Even the game’s harshest critics would agree that Star Citizen is one of the most ambitious gaming projects ever undertaken. Too much ambition can sometimes lead to unrealistic expectations and endless perfectionism. But does Star Citizen fall into that trap? Or is the talent and experience of Chris Roberts and hundreds of other developers at Cloud Imperium games enough to overcome those pitfalls?
This review is for the alpha state of the game as of 2021. The “game” (alpha build) is totally playable, but not without bugs or performance issues. Is it a good time to get into it? We shall look at all the major components that make up Star Citizen and then decide.
Ship to Ship Combat
Ship combat is fun and has been fun since at least 2015. There is a mode called Arena Commander where you can go against other players or AI in small pre-generated maps. Because these maps are only meant for small skirmishes, performance is very very good. I get well over 100 fps.
Small fighters like the Galdius and Arrow are fast and nimble. Medium fighters can have stealth (Sabre), be good at brawling (Hornet) or be glass cannons (Hurricane). You even have heavy fighters like the Vanguard series which is reminiscent of the P-38 Lightning from WW2. Speaking of WW2, combat is essentially WW2 dogfighting with some cold war missiles/ stealth tech blended in.
If you want to get a feeling of what’s it like, think “space opera”. Personally, I think the combat is closer to Battlestar Galactica than Star Trek or Star Wars but with the benefit of hundreds of millions of dollars in additional funding and decades of tech advancement. Capital ship combat is designed like WW2 style gun battles between battleships or cruisers. Big guns firing hundreds of shots at each other, while smaller fighters buzz around, torpedos fly and miss and anti-fighter Gattling guns light up the darkness. It doesn’t get better than this.
But bigger is not always better. Capital ships have a big target on their backs and as WW2 taught us, big ships are vulnerable to bombers and torpedos and need adequate fighter escorts. Losing a capital ships is going to be a costly affair. You can insure it, but it will still need to be rebuilt by a factory and you might still have to replace components or upgrades and the experienced crew you lost. Which is why you have to be deliberate with how you utilize your bigger toys and might still want to use your smaller ships most of the time.
Star Citizen Careers: Trading/ Mining/ Repair/ Salvage/ Bounty Hunting/ Medical/ Refueling
These are just some of the careers planned in the game and some of them are already in. You can already trade, bounty hunt and mine both in space and on planets. However, they are still early in the development and not without bugs or balance issues. But there’s the thing – despite the bugs, I still find myself wanting to take my ship out for a spin. The underlying game is just that much fun that you feel compelled to keep soldiering on despite the bugs. But more on bugs later.
Each of Star Citizen’s careers have enough content to be spun off into a game of it’s own. For example, mining involves hand mining with a laser, planet mining with vehicles that are already in the game (ROC and ROC DS), asteroid mining with ships like the Prospector and MOLE or waiting for the massive Orion that just gobbles up rock like a hungry hungry hippo. Its an involved process that first requires you find the good ore and then mine it with a laser that can blow up if you are too careless. That is just the first step though. You then have to refine it and then find a place to sell it. All the while, you can be harassed by pirates and might have to hire other players as escorts to protect you.
Other careers are equally detailed and there are so many I haven’t even mentioned yet. For example, there is a ship that is designed to be a news van! You can capture battles or other incidents and rush to the nearest planet to report the news. There are ships that have hidden compartments for smuggling. There are luxury taxis (Constellation Phoenix) and yachts (Origin 600i, Origin 890J) that you can use for transporting VVIP. There are even racing ships like the M50, 350R and MISC Razer that are purpose built for Formula 1 style racing in the future.
First Person Gameplay
CIG’s first person gameplay is pretty on point. It wasn’t really a big focus initially and they had even subcontracted this work out to another company before. But that was a long long time ago and ever since they have now completely taken over and first person gameplay is on another level. Physical inventories, detailed character animations, realistic physics, character needs like food, drink, temperature and so on. It’s pretty exciting.
