Star Citizen’s Alpha Is Promising, But Has Some Major Issues

If you asked me a week ago what my most anticipated game is, Star Citizen would have ranked somewhere among my top three. Naturally, I was excited to hear that a free weekend became available during Gamescom, effectively allowing thousands of players to download and play the current Alpha build at no cost.

My excitement was further bolstered by a Gamescom demonstration made last Friday, which emphasized new content coming in a massive upcoming 3.0 update. Among its successes was a remarkable planetary landing, NPC quest interaction with well-delivered voice acting, and functional first-person shooter gameplay. It now has over 650,000 views and has amped up the Star Citizen hype train. I found myself downloading the Alpha within no time.

Installing the Alpha and launching the game was a breeze. The menus and overall presentation of the game as well as its launcher are fantastic, and considering you interact with these elements frequently, it's a great strength for the game. At first contact it felt like the 100 million dollar game I was expecting. Things became much more rocky once I spawned in a starport and began my adventure, though.

Despite playing on a GTX 1080, I found myself with around 15 to 25 FPS. It was borderline exhausting to play in such a state, but I pressed onward. After chatting with others players, I came to learn that Star Citizen's performance is affected by its net code in a very negative way. Although the massive surge of new players in the Alpha certainly contributes to the FPS issues, this seems to be something that testers have been complaining about for years.

Performance aside, walking around the starport was a remarkable experience. Playing on low (default) settings at 1440p I came to meet what are inarguably the best graphics ever seen in an MMO. I would go as far as to say that this could end up being one of the top 3 best-looking games in history once it debuts, even if that debut is in late 2017. Its visuals alone would drive my motivation to keep playing the game as I sought to hop in a spaceship and gaze my eyes upon the cosmos.

I came across a few other players upon leaving my initial spawn area. The best thing I can say about the social aspect of Star Citizen is it has great emotes and animations. This might not seem like a big deal, but in a genre that's always had issues with making player interaction feel compelling, Star Citizen does it better than anyone. You aren't bound to a spaceship, you have a fully realized avatar that can interact with other players as if you were playing a fantasy MMO.

I would end up spending more than 45 minutes trying to figure out how to leave the starport, find a spaceship, and hop into it. In its current state, the game has no tutorial system. So, testing key strokes to see what happens was my primary interaction for a fair chunk of my time playing.  This is not a game for the feint of heart, and even once a tutorial is introduced I anticipate that it will be considered a challenging proposition to get casual players to play and understand the mechanics in any reasonable amount of time.

Climbing into a cockpit was far more challenging than I felt it should be. First, I had to learn that every ship has its own entry point. Even then, only some spaceships can be entered, and theres' no visual cue to communicate which you can pilot. Nonetheless, I eventually found myself in a medium-sized ship after spamming the 'F' key for 20 minutes.

Coming from Elite: Dangerous, I was impressed with the HUD. As with the rest of the game, it is beautiful and highly functional. It took me a few moments to determine how to liftoff and pilot the ship, and once I did I encountered a bug: my ship would clip into the ground and ignite before exploding. I had to start fresh afterward. Back to the spawn point I went.

This bug is one of many you encounter in the current Alpha build. I experienced constant audio issues, a black screen game crash, broken interactions, among other problems. Thankfully, this is an Alpha, so there's a possibility that all the problems, and boy are there a lot of them, will be fixed prior to launch.

As with the starport, space was absolutely incredible. Distant stars felt tangible, unlike the artificial appearing sky box of No Man's Sky. The development team has crafted a universe that genuinely makes you feel like you're in the vastness of space. It's lonely, inspiring, and worth exploring.

Without planetary landings being supported in the current version, or any form of tutorial, I found myself bored quickly. However, this could have been partially remedied by understanding content a bit better, which I will be investigating prior to launch. Even then, the performance was so poor that I couldn't stand playing the game anymore. I hope with every fiber of my being that it runs much better at launch.

In conclusion, I can see Star Citizen being a huge hit, but it has a long way to go. A lot of vital gameplay elements haven't been introduced to the game yet, and it has a general clunkiness that will ward away thousands of players if left undressed. But if Cloud Imperium Games is talented enough to make a game this visually stunning, I have every reason to believe that it will be able to make huge strides during the final months of pre-release development.