A new article series chronicling the zany adventures of CommanderLlama (joined by Erris) as he explores the Star Citizen Persistent Universe Alpha with a critical eye for the first time. Edited by Erris and Nehkara. Cover image originals: Cleo10233 DeviantArt, Cloud Imperium Games
I’m convinced that some of the folks who write and discuss Star Citizen have never played the game. Reading various comments on Reddit and Spectrum, it’s exceedingly clear that some people don’t mind prattling on about project management this or feature blunder that or minimum viable product this, and yet Star Citizen is already out and they haven’t played it! Out, that is, in Early Access with its Hangar, Arena Commander, Star Marine, and Persistent Universe (PU) modules.
The reason I’m convinced of this fact is: I’m one of them. To be clear, I don’t think playing the Star Citizen Alpha is necessary for criticism of the game or project. I’d be a huge fucking hypocrite if I believed that. The game has many iterations yet to go, many directions it could still pivot to, and many decisions already past that one need not agree with.
I did muck around in the original Hangar module, and if I’m being honest, I dipped my toes in Arena Commander and Star Marine just a little. These were all obvious demo pieces, and I don’t lump them in at all the same category as the PU. I didn’t back for any of the former, I backed some amorphous vision of what the PU is slowly, achingly transforming into. Henceforth, when I say Star Citizen, I mean the PU.
I had a reason for avoiding the PU and the other Alpha modules. Fear. I didn’t want to be disappointed. Most of Star Citizen’s features lay unimplemented, and I feared permanent burn out. Worse still, I feared really hating it, like I wasted my backer money as I did with a couple other crowdfunding projects that already went to the shitter. Better to wait and see.
I started to change my mind around the release of Alpha 3.0, in part due to CIG’s marketing. Games media picked the Alpha 3.0 story up, journalists demoed the build, and there were murmurs of “now is the time.” As the itch to dive into the PU grew, and the official Star Citizen Roadmap laid out detailed information on the Alpha 3.x quarterly milestones, a familiar sensation arose.
“The next patch is right around the corner. Might as well wait until Alpha 3.1!”
“Hmph, I suppose I could hold out for Alpha 3.2, mining at last!”
“...But there’s a bunch of new tech and environments going into Alpha 3.3…”
And so on. It was like trying to pick out the “right time” to upgrade my PC. A first world problem if there ever was one.
I’ve since learned that I’ll be going to CitizenCon 2018, and I don’t want to be the backer that goes to a Star Citizen convention having never played Star Citizen. I guess I’m playing Alpha 3.2. I’ve also decided to chronicle my adventures in good, old fashioned, zeroes and ones text.
“But Llama, why aren’t you just streaming like the cool kids?”
Because streaming is weird. I hate streaming. Great, I thought about streaming and now I hit my shuddering quota for the day. Thanks. I prefer the written word. I can wax lyrical on the fun bits, emphasize the cool bits, skip quickly over the boring bits, and other literary trickery. This is as opposed to a stream, where the streamer would sit through nothing happening, and several thousand people will watch a stranger on the Internet watch nothing happening, and somehow that streamer just made $200. Holy shit, the future is cool and weird.
I hope you enjoy. Or at least, I hope this kills some time if you’re bored. This first log entry is a blind nosedive into the Star Citizen PU. No reading up. No Wikis. No preparation.
I’m taking in the main menu, when a notification flits onto the right side of the screen: “Erris has invited you to join their party!”
Erris, over voice chat, explains that this will ensure we end up on the same server. I read the notification again, and look down at my keyboard, and look back at the notification.
It doesn’t say how to accept the invite. There’s nothing in my Contacts menu about any invite.
“Oh. Uh. Hit uh. I think it’s closed square bracket?” Erris says over comms.
After some local keyboard area searching, it turns out to be open square bracket. I accept the second invite, which this time instructs that I can decline using closed square bracket.
“Okay. Now just hit PU, and we’ll end up on the same server.”
I’m still looking at main menu elements, entranced, like a cat who's fallen into a box of Christmas decorations.
“Oooh, there’s more hangars.” I comment, before my screen turns black, and the game automatically chooses to join the PU with Erris, on my behalf. “Oh. Okay.”
I’m unceremoniously dropped into a character creator. It’s pretty anemic as far as options go, but I wasn’t expecting anything like The Sims creator in a fucking space sim Alpha build. As functionality goes, it feels industry standard. I curse the lack of - or my inability to notice - a random character button, and spend less than 15 seconds selecting options and hitting accept. It’s an Alpha avatar in a predominantly first-person game, I don’t really care what I look like.
