesterday that Star Citizen didn't interest me. It didn't. Now it does.

All the reasons I gave in the opening paragraphs of yesterday's post stand. I don't like space sims. I don't like complex vehicle controls. I don't want to build a trade empire. All those justified reservations burned away on the journey from Olisar to Lorville.

Immersion is a buzzword we toss around all the time, here in the MMORPG community. In recent years it's slipped its genre moorings, drifted into the mainstream. No-one entirely knows what it means but the one constant everyone agrees on is this: you know it when you feel it.

I felt it, flying free in Star Citizen. Immersed in the complexity of the project, the minutiae of the settings, the aesthetics, the detail, the solidity. Without any doubt, this is a brave attempt at the thing we used to say we wanted: a virtual world.

Or, to be more precise, a virtual universe, because if Chris Roberts has one overriding charactersistic it has to be not knowing when to stop. You can only wonder what Roberts Space Industries could have done if they'd restricted themselves to the construction of a single planetary future instead of trying to build a galaxy.

Picking up where I left off yesterday, as the lengthy exchange between myself and Pete in the comments suggests, I had wanderlust and I meant to sate it. The Olisar space station was impressive but I knew there was so much more to see.

I may not have been following Star Citizen closely but I have bloggers in my feed who write about it often. Alysianah of Mystic Worlds has made a second career out of reporting SC's progress. Scopique at Levelcapped writes about playing the game as though it were already live. From them and others I'd learned that SC has explorable cities and planets. I wanted to see some.

The problem was how to get there. Star Citizen has game but is sim. You don't just open a map and click an icon to be insta-magicked where you want to go.

Except you kind of do. That's sort of how the Starmap works, only first you have to get your ship moved to the launch pad, find it on foot, work out how to get inside (a lot harder than you might imagine), bring all the systems online, manually lift off and position yourself in space. Then you can click on a map, select a target, set a route and travel.

That simple. Yeah, right. I went through four of my five ships trying. The first time I ended up in the passenger seat and couldn't reach the controls. I gave up on that one. The next two made it into space but the Quantum Drive defeated me. I could spool but it wouldn't engage. The game crashed on me while I was trying to figure out the controls, probably because I have half the recommended available ram and far too much going on at once.

Each time I re-started I tried a new ship. Just getting inside the fourth, the big cargo hauler/fighter, Cutlass Black, stumped me for a while. The side doors opened easily enough but I couldn't clamber or jump high enough to get in. Eventually I gave up and went to YouTube, where I watched someone open a massive rear ramp that I'd somehow completely failed to see.

By this time I'd also watched the video Pete linked in the comments and I thought I knew what I'd been doing wrong with the Quantum Drive. I hadn't been aligning with the target correctly so the navigation computer could calibrate the route. Working out how to do that took a while, much of it with my ship spinning drunkenly as I tried to spot the right icon on the HUD.

It turned out to be a small yellow circle that looked nothing like anything in any of the videos I'd watched. Alphas, huh? I successfully aligned and calibrated, spooled up and held "B" to engage the Quantum Drive. And it worked!

I was trying to get to a planet called Hurston because I vaguely remembered one of the most recently-added cities, Lorville, was there. I wanted to walk around a proper city, not just a spaceport.

Hurston is a long way from Olisar Space Station. It took me a good while to find it on the star map but travelling there took a lot longer. Fifteen minutes, maybe, during which time all I could do was sit in the pilot seat and watch quantum colors blur past. I guess I could have fiddled with my mobiGlas or tabbed out but I was petrified of crashing the game so I just sat and waited.

The ship came out of Quantum space in orbit around Hurston. I opened the star map again, found Lorville on the surface, set the route, aligned, calibrated, spooled and let the drive take me around the curvature in a few seconds. And that was all the help I was going to get.

Somehow I had to fly down to the surface, find the city and land without crashing. Big ask. I put my foot down on the accelerator (aka spinning the mouse wheel) and took her in.

To say my approach was cautious would be to undersell the entire concept of caution. Think Reginald Molehusband reverse parking. I didn't care how long it took, I just wanted to get down in one piece. I couldn't see anything that looked like a city so I aimed for a road, figuring all roads would lead to Lorville.

To my astonishment and fist-pumping delight I got the Cutlass down onto the red desert sand in one piece. I opened the door, checking first I was wearing my undersuit, and stepped out.

The sun was setting because I always arrive everywhere at night. I looked around. There were buildings in the distance so I started to jog towards them. It took me a while and when I got there I found nothing but some deserted industrial caissons and towers. No sign of life. Definitely no city.

The sun was almost down. I looked back to my ship. A handy indicator on the HUD told me it was around 300m away. Jogging that far had taken me almost exactly the same time as it would take me to jog it in real life.

