After five years and $117 million, Chris Roberts’ ambitious space sim Star Citizen is nowhere near ready to launch, if the state of the game during this week’s “Free Fly” trial is anything to go by. What should have been a time to bring new people onboard is a frustrating experience I found nearly unplayable. What’s going on at Cloud Imperium?
A little history for the non-HOTAS crowd: Roberts, one of the lead designers of classic space games like Wing Commander and Freelancer, launched a Kickstarter for Star Citizen in 2012. The game promised to be just about everything: a deep, story-driven single player campaign that’s pulled in acting talent like Gary Oldman, a persistent multiplayer universe, tons of ships to fly and first-person combat encounters as well. On the strength of its dizzyingly ambitious promise, the project quickly raised more than six million dollars between the Kickstarter and Cloud Imperium Games’ own fundraising. Following the Kickstarter, Cloud Imperium kept raising funds, which eventually swelled to an estimated $117 million, making Star Citizen the biggest crowdfunded project ever.
Playing the free fly open house this week makes one wonder where that money’s gone.
I launched the game after downloading the approximately 30 gigabyte package. The game is still in alpha 2.4.1, and last year Cloud Imperium’s director of game operations Jeremy Masker estimated in an official forums post that the final client size would be closer to 100 GB. Arriving at the main menu, I saw that I could visit the hangar or drop into one of two “universe” instances. Having already seen the hangar in a previous public test, I opted for the first universe option. I hit launch, and watched as a loading screen took over my screen.
Five minutes later, I figured something had gone wrong – the loading screen was still staring back at me, with a little blue bar flitting back and forth over a still image of some fighter ships duking it out among some asteroids. That looked like fun. I force-closed the game and relaunched it, and decided to see if the relatively small hangar worked.
It did, eventually – but only after another interminable loading time. This isn’t Fallout 4 or Witcher 3 loading times, mind you: this is at least five solid minutes, all to load an empty hangar. I didn’t purchase any of the pre-order ships Cloud Imperium offered as backer rewards for Star Citizen, which ranged from $45 to (this is not a typo) $2,500 for the biggest and baddest ship in the fleet. You could also opt to snag the “complete package” of all the game’s ships, which would have set you back $15,000.
Walking around the hangar in first person feels… really bad. Your character lurches around like slightly damaged zombie, with some of the weirdest, worst head-bobbing I’ve ever felt in a game.
A brief look around the forums revealed that others were experiencing long load times as well, so I quit to the main menu again and tried to get back into the universe modules, prepared this time to just wait. I didn’t even keep track of the time – I alt-tabbed away and looked at Twitter for a while, and at some point after I’d forgotten I was even playing the game, I heard some game audio that indicated it had loaded. I’m guessing, but this must have been at least ten minutes after I’d hit “launch” again.
Here is the story of my three attempts to fly a spaceship in Star Citizen. You spawn in a small crew bunk, and must walk out of the habitation area to a control room. There, you’ll find a series of control panels that let you request one of three ships to fly. I chose the Sabre, and was told it would be delivered to landing pad A09. I followed some signs to airlock 09, and was told I’d need a space suit. They’re available in lockers immediately outside the interior airlock doors, so I pushed a button and was suddenly in a space suit. I could tell, because I could see the chinpiece of the helmet I was wearing.
I entered the airlock and approached the far doors, not realizing at first that you have to press the “cycle” button manually in order to begin the process. After a moment or two I understood my mistake and found the button. I pushed it, and was immediately killed by violent decompression for failing to have a space suit on.
Figuring I’d done something wrong, I respawned in my bunk and saw that the Sabre I’d had delivered still showed as being available on the landing pad. I followed my previous self’s steps back out of the habitation area, back through the control room, and back to Airlock 09, where I made doubly sure I had my suit on before entering and hitting the cycle button. This time, the hiss of escaping air did not bring instant death with it and I found myself outside on the station deck, my Sabre ready to go a hundred yards or so away.
It took me a while to figure out how to get into it. It looked like the kind of craft you’d enter through the cockpit, but no amount of positioning myself seemed to provide any prompts for getting in. I walked around and looked at the hardpoints, inspected the thrust engines, and gave everything I could look at a good few taps of the “interact” key. Nothing.
A few laps around the ship later, I looked back while walking counterclockwise around the ship’s nose. A prompt I’d never seen appeared. This turned out to be the secret to popping open the Sabre’s canopy, and I hurriedly climbed in, glad to finally be free of the game’s nausea-inducing first-person head-bob. But once the ship had started up, my controls – a Saitek X-55 hands-on throttle-and-stick combo – couldn’t seem to make it do anything. Moving the throttle back and forth eventually seemed to cycle through targets in front of me, but nothing else could get the ship to budge.
That is, until I touched my mouse and keyboard again, which resulted in my ship being flung forward as if I’d just be thwacked by a giant space golf club held by a Thanos-sized Jack Nicklaus. Tumbling end over end, I pulled every control surface I could to no avail. Eventually I was able to steer my craft back into the flight deck and explode.
Back in my crew quarters, I charged back to the control room. I was told it would take a few minutes before I could order another Sabre. Fine, I thought. In its place, I ordered an F7C Hornet, which Roberts Space Industries describes as a “dependable and resilient multi-purpose fighter that has become the face of the UEE Navy.” It costs $125 if you’d like to actually own one in-game.
Before heading back outside, I decided to check on my joystick settings to make sure they were properly calibrated. That done, I headed to the new landing pad location, A01. I found another space suit locker, but had to look around for the proper airlock. While I was finding my way, my space suit mysteriously disappeared, and I had to put on a new one when I got to 01.
I managed to get outside again without being spaced, and saw my Hornet sitting nearby on the tarmac (or the space tarmac, whatever they use on space stations). It looked cooler and meaner than the Sabre, like an angular Harrier II. Frustrated with how much time I’d already wasted, I hurried toward it…
… and as soon as I came into contact with it, it went careening off the deck like a punted football.
It was at this point that I uninstalled the game.
Look, game development is hard work and it takes a lot of time. Countless hundreds of people work tirelessly to create the entertainment products we blithely give the Roman thumbs up or down to here. But the state of Star Citizen right now is beyond baffling. This is a game built in CryEngine, which right out of the box has physics that work better – hell, they just plain work – than what’s on display with Cloud Imperium’s tech demo this week. What were they thinking?
Part of it could be an attempt to quell some of the criticism that’s been personified by 3000AD creator Derek Smart, who’s been vocal about his skepticism over Roberts’ plans for Star Citizen, which has included calling for an FTC investigation into Roberts’ company. With this much backer money already in hand, and criticism over the game’s budget and ever-expanding timeline mounting with each passing month, I can see why RSI and Cloud Imperium wanted to get something out there for people to get their hands on.
But Star Citizen is abominably, unplayably broken in its current state. I say all this with certain trepidation, as Cloud Imperium has already had its lawyers threaten The Escapist with legal action after the site published a well-sourced piece on the troubles Star Citizen’s development has faced.
It’s completely possible that someday we’ll see a full, successful release of the game Chris Roberts promised us in 2012. But as of right now, Star Citizen stands as a warning about the inherent dangers of crowdfunding and development creep. Caveat emptor.