I’m in a bed, and it looks like it’s a future bed, because things are made of metal and there’s whirring sounds that haven’t been invented yet. Erris keeps instructing me, having played various Alpha 3 patches a few times. “Hit H to get out of bed.”
There’s no prompt saying that, and I’m already lost in the key bindings menu. I hit H. It takes a second for a response, but then a Get Out Of Bed animation plays out. It’s slow, and methodical, and realistic. It’s so immersive, I check to make sure I’m still seated in real life.
Phew, I am.
The only jarring part of the experience is the random and frequent stuttering. I start moving around, needing no tutorial on such video game basics. I find Erris wandering the dormitory halls, no doubt looking for me, and say hello in a series of Morse coded bunny hops. Moving in Star Citizen feels heavy. I’m on a space station named Port Olisar, but maybe the atmosphere is like, semi-liquid or something. Walking is so slow, and I dread the future where I have to hold the sprint button for the rest of these play sessions.
I look through the key bindings again, quickly, but I don’t find an Auto-Run option. Erris doesn’t find any option either, but he mentions I can augment my speed with the mouse wheel. Very cool! Problem solved. I’m now jogging along by default with singular button presses.
We’re in some kind of lobby, and it’s very pretty, thanks to the gigantic hologram of the Crusader gas giant system as a centerpiece. The stuttering hasn’t abated. I check some graphics settings. Quality settings don’t make a difference, but I really don’t want to drop my resolution either. I do anyway, but it doesn’t make any qualitative difference. I revert all my changes and give a real life shrug. This is an Alpha. Jarring as it is for someone used to 60+ fps games on a G-Sync monitor, the experience is playable.
The game is pretty, but my mind hasn’t been blown. I’ve been in bluish-metal-grey space stations many times before, hunting down demons and robots and ghosts and so on. There’s not too much spectacle to be had. Erris is over by some consoles in the center of the room, spawning one of his ships. He complains over voice chat, because scrolling through the never-ending list of digital spaceships he owns is making him very dizzy.
Just buy less ships, Erris. Jeez.
Erris urgently excuses himself, and I can hear him vomiting noisily in the background.
I walk over to the console, and then I have to use Star Citizen’s patented free look interaction system for the first time. I hold F, then I can look around with my mouse and find contextual interaction points in the vicinity. Turns out it’s used quite a bit: for doors, on consoles, in shops, and throughout ships. I had already passed a door earlier, but Erris had been the one to open it.
My gameview shifts violently to the right. Explosively to the left. In this interact mode, someone decided to dial my mouse sensitivity to eleven. I move the mouse fractionally, and still the game’s cursor is covering one-eighth of the screen each time. I add one more thing to the growing pile of rough edged experiences, and start manipulating the ship console’s real, in-world user interface with surgical precision.
This is the ASOP, an automated ship retrieval console. I have access to an F7C Hornet for some reason. “Is the Hornet a free ship right now, or something?”
“...I don’t know.” Erris answers with his characteristic pause of uncertainty.
My actual pledge ships, some Aurora MRs (they’re not all for me, I’m supposed to someday hand them off to backers who stopped following the project years ago) and a Constellation...
I scroll my mouse wheel up and down, up and down. Sometimes a Connie listing appears, but most of the time it disappears, and I can’t select it.
A few days later, writing this article, I have to look it up. In theory, I’ve got a Constellation Andromeda. It was my original backer circle’s idea of a Co-op Party Boat back in 2012. For now, it’s just an unselectable rust bucket. Ah well, we’re only a party of two anyways.
I accidentally file an insurance claim for one of my Aurora’s, thinking that’s how one spawns it. Yep, I looked right past the meaning of the words ‘Retrieve’ versus ‘Claim.’
“Huh, it takes 5 minutes to spawn your ship in?”
Erris thinks nothing of it, and either does not realize my mistake, or is enjoying a quiet knee-slapper. I try to back out of the free look with the F button and can’t seem to, but physically moving with WASD manages it. The effect is cool, I like it. But now I have 5 minutes to kill. There’s no HUD displaying information about my claim, and I’m not sure what to do next.
“How do I… there’s supposed to be some kind of mobi...thingy…?”
I knew what the bloody thing was, I wrote a damn Star Citizen fanfic years ago that featured them, but brains. Neurons. Old. Slow. It’s been a while.
“mobiGlas. It should be F1.”
My avatar’s arm pops up in something reminiscent of Fallout's Pip-Boy menu, but, well, more holographic. Despite being a 2D menu drawn onto the 3D virtual world, feeling a little more painted on than other interactions thus far, it looks good. My eyes almost go out of focus with the icon and information density.