I figured if I couldn't see Lorville from where I was there was no chance of getting there on foot before my air supply ran out. Although maybe the atmosphere was breathable. I wasn't about to test it by taking my helmet off. I jogged back to the Cutlass and climbed in.

After consulting the starmap on my mobiGlas I had a distance and direction for Lorville. 37 kilometers. Good thing I didn't try to walk it. I got the ship off the ground and headed for the city.

Oh, boy! If I'd had a hairy old time of it trying to get from orbit to surface it was a stroll to the corner store compared to what came next. The Cutlass Black is not designed for low altitude, in-atmosphere travel.

I spent as much time upside down as the right way up. The computer thought I wanted to use the Quantum Drive and kept telling me I was too close to do that but I was just using the marker to navigate so I ignored it. I kept the ship at around 3000m above the surface, low enough to navigate by sight but high enough not to hit anything. Unless I ran into a mountain.

After ten or fifteen minutes of veering and yawing the desert began to turn industrial. I flew over yards and factories and refineries. Then the lights of skyscrapers filled the viewfield, green and purple and red. I gained a little height and slowed to a crawl. Now what?

I'd landed successfully in the desert so I thought I'd look for a big, flat space in the city. A park, a parking lot, a rooftop. And I could see plenty of options, only every time I came down to skyscraper level I got a "Restricted Area" warning. If I kept going the screen filled with orange hexes, then went orange altogether.

I tried that a few times and pulled back at the last moment. As I learned later I was seconds away from being fried by the city's defence grid. Microseconds, according to some. I come out in a sweat thinking about how close I came.

By this time, though, I had seen some huge signs for the Teasa Spaceport. I figured that must be where I was meant to land but every time I approached I got the same  "Restricted" warnings. My mobiGlas wasn't telling me anything so I went to Google.

Ten minutes later I knew all about requesting permission to land from the local authorities. I opened the comms channel and got my slot. Problem was, I couldn't see anything to tell me where it was. All I had was a distance counter measured in meters on the dashboard display.

So I used that. Like using a /loc to navigate in EverQuest, I trial-and-errored my way across the city, hanging just above the defence grid so I could try to get a visual on my landing pad. I was four kilometers away when I started. I'd watched a video that suggested it would be highlighted in green and eventually, when I came within less than 500m of my target, I saw it.

The landing pad looked miniscule, barely bigger than the ship. Also, as I got closer I could see it was down a hole. I despaired of being able to thread that needle but I figured if I crashed at least I might wake up in Lorville rather than back in my pod on Olisar. Anyway, what else was I going to do?

With even greater astonishment than when I successfully landed in the desert, I manoeuvered the Cutlass into place. I had the landing gear down and the wheels were all but on the ground when a voice warning sounded, telling me my landing space had been "re-allocated to another customer". You what now?!

I paniced. I swore and cursed but it was too late to do anything but land. Stuff the other guy, whoever he was. I'll take the fine or whatever. Once I'm down, I'm down. They aren't going to shoot me for a parking violation, are they? Are they??

They didn't. The ship touched down safely and I got another loud, insistent warning, telling me it was going to be moved into store and I shouldn't be inside when that happened. 

I was still trying to get the door open and scramble out when the game took back control. There was a brief loading screen and then I was standing in the landing bay. Not dead! Alive in Lorville! I'd done it.

The sense of satisfaction (and relief) was immense. I had no idea how long the whole thing had taken because I'd completely lost track of time. In fact, apart from when I'd had to go research mechanics on the web, I'd forgotten I was playing a game. I was just there, in my ship, trying to stay alive and get to my destination in one piece.

I collected my thoughts, looked around, noted the significant presence of armed guards in battle suits, and decided to make myself scarce. I found the sign for the rapid transit system and made my way down the echoing corridors to the metro station.

What happened next? Well, that's a tale for another day.


  1. Dammit, now I have to give this another go.

    That was a great tale well told, thank you!

    1. Thanks! It was enormously enjoyable but also exhausting so I took the day off today and played EQ2. I'm going to try to find the outdoor "adventuring" area on Hurston tomorrow - if there is one.

  2. Looking forward to the next chapter, this sounds really fun!

  3. You make this game sound like Kerbal Space Program, just less whimsy. I can't count the times I had my rockets spin out of control there. Or accidentally started the second stage before the first. But it told me what a Hohmann transfer is, and I eventually reached the Mun and beyond, so there's that. The sense of achievement, and the half-assedness of my landing efforts, seem to have been very close to what you experienced in this game.

    1. I read a few people blogging about Kerbal Space Program and I always thought it sounded interesting. More about the mechanics of space flight than what you'd actually do if you manged to get somewhere, though. I do think that if Star Citizen was a Live game with full persistence the mechanics would get old for me very quickly. I'd want to get to the destination and get on with it.

    2. Yes, it's definitely more about the mechanics of space flight. And figuring out those can be tricky. And getting them hilariously wrong. The game is very good at making failure fun.


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