Star Citizen is a bit like an Instagram account: what you see looks amazing but the reality is hollow. As it stands, at major milestone alpha 3.0, Star Citizen does not convince as a game. But as a picture-postcard-maker - as a demonstration of technology - it's virtually peerless. Standing on top of a canyon on a dusty, windswept planet, looking up at the suns and moons in the sky and knowing you can fly up to them is hair-raisingly cool. Knowing when night comes it's because of the rotations and orbits of those same planets, of those same stars, is an awesome feeling. And even though there might only be a handful of planets to touch down on (for now), they are truly massive, taking probable hours to fly around. It's a simulation of the highest detail and largest proportions.
But once you've seen the eye-popping sights, once you've flown down from space onto a planet and then back up again - once you've seen the beautiful Blade Runner hubs with their rebellious posters on murky walls and flickering neon lights - there's little to do. You can buy fancy-looking guns, you can even buy a great big railgun, which charges up and then very satisfyingly unloads, but there's nothing to kill.
Likewise, you can buy various suits of armour off mannequins in shops - one of the game's many lovely flourishes of detail - but there's no real need to other than to look cool, other than to pose for screenshots. Most shops don't have any interactive stock and so, like the hubs and the universe around them, they contribute to the feeling of touring a giant Hollywood set: all front and no substance.
There are a handful of missions to run, but they're tepid and boring. One, for instance, is an off-the-books private investigation which, admirably, can go either way depending on the evidence you find. You are to search an eerily quiet, abandoned comms station to get to the truth. It sounds OK, doesn't it? But there's no excitement, just a few computer terminals and panels to interact with. No threat, no danger, just a mission to solve an insurance claim of all things. Then it bugged and I couldn't complete it as intended. It was all so typically Star Citizen.
Even the spaceship dogfights struggled to impress me, owing to a distinct lack of heft from the available weaponry, which feels tinny and machinegun-y rather than thumping and deadly, like a Star Wars laser cannon - and more or less the same as when I last played Star Citizen two years ago.
But that's OK, right? This is early access and all we expect is a working core, really, with some taster content around it - enough to prove the concept and excite us like PlayerUnknown's Battlegrounds did, or any number of other early access games.
I realise that Star Citizen's professions - careers to pursue, such as salvaging, smuggling, bounty hunting and so on - are still to come, like so much else. Besides, this is a sandbox where we're supposed to make our own fun. Forget about all the buckets and spades which aren't there and concentrate on simply enjoying the sand with friends. But the problem is, you can't - you can't enjoy it. And this is the game's biggest crime.
Star Citizen is a game about spaceships - it sells them to players for hundreds of dollars, for crying out loud. These are the creations it revels in and celebrates. You can see it in the wonderful animation each spaceship has for climbing into its cockpit, and you can see it in the way each craft buzzes to life as power courses through it. They're beautiful machines - and for that money, they ought to be. But the game can't keep up with them. What is the point of owning a Lamborghini if you live in a neighbourhood with speed bumps and a 20mph speed limit?
Simply put, Star Citizen has a frame-rate issue so bad it ruins everything. There are glimpses of 60 frames per second when servers are fresh and populations low, but as soon as people join, the frame-rate plummets again. What it means is that you're unlikely to ever see more than 20 frames per second regardless of graphics settings, regardless of PC (within reason), and usually you'll hover around 15 frames per second.
What good is having a futuristic marvel of a machine if you can't feel the thrill of piercing a planet's atmosphere and roaring along the canyons below, buzzing the proverbial towers? Furthermore, what good are panels to turn things on and off, or exit vehicles, if the choppy frame rate makes it an ordeal targeting them? I was genuinely stuck in the passenger seat of a buggy for this reason - a buggy ride that would have been gawp-inducing if we had witnessed it at anything more than a slideshow. I had one glorious glimpse of 60 frames per second but within 10 minutes the server had reverted to headache-land.
Star Citizen alpha 3.0 was supposed to show the world what this game was all about, to prove the concept - that's what all the delays were in aid of. Why take so long and then shoot yourself in the foot? And we're not even talking massively multiplayer yet - we're talking servers struggling under the strain of 50 people.
It feels petty to slam a game in alpha, in early access, for performance issues. Yet in Star Citizen's mega-profile case it feels so indicative of the story so far: unfulfilled promise(s). 'Trust us,' say Roberts Space Industries, 'we're building something spectacular and it takes time.' But how much more time will it take before what is spectacular actually becomes fun to play? And how much trust is left? When I hear a friend of mine, my Star Citizen tour guide, my expert on hand, who's into the game for hundreds of pounds, talk about reining in Chris Roberts, it makes me wonder.
Star Citizen remains a tantalising prospect, and a controversial one. Perhaps the solutions I am after are right around the corner, mere moments away. Perhaps the core is inches from completion and content will soon be piped in willy-nilly and with joyous abandon, and the dream realised. Or perhaps we will be here a year from now, still stewing over the same issues. I, like many others, was led to believe alpha 3.0 would be the turning point, but what I see is an ever-growing mountain to climb, and my hope wanes.
Star Citizen, I am disappointed.
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