I feel like I’ve been tossed into the deep water, and that perhaps I should have done some reading up or opened a Wiki on a second screen. But I’m not drowning, there are comparably rich menus to be had in many modern games, so in this respect Star Citizen is not unique. But it’s also, potentially, years away from having any kind of structured tutorial. It’s not impenetrable, but it’s no shallow learning curve either. I don’t really learn anything useful from the mobiGlas menu yet, but it’s time to get on with things.
I hit F1 to close the mobiGlas, and it doesn’t. Again, nothing. I’m about to try a third time, and my avatar lowers the mobiGlas, then immediately raises it back up. It seemingly ignores my third try. I give it five seconds full breathing space, and calmly lower the mobiGlas. More of what should be expected: little rough spots all over.
Erris has spawned a ship, and beckons me to follow. “But before we head out, we need some guns.”
I decide not to look anything up. Let’s do these first impressions all organic, there will be loads of time later to git gud. I tell myself this, and gulp, and prepare for what I expect will be more and more complexity. Truth is, in every game featuring some kind of flight, I’ve always been a rather shit pilot.
We jog the corridors of Port Olisar, passing by NPCs sitting on benches, or staring at walls looking busy, or walking by doing their best NPC impression. Erris leads me to a weapon shop. We spend a few minutes window shopping with the futuristic firearms, an adorable couple if I do say so, and lament at how busy the weapon models all look. The artistry is, without a doubt, beautiful. People with talent modeled these weapons. But where are the guns that value simplicity? All these things look like they’ll jam every quarter clip and fall into a couple thousand recently interacting pieces. Show me where the 30th century AK-47s and M1911s are, please!
After a lot, and I do mean a lot, of free look UI finangling, I ditch my energy pistol and replace it with some good, old fashioned ballistics. I want my enemy to feel those newtons of force. All in all, I spend a few hundred aUEC, short for alpha United Earth Credits, the game’s main currency. Erris finished a while ago. The noob is holding things up.
“So, how can I blow this nice shop lady’s head off?” I ask the most important question thus far.
We stop at an armor store, and I admire the various sets. I don’t buy any. I assume without asking that I’ll probably lose all my shit if I die, and a feeling has been descending on me. I’m fucking dead in a few minutes max, anyway.
We head to the airlocks. I’m getting just a little bit more used to the free look mode. Just a bit. I don’t like it, but the very first short-term learning connections are happening. We progress through the airlock, and I admire the visuals. They’re good, and it’s an authentic feeling video game airlock. I watch the atmospheric fog get pumped around. It falls short of the best I’ve ever seen in Batman: Arkham Knight, via Nvidia Gameworks Interactive Smoke & Fog, but it’s good stuff.
Moments later, and without much ceremony, we’re in the hard vacuum of space. The cues are pretty subtle. My suit oxygen is now being slowly consumed, and the environmental sound has changed. I dig it. I follow Erris to the ship he spawned, and I don’t recognize it because I don’t follow ship development very closely.
“This is the mining ship.” Erris introduces the ship and starts circling it. My memory clicks. This is the MISC Prospector, a one (or two) person little entrepreneurial mining ship.
In my periphery, I detect a few other small ships flitting around the spaceport.
It’s pretty damn cool out here.
After a few more moments of dopey wonder, I find my way to the ship’s airlock, and use the free look system to awkwardly instruct my dude to enter the ship. The animation is abrupt and doesn’t really take into account my starting position. Now I’m on Erris’s Prospector, and he’s not.
I try to pull out my pistol. It’s thievin’ time. Where’s your pledge now, bitch?
My pistol won’t draw, which I relay to Erris.
“Yeah, this is an Armistice zone. We need to fly a ways away before we can use weapons.”
Damn it. I start inspecting some panels in the back of the Prospector, looking for some gameplay. Component ejection control, reactor overload authorization panels, you know, the fun stuff. But all I find is a bed to lie down in, and a toilet with zero free look pee gameplay.
By this time, Erris has boarded the Prospector as well. Time to crash my first spaceship in Star Citizen. Under Erris’ helpful guidance and frequent lookups of the key binding menu, I slowly ready the Prospector for takeoff. It’s still going to be a good hour before I learn you can zoom in free look, so I’m bitching almost non-stop about how unreadable the cockpit HUDs are. Even when I later learned about the zoom, it feels clunky and user unfriendly. The cockpit HUDs are more beautifully rendered in-world, interactable components, but I do hope they’ll someday be readable without any zoom.
In pretty short order, I’m buzzing around Port Olisar, struggling with my mouse and keyboard controls to stay level, but otherwise not experiencing any violent crashes. My first impression of spaceflight in the PU: This isn’t as hard as I imagined. Of course, I say that in a measly mining ship, in an Armistice Zone, taking baby steps.