You also have access to a number of tools which all offer something unique or exciting. For example, there are dozens of styles of armour and each set is visually unique and offers some trade-off. Heavy armour, for example, offers more protection, but you can’t sit in a pilot seat wearing it. Then you even have things like the upcoming Titan mech suit. If and when you do get injured, there is an entire medical gameplay element. There are medical ships like the Apollo and Cutlass Red to take you to the hospital. And yes, there are actual hospitals on planets and even hospitals in space (like the Hope-class Endeavour spaceship).
As your character take damage over the months or years, he or she will inevitable die and you essentially start playing as their heir, getting access to all their ships and property! The level of detail is simply staggering and its not just that the ideas are solid, the implementation is well. I find running around and shooting quite satisfying already.
Ground vehicles were also not the initial focus, but now we have enough of them that they are in a category of their own. We already have over a dozen and I fully expect dozens more to come. You have Tonks (Tanks), buggy’s wheeled bikes and hover bikes, fancy explorers and rugged explorers.
The best part is not the vehicles though. I think they have a long way to go physics-wise. The best part is the terrain you can drive on. There are already dozens of moons and a few planets that range from tundra to rugged mountains to deserts to toxic alien biomes. You can race, engage in combat, or plan a long, relaxing sight seeing ground trip.
CIG clearly has big plans for ground vehicles and combat. The fact that we tanks, SAMs (Surface to Air Missile) and even big planes capable of carpet bombing (Hercules A2) implies that they expect big battles on the ground. We already have small bases scattered throughout but for all these toys to be useful, you will need more incentive to drive that gameplay. Bigger bases, mineral rich minable areas and other strategic assets on the ground will make sure players keep coming back. We already have detailed caves scattered throughout the current planets and moons which tempt miners to explore them.
World design (Procedural Generation Tech)
I was amazed by the beautiful worlds of Skyrim, Witcher 3, AC Unity, The Division and Red Dead Redemption 2. Some people just like to rush through the content, but I like to enjoy the scenery and appreciate all the little details. That is what I believe is Star Citizen’s biggest strength. they have managed to create such a beautiful world already and we are still just talking about the first of a 100 star systems!
We have gas giant planets, rocky worlds, tundra worlds, lush green planets, ocean worlds, toxic polluted hellscapes and even an ecumenopolis (planet wide city). These are not just 100-200km long maps, these are entire planets and moons that are thousands of miles in circumference. The only way to build on such scale is by using procedural generation technologies. The best thing about these algorithms is that you can keep tweaking them and see your planets become better and better. We already have canyons, lakes, oceans, caves and even rivers and roads that are procedurally generated and they get better with almost every successive patch.
An MMO economy is hard to get right but is also one of its most important aspects. Star Citizen’s economic simulation is based around digital agents called quanta. These quanta are released into a system and then go about simulating the world. For example, lets say there is a factory on Microtech. That factory will demand resources and create mining or hauling missions. The quanta will act like NPCs and begin to fulfill those missions. As commerce increases, pirates will spawn and more bounty hunting or escort missions will be created. With pirates and bounty hunters now in the system, combat will cause casualties, damage and wrecks. So new opportunities will be created for medical gameplay, salvage and repair, refueling and rearming and so on.
All of this will happen without player intervention. You will just be a cog in the machine. CIG expects that 90% of the population will be NPCs with the rest being players. This background economy will dictate how quickly you will be able to replace ships or how lucrative jobs will be. An untouched, lawless star system will likely have sky-high prices for fuel, food and other commodities since everything will have to be shipped in from outside at great risk. But it will also likely offer much better mining opportunities since it’s not been stripped clean by centuries of mining.
This means that players who don’t want to engage in risky PvP can stick to safe, core systems where there is lower risk but also lower reward. The Navy or Advocacy (police) will be quick to respond here and pirates wont last long. But if you are raring for combat and higher profits, fly to a border system and loot all the derelicts there or run cargo at much higher margins.
Single Player Campaign (Squadron 42)
I am really looking forward to the Squadron 42 campaign. There is not much to review here since all we ahve had are a couple of trailers and an hour long vertical slice video, but if that doesn’t get you excited, I don’t know what will. It has quite a cast of A-listers and Chris Roberts is well known for creating cinematic experiences in all his games.
