Somebody needs to get the President, Mitt Romney and the Joint Chiefs of Staff in a room and show them the next game from the creator of Wing Commander. Because the awesomeness on display in Star Citizen is a brilliant argument for why mankind needs to be in space.
Star Citizen isn't anywhere near done yet. But Chris Roberts' ambitious project is already capable of awing you with its sense of scale and detail. And, if you're a PC gamer who fondly remembers Roberts for the Wing Commander and Privateer games, you'll be happy to hear what he has to say about his newest venture. "If I was making Wing Commander today," he told me during an interview in New York City last week, "Star Citizen is what I would do."
For the past year, Roberts and his dev team have been crafting a sprawling, new online universe where players can become part of a decaying cosmic empire in the year 2942. Star Citizen
—which will be free-to-play—takes ancient Rome as its inspiration, ushering players into a society where people have to earn their citizenship rather than having it automatically granted to them. In the game's online world, you gain that citizenship status by fulfilling certain roles. You can be a merchant who earns enough money to buy citizenship or doing civic deeds that buff your reputation to the point where you become a citizen that way.
[Correction: Star Citizen won't be free-to-play. Pricing models for the game aren't set yet but Roberts says that he's interested in a model like Guild Wars II, where players pay once for the core game and have the option to buy additional content if they choose. We regret the error.]
Or you could sign up for military duty in Squadron 42. That's the military space sim that's a game-within-a-game inside of Star Citizen. Most of what I got to see last week came from the in-progress version of Squadron 42. It looks amazing.
Roberts talked my ear off about the millions of faces and polygons making up the huge space carrier that fighter ships were launching off of. All you need to know is that the level of detail on that carrier, its launch bays and the pilots inside rivals anything I've seen in recent years.
Roberts believes that high-end visuals are the best tool to create deep immersion in games and he's putting his money where his mouth is. For those wondering about the tech, Star Citizen is being built on top of a heavily modified version of CryEngine 3. You can see the seams on a pilot's uniform or the scrapes and weathering of a fighter's exterior, moving naturally and reflecting light sources with beautiful precision.
Squadron 42 places players inside the decline of the empire of Earth, and has them fighting with hostile barbarian extraterrestrials or exchanging goods with friendlier ones.
And if you said that those one-winged ships in the trailer look like homages to Wing Commander's Kilrathi race, then you'd be exactly right.
The former wunderkind is proudly planting Star Citizen's flag in the PC gaming landscape. "What we want to do with Star Citizen wouldn't be possible on console," he said. "No one's really carrying the PC torch anymore, except maybe Valve or Blizzard. It used to be in the '90s that the coolest stuff you could see was on the PC." For Star Citizen, Roberts plans to have constant micro-updates of fresh content—like new, unannounced solar systems to stumble into—all year long. These updates will riff off of what's happening in the game, with missions that might involve swinging the balance of power from one faction to another. He also wants to have player-hosted servers open to modding and a string emphasis on creation tools. Those servers will run a more limited version of the Star Citizen universe but will let you customize the experience in unique ways.
One idea that Roberts cited while talking about Sq42 multiplayer was the idea of Battle Instances that spawn when two players are simultaneously crossing the same solar system. Not only that, but the design automatically holds slots in the instance open for friends, who can jump in to help turn the tide of battle.
Star Citizen will implement a dynamic economy that rewards non-military achievement, too. So, if you're an explorer who finds a jump point—folds in space that let travelers take advantage of to travel faster—you can sell the route and get naming rights. That might sound like something out of EVE Online. Roberts says the comparison is apt. "My kind of game is more first-person, action-oriented, in-the-cockpit," he said. "[EVE] is pulled back, more strategic. It's just a different playstyle. They wound up taking on some of the concepts I wanted to do in Freelancer but couldn't."
Late 2014 is when Roberts hopes to launch Star Citizen. All of this is going to take lots of cash, of course, and Roberts says that he's got investors lined up to help fund this huge project. But first, players will have to contribute to a crowdfunding site at Roberts Space Industries. Doing so essentially lets you pre-purchase a ship of varying size and attributes. Once the funding reaches a certain amount, those investors will kick in their pledged cash to RSI. The crowdfunding is a way of proving that there's still a sizable PC gaming audience out there that's hungry for the next evolution of what Roberts created in Wing Commander years ago.
Roberts comes back to game development after a stint in Hollywood, where he notched producer credits on films like Lord of War and The Punisher. Based on what I've seen, gamers of all persuasions have good reason to welcome Roberts into the fold. He wants to take us back to the deep wilds of outer space, after all, and bring a generation of players back to a place that we never should've left.