“Alright, let’s go mining!” Erris, by rights and role now captain, commands.
We make a full burn towards one of Crusader’s moons that’s easy to spot with the naked eye. Nothing is labelled outright, so I’ve no idea what it is. I’m not even looking at fuel consumption because I can’t read any bloody consoles and don’t know what any HUD symbols mean. It takes another minute or two before I’m coached sufficiently to spool up the quantum drive and roar into FTL towards our new mining target. Mere seconds elapse, and we’ve arrived. So far so good on those travel times, although that was a nearby object, and Star Citizen solar systems are still just a fraction of their eventual target size.
We come out of FTL in what I presume is the equivalent of Low Orbit around the moon Daymar, still hundreds of kilometers away from the surface. Even with a full sublight burn, our little Prospector will take bloody forever to squirt its way down to the surface. Bless Erris (and really, bless CIG), because he tells me that a recent iteration added local nodes much closer to the planet’s surface that we can quantum travel to. Without instruction, and just a little proud, I work out the quantum drive on my own, and we zip to within tens of kilometers of the surface.
I do what I think any sane pilot would do. I point the Prospector’s nose at the ground, and go on a full burn.
Some friends who don’t care about Star Citizen (or expect any success from it) pop into our voice comms channel. Erris and I explain that we’re playing Star Citizen, and we can’t help but sound like we’re announcing we’ve both contracted minor, contagious skin conditions. Our friends stick around in the channel and boot up other games, and we shoot the shit.
“So, what do you do in Star Citizen?” One of them asks.
“Well…” Erris begins his two thousand word opening salvo.
“You fly towards planetary surfaces for minutes and minutes.” My answer is sarcastic, because I’m incapable of much else. Also, I’m still using the afterburner. Also, it really wasn’t much of an exaggeration.
Also, that velocity meter is climbing pretty high. The surface is experiencing a bit of texture pop-in as LODs convert to much higher resolution, and it’s starting to come at us fast.
“Careful… We need to slow down and maybe pull up a bit or…” Erris warns like a person who cares about survival. I guess we did come all this way.
I manage to slow the craft down and pull out of the nosedive… Barely. On the plus side, we’re now hovering extremely close to the surface. While chatting with friends over voice comms, I spend a few minutes spinning the ship around like an idiot because I don’t know how to thrust straight up or straight down. We nearly crash multiple times, but maybe I’m not as terrible as I let on earlier!
Erris looks up the controls for me, as I’m busy keeping us alive and out of our latest series of violent spins. We, against all expectations, deploy the Prospector’s landing gear and land undamaged on a Star Citizen procedural moon, on the landing gear, too! We’re within spitting distance of a mineable resource node, a big old surface boulder. Erris and I hop out and survey the dead planet. It’s pretty.
Instinctively, I jump.
“Oooh, low-G!” I exclaim, as my avatar slowly floats back to the surface. It feels awesome.
Then, without warning, a telekinetic, demonic presence - possibly the boulder, possibly Erris, possibly the planet itself - strikes. Just as I execute my most excellent idea of a running low-G jump off the top of the hill we’re standing on, gravity itself fails. My avatar, limbs flailing, stuck in the Jumping animation, seems to be gaining altitude for some reason. As I travel away from the hill and over flat ground, I’m suddenly a few hundred feet up. I make my concerns very much known over comms the whole time.
Erris is laughing. No. Erris is cackling.
I die instantly. My body is flung at hundreds of kilometers per hour in some skyward vector. From the deathcam, I don’t see anything else. I wish I had Erris’ view.
Most of the bugs or absences of quality of life I’d experienced in the play session thus far were livable ones. Although falling short of a progress killer, install corruptor, or Crash to Desktop, this was my first encounter with a bad bug. Despite the setback, I’m not having a bad time playing Star Citizen. Piloting ships will any degree of skill will be a definite learning curve, but the fundamentals weren’t as impenetrable as I feared going in.
But in the back of my mind, there are murmurs that pull me back to late 2017 to early 2018, when the Alpha 3.0 hype machine was in full swing. Was back then - or now - ‘the time’ to hop in for the average backer, or the average gamer? I’m already leaning toward a pretty firm ‘No, not yet.’ And yet, I’m still eager to keep exploring myself. Maybe my feeling is completely off.
I spawn back automatically in one of many airport-terminal-lookin’ rooms at Port Olisar.
Will the mysterious demon attack Erris as well? Will CommanderLlama be able to handle himself solo for the first time? Can this pair be reunited, so that they can go shoot a mining laser at one fucking rock? When will this game be done?
Find out on the next log entry of They Spaced The Llama!
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