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Review: Arena Commander, Our First Glimpse of Star Citizen

by Kyle Jones

Finally, the Star Citizen Dogfighting Module (aka Arena Commander) is here!  Especially now that Elite: Dangerous is out there exceeding expectations and shaking it up in their premium beta, was the progress Chris Roberts and Cloud Imperium Games made on the project worth the wait?  Has all that hype been delivered on?  I’ll answer those questions, but first, here’s some background info on SC for those who don’t know.

Chris Roberts

The name Chris Roberts is one synonymous with pc-gaming.  His original claim-to-fame is his creation of the acclaimed original Wing Commander game and subsequent series in the ‘90s.  A decade later in 2000 he produced Starlancer, which with me still being an ankle-biter and all during the heyday of Wing Commander was my original exposure to Roberts’ work.  Freelancer continued the Starlancer story, although due to a buy-out midway through the project Roberts vacated his director position on the project, though he remained on-board.  One can look at his new project Star Citizen as the spiritual inheritor of this series, taking the action of Starlancer and the ambitious style and universe of Freelancer into yet another new decade.  Now excuse a moment me while I shed a nostalgic tear over the two.

Crowdfunding

Now here is a sometimes touchy subject.  From personal experience I know how controversial the topic of crowdfunding can be from person to person.  In effect it’s a donation, with the only guarantee anything will come from it being the donator’s faith in the receiver.  Yeah, usually there are some benefits, titles, swag, blah-blah-blah associated with taking the plunge and supporting a project, but what good does that do you if it falls through or the project director decides he’d rather spend your cash on a bungalow rather than paying his programmers?  Some people get really touchy over people asking them for money for a project when they could just as easily drop the ball and run off with the remainder.  However, as the Star Citizen project has shown, there are plenty of people out there willing to throw up some cash (and in some cases a LOT) behind the name ‘Chris Roberts.’  Star Citizen began its crowdfunding campaign in October of 2012; in June of 2013 the project passed the $10 million mark and officially became the highest raising crowdfunded project ever.  The initial crowdfunding project has long been over, but they will continue raising funds until the game is released.  Currently they are closing in on their latest stretch-goal of $46 million.  Yes, $46 million.  So, is Chris Roberts piling up all that sweet, sweet electronically transferred dinero, donning his gold-plated Oculus Rift headset, and taking a virtual dip like a modern-day Scrooge McDuck?  Or are he and Cloud Imperium Games planting their noses firmly down to the grindstone to sort out the project and give us something worthy of succession in the long line of Roberts’ space titles?  Finally it seems they have revealed themselves to be in the latter.

Arena Commander

For backers (those who donated early and have the eventual final product as well as alpha/beta access and that extra swag) Arena Commander is a long-awaited and much needed updated look at SC past just standing in the Hangar Module appreciating all the sexy polygons that their money was transformed into.  With this update, some temporary changes worth covering have taken place before diving straight into the dogfighting itself.  Released on the eve of The Next Great Starship’s conclusion, all hangars were updated to the Deluxe version hangar, which means those with only Basic or Business versions get a short taste of the good life.  This temporary upgrade was done to allow supporters to examine the models for the concept spacecraft of the final two competing design teams.  Since then the competition has ended and a winner has been named.  Additionally, while appropriate pledge-package specific craft are present in the hangar, the ship models that supporters will actually fly may be different, in which case the appropriate basic model is also present.  So say you have paid for the upgraded Origin 325A; the ship you will have in your hangar to fly in Arena Commander will be the basic model 300i.  And while I say basic model this isn’t exactly true, the basic 300i being another exception in that you’ll be flying with two missile launchers equipped with which to fight, that don’t come with the base model.  The other available spacecraft are the RSI Aurora and the Anvil F7C Hornet.  If you are a newer backer of SC with a ship package but not alpha access, you can still gain access to Arena Commander via the Arena Commander Pass.  If you have alpha access you of course do not need the pass to access it.  But enough annoying information, onto the glorious violence of multiplayer dogfighting!!

[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uwxzTMLFWyk?rel=0]

Err…. or not?

