Vibrant colours aren't usually the first things that spring to mind when you visualise a space combat game. Our science-fiction heritage has left us with an image of space that is grim and murky, and full of people screaming but not being heard. Jumpgate isn't like that. Visually, Jumpgate is almost the interstellar equivalent of World Of Warcraft's cartoon fantasy: colourful worlds with unlikely spaceships whizzing between warmly-lit asteroids to unleash unsubtle lasers upon their evil-hued enemies. It's similar in a technical sense too, since your cranky old laptop is going to be able to run this game quite merrily. Jumpgate will have one of the lowest system spec requirements of any mainstream MMO to launch in the past two years.
That bright palette alone gives you some clue of the angle NetDevil is taking with its reworked space MMO. It's extremely accessible to the most casual of gamers. We recently got to sit down and play it at Codemasters' Midlands HQ, and everyone was immediately at ease, soaring between the asteroids and tracking down enemy drones. Controlling the game with mouse and keyboard (or joystick, if you wish), it's clear and comprehensible: you fly where you point the ship, and shoot where the ship's cross-hairs are aiming. Add timed lock-on missiles to equation, and you're pretty much ready to undertake any mission the game has to offer.
The first few excursions all take place within a small corridor of beautifully-rendered asteroids, with one large, hollowed-out rock as the mission base one end. First I had to shoot down a handful of low-level enemy ships, and then I had to scan some mysterious object by flying up to it and pressing the space bar (how appropriate). Then there was more combat against marginally tougher opponents, followed by the destruction of a large enemy capital ship at the far end of the asteroid belt.
Each mission is punctuated by a return to the base, where you can choose to sell loot, and to repair and rearm your ride. This early area is similar for each of Jumpgate's three factions, who go through a two-tiered starting area before mixing with pilots from other factions in the core game-world. Aside from the fact that I was flying about engaged in real-time hitscan combat - and the fact that I was piloting a fish-like rocketship instead of an elf or a wizard - it could have been the starting area of any MMO of the past five years.
For this reason alone, I suspect that Jumpgate will do well. It's easy to understand, and that means it's fun both for the space-shooter aficionado, and for anyone who has played WOW; plus it's enough of a halfway house between them to seem entertainingly different. The missions carefully guide you to your objective, and then it's down to a mixture of your level, your ship type and weapon loadout, and your personal skill with a laser to decide whether you come home with the goods or are blasted back to the spaceport.
My next objective in this session was a courier mission that took me out of the newbie zone and into the wider galaxy, via the titular jumpgate. This new zone was a little less colourful, perhaps implying that the game was getting harder, although what I was seeing of the missions suggested that Jumpgate is going to be quite forgiving.
While the various areas I explored were small and clearly bounded, the lure of the galaxy beyond is certainly a potent tractor beam, dragging you into continued play. The playtest also rapidly dispelled any lingering illusion there might have been that Jumpgate will be anything like EVE Online. The very similar space station interior, with its modular ship layouts and auction systems, might fool you - but Jumpgate is a light, easy MMO on a small scale. It's about speedy action and continuous questing, and I suspect that's going to be the mainstay of the game, and the appeal for most of the people who play it.
However, it's not all Jumpgate has to offer. The outer edge of the galaxy is a free player-versus-player zone, where pilots can test their combat skills against each other and in dangerous environments. Quite how the free-form PVP will work isn't yet clear, but I'm keen to see it, especially after being a little disappointed with the PVP scenario we did get to play.
That scenario saw us take arms as the three factions, each with its own capital ship. It was - at least, without anything in the world at stake - relatively uninteresting. The capital ships were near-static targets with massive hit-point reservoirs, and other players popped back into space mere moments after being destroyed. It was not a particularly compelling combat sequence, and it leaves me concerned about the Jumpgate's PVP side.
I'm certain that the game's "twitch" combat will be of enormous appeal to some gamers in PVP, but I don't think it'll hook me - unless I get to see how it links to the game-world as a whole, something that might well be addressed closer to launch. In isolation, it didn't make much sense, and wasn't dramatic enough to sell itself on sheer spectacle.
Jumpgate will enter beta testing soon, and I suspect it's going to prove a popular attraction, particularly for those who don't want the complexity and imagination-roasting depth of EVE Online. For that reason, I expect the PVP to remain at the periphery of the game, while exploring the galaxy and pottering back and forth on quests and crafting missions will keep most players entertained. Whether the mass of missions available will be enough to keep them occupied we won't know until launch, but my fingers are quietly crossed.