- Gary Oldman as Admiral Ernst Bishop
- Mark Hamill as Lieutenant Commander Steve “Old Man” Cotton
- Henry Cavil
- Mark Strong as Captain Thomas Wade
- John Rhys-Davies as Randall Graves
- Liam Cunningham as Captain Noah White
- Gillian Anderson as Captain Rachel MacLaren
- Andy Serkis as Thul’Oqquray
- Jack Huston as Cal Mason
- Sophie Wu as Cara “Web” Webster
- Ben Mendelsohn as Julian Wexler
- Ian Duncan as the Player character
The main antagonists in Squadron 42 is a war-like, migratory alien species called the Vanduul. Think of them as Barbarians attacking a decaying Roman Empire. You also have other species like the mercantile Banu and the long-lived and wise Xian.
The campaign consists of 28 chapters. Expect each of them to be super detailed and oozing with awesomeness. Each chapter should be 30-60 mins long. There are also two further sequels planned to Squadron 42 which should keep us excited for the next decade or so. These campaigns should serve as a nice introduction to the universe and you will also benefit from gaining citizenship in the Empire. Lastly, expect some juicy completion rewards in the form of a high-end, rare military fighter and other things.
Performance and Server Issues
Server side issues are essentially the main performance bottleneck currently. The server has a lot of load which is the main cause of performance issues on the client side. I won’t get into too much technical details, but they are using a lot of tools to fix these issues like OCS, SSOCS, server meshing and so on.
The development of these tools is progressing in parallel with the game and we do see improvements from time to time. But to be completely honest, I would rather not comment on how much they can improve this unless I see it first hand.
Its a bit premature to state the final system requirements for the released game, but we can certainly talk about the current situation. Look at some of my hardware guides here.
There are plenty of bugs in Star Citizen and that is entirely expected in a game in alpha. Most games would not be available to the public at this stage, but CIG needs to showcase it to get more funding so here we are. It’s not really a bad thing if you are fully cognizant of what you are getting into. Expect its an alpha and that it will stay an alpha for some more years and you should be fine.
CIG’s financial position
I follow gaming stocks and invest in gaming companies as a hobby. CIG is like a startup, and like most startups, there is a certain degree of financial uncertainty. I have looked at CIG’s financial statements in some detail (UK ones are publicly available) and based on the information available, I feel comfortable with their positions. They do spend a lot of money, but their real asset is the ability to generate fresh cash flow. 2020 was especially strong for them (like the rest of the gaming industry) and the shift in hobbies due to the quarantines has made me very bullish on gaming companies in general. CIG is well poised to benefit from this shift in lifestyles and consumer tastes.
Additionally, some big funds have also invested in CIG. That is a solid vote of confidence as these funds do perform a lot of due diligence.
Is Star Citizen Pay to Win?
Is Star Citizen Pay2Win? That depends entirely on your definition of what winning means. If by winning, you mean just buying the bigger ships, then perhaps yes. But that definition of winning doesn’t really suit Star Citizen. because bigger ships aren’t necessarily better. They require more crew (main bottleneck in an MMO), more maintenance, the biggest ones can’t even land on planets, they can’t go through all jumpgates and they will require like half an hour of planning before you even get into the action.
Based on all that, I don’t consider it Pay to Win. Bigger ships don’t necessarily give you an advantage. They simply offer a different playstyle and you can just get each of them in the game. As another example, I am a big fan of DCS as well. In DCS, you also have to spend $60-$80 to buy each highly detailed fighter jet and helicopter. But that does not mean you have won anything, it is just the beginning of your journey. Its a pretty common theme in flight sims actually. IL2 has purchasable planes, Microsoft Flight Sim has a lot of them including fan made jets that you can buy.
The pace of development is not exactly fast, but it seems to be picking up. Its been 6-7 years since I first backed and we are still far off from release. It doesn’t bother me too much personally because I am not hooked into Star Citizen 24/7, but its definitely a bit longer than the industry standard.
That being said, none of those other games actually have the scale and ambition of Star Citizen. Too much ambition can lead to problems in business, but I think if you have the talent to back that ambition up, you can do very well indeed. Given the scale and scope of Star Citizen, I am willing to let this one slide. Don’t get into it expecting it to be ready anytime soon, although the alpha is pretty fun on its own. Not gonna lie, I enjoy it more than some AA games even.