Well, at this moment real multiplayer dogfighting isn’t implemented.  It should follow in the next few weeks however.  In this iteration of Arena Commander, you can at least familiarize yourself with your ship in a free flight mode one two maps, Broken Moon and Dying Star, as well as kill increasingly difficult waves of the Vanduul Swarm alongside some AI wingmen.  All you need to do is launch your client, don the helmet waiting for you on the nearby pedestal, and climb into your desired ship.

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Visor on pedestal.

A HUD will automatically launch on your helmet and you will be able to choose your desired map and gamemode.  My knee-jerk reaction to this first iteration of the long awaited DFM is a good one, with a few reservations.  So let’s take a look at the highlights and the areas to keep an eye one, of course keeping firmly in mind that this is the first version of a work-in-progress.

Graphics and Effects

This area is probably what has pleased the the most.  HUDs, damage modeling, and overall aesthetic jumped out at me when I first fired up a round against the Vanduul aboard my 300i.  Out of the three flyable ships, the 300i undoubtedly has the best cockpit in terms of visibility, having a large and smooth window without the various beams, bars, and panels cluttering the view.

Obtaining missile lock

Obtaining missile lock

The layout is appealing and gives the pilot a surprising amount of information between all of the available panels.  Weapons loadout and ammo/overheat info, shield information, and the status of various ship elements are all available at the push of a button.  For the most part the effects and holograms are up to if not over my expectations of an alpha launch, and somewhat already rival those of Elite: Dangerous in form and function.  All of the work the development teams have been pouring into damage modeling is also quite evident.  It was already possible to get access to see the w.i.p. damage model of the Hornet, and now we can see the benefits of that early work transferring over to the 3ooi and Aurora.  It can also been seen in the very satisfying explosions and debris fields left behind by vanquished Vanduul scum.  At the moment satisfaction is pretty cheap in combat because missiles just kill everything, so seeing a Vanduul craft burning is as easy as locking on and clicking.

Missile connecting with vanduul craft.

Missile connecting with Vanduul Scavenger.

Vanduul scavenger debris.

Vanduul Scavenger debris.

Rear shields down with appropriate hud panel.

Rear shields down with appropriate HUD panel.

There are still plenty of graphics glitches to be encountered of course, from simply clipping inside objects to off-center animations and other lighting glitches.  The sound effects are also somewhat unpolished though not bad, but definitely enough to remind you this is very much still a w.i.p.

Physics and Flight Control

Here is where I was a bit let down, though there has been some buzz of activity around the Star Citizen site providing alternative control schemes to manually reconfigure into your client and such.  But both HOTAS support and the overall feel of flight is quite lacking.  Control mapping is an area that needs a lot of attention, and it seems like that is hopefully happening with some urgency.  But not much can be said for the quality of the flight mechanics and physics other than clunky and twitchy.

Using a mouse provided some degree of difficulty, as every time I tied to make a minor course correction in order to give some lead an opponent, there was a good chance of just swinging 40-degrees past the angle I wanted.  You either receive not enough response or way too much. And on a side-note, of course as soon as I saw the option to eject I had to try it out, but was a bit disappointed with the very static way the pilot was simply flung vertical without much ado or evident special animation or effects.  That’s just a definite-side note however, as ejection is most certainly not a hot-button issue like fundamental flight mechanics are.  I guess I really just mention that to let you all know that, should you ever find me as your co-pilot, be aware of my inability to resist pressing a big red button for a cheap thrill.  Overall graphically and aesthetically it is very evident that SC is making good progress in its development, but we need to see a lot more refinement of the physics and controls before real multiplayer is introduced.

They definitely have a major growth level to meet in that department in the form of Elite: Dangerous, who have used their development time very wisely in refining craft control and flight fundamentals.  I’ll keep in mind the freshness of the SC alpha on the scene though, while hoping to see some aggressive development directed in the direction of flight to bring it up to the necessary level.

Having waited so long for the promise of the Dogfighting Module to be delivered on, I’m glad it’s finally here.  It’s the first tangible example of progress backers have really gotten since the release of the Hangar Module, and I hope CIG and Roberts keep us all in the loop on bug fixes and module updates, hopefully centered around improving and refining ship controls and flight.  SC has a lot of hype around it as well as somewhat of a dark-horse competitor in the form of Elite and although Arena Commander is a fairly satisfying step in the right direction so far, the multiplayer element and incoming updates are going to need to make stronger steps forward and the development teams are going to have to focus to deliver backers the quality they are expecting.

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