What is Star Citizen? It's so big now it seems almost incomprehensible. $100m - that's a hell of a budget, let alone raised through crowdfunding. No-one saw it coming, everything ballooned in scope and scale, and no-one seems to know what it is any more.
Isn't Star Citizen all modules? That's one I hear a lot. The answer is yes, sort of, in that key clumps of Star Citizen are built in modules that will be brought together as a whole for the final game. Examples are Arena Commander and Star Marine, separate game modes accessible from the menu. Arena Commander is all about flying (complete with tutorials and single-player or multiplayer battles) and Star Marine does similar for on-foot action, but that isn't implemented yet. There will also be Squadron 42, a standalone, story-led, single-player game based in the same setting. But the main event is the Universe, where all those elements merge in one persistent online world.
That Universe has only just been born, launching with Alpha 2.0 at the very end of last year (it's now 2.2). It lets you test the basics: spawn a spaceship on a landing pad at a space station, and climb aboard and pilot it to one of a dozen or more destinations. Most of the destinations are identical Com Array satellites that are under attack by pirates, and they need manually rebooting by you, which you do by leaving your spaceship and astronauting over and into them. And the first time you do this, it's great, jumping out into deep dark space with only your breathing in your helmet for company. Couple that with stunning presentation and there are memorable moments close at hand
But they weren't enough to alleviate the monotony and frustration with Star Citizen that was setting in for me. There isn't a guiding thread through the experience, which means being dumped in cold and clueless - although there's a tutorial for flying in Arena Commander, and it's pretty good. But it wasn't so much working out what the ships do so much as working out what I was supposed do that was vexing me.
I couldn't seem to get past the endless loop of spawning a spaceship, finding a Com Array, rebooting it and then dying either to pirates or bugs. It's a glitchy place, and it can be annoying. Even spawning different spaceships to fly was beginning to get old - though the ships really are lovely and discovering each one's animated way of entering is a repeatable pleasure. I had to face facts: Star Citizen was getting stale. But then I made an idiot of myself and everything changed.
It started with me not being able to get into my Cutlass Black spaceship, and being too embarrassed to ask for help because that would expose me as a noob and I didn't think I was one. But at the same time I couldn't go on running around my spaceship acting like everything was OK, so I asked, "Um, does anyone know how to get into a Cutlass Black?"
And this guy showed up, went into the back of my spaceship, opened the cockpit door - it turns out I was being a real melon about the whole thing. He didn't have to do that. I thanked him profusely and then waited a couple of minutes for him to leave, so as not to embarrass myself any further, and warped out to a quiet location and breathed a sigh of relief. Then I heard cannon fire, cannon fire coming from my ship - but I wasn't shooting. Someone in my turret was. Oh my god. I kidnapped him!
I was mortified but he didn't seem to mind. Nor did he seem to mind when I smashed us around trying to land somewhere and then had to repair at a station because, well, I was on fire. And not only did he not mind, he found it funny - as did everyone else at the space garage. "Ship looks OK to me!" one guy quipped as he hovered nearby.
By the time I repaired I was a point of interest and had attracted more people to my hull. They just showed up, like, hello we've come to join you even though you didn't invite us, which put more pressure on me to perform. But I sucked it up as I strutted over to my rear hatch to close it for take off - and then closed myself in it, trapped myself half in, half out. The engines roared into life and someone flew my ship away, with me delivering a deranged limb-flap of a wave out the back.
Yet it was amidst the laughter of general chat I realised something: that I was having fun in Star Citizen at long last. I had been prepared to give up but the community brought me back in, and now I started to see what it was all about.
Later that day I met with a friend who's into Star Citizen to the tune of hundreds of pounds, and we spent the evening flying together. He was like my personal Yogi, tutoring, explaining, mentoring - and he knows an awful lot. He showed me follow-up missions to Com Arrays, and with them new scenery I was in dire need of seeing; and he showed me how real pilots can fly, flicking ships around like bogeys. He showed me the sights, explained the Universe around me.
But it wasn't so much what he showed me as how he showed me: cooperatively, me and him together - me and him and whoever else had boarded our ship and came along for the ride. Watching another person fly while you goof around in the back, or while you float over the cockpit on your way to or from a Com Array is, well, it's cool. And when I man the turret while he flies I feel like Luke Skywalker in Star Wars with Han Solo up front. "Great shot kid..." For him, this is what it's all about, a group of friends flying out on an adventure together, one on turrets, one on shields, one repairing, others doing whatever - all flying a big ship on whatever hellish errand that evening demands.
Expand that to encompass all the roles Star Citizen has planned, like miner, pirate, warlord, bus driver - bus driver! - field repairer, and so on, and the big idea starts to sink in. Right now that's an idea in incubation, with systems missing or under-developed, and mayhem kept in check by 16-player instances.
But already there's an atmosphere, a little spark of magic, although how the muck-around readiness of the community will change when there are more things to do - and more to lose - remains to be seen. But when the layers are added and the scale increases, think of it then: think of the possibilities. That's the hope with which the Star Citizen community flies and holds in its heart. This is the game my friend has wanted ever since he was a kid. Will it live up to its colossal billing? I think in some small ways it already is.