Star Citizen is a PC-only game that’s still in alpha despite more than ten years of development. It’s breathtaking, buggy, wonderful, and infuriating.
This isn’t a review, just a reflection on something that continues to be unusual, thought-provoking, and special.
I don’t know how to summarize Star Citizen and do it justice. On one hand it’s a buggy space game that’s easy to make fun of after a decade of delays and no real end in sight. On the other hand, it’s a massively ambitious, evolving experience supported by the strongest crowdfunded effort in gaming. It’s built on a custom engine by an independent company, led by an industry veteran with a history of successful titles, taking a shot at something big.
Star Citizen is an open-world, first-person game set in the future where you can choose your own space-related adventure. You’ll likely want a ship so you can leave whatever planet you start on and explore the game’s solar system, Stanton.
You’ll need a laptop next to you for learning to navigate your way through an immensely complex world, from drinking out of a bottle to jumping across the solar system.
There are three major planets, each surrounded by moons, along with remote outposts scattered around the sun. You can quantum travel between them, and in big arcs along planet surfaces, to address the obvious challenges of space, time, and boredom.
You don’t even need a ship though, because you could hang around a starport or landing pad and steal someone else’s if you were patient and quick enough. You could ask for a ride and likely find someone happy to take you wherever you want to go. You could go on to be a pirate, or a medic that saves people from harm and game bugs, or get into mining or hauling or smuggling or bounty hunting. You could simply explore the universe and find new things that are hidden all over the place—surely some of them not yet discovered. You could bounce between any of these things, or show up simply to help other people with whatever they’re doing. You could fly around just to take screenshots; Star Citizen is often jokingly referred to as a wallpaper generator.
No matter what path you take, there will be unexpected beauty and bugs.
Star Citizen’s space is vast and striking. Technically speaking, it’s barely a speck compared to the Elite Dangerous universe modeled after (and well beyond) our known solar system. Star Citizen is much smaller in that sense, but what Stanton lacks in breadth it makes up for with depth. The solar system is richly detailed with planets and moons and asteroid belts that are actually fun to explore. Locations are distinctly different, with changing weather systems that affect how it looks and feels to pilot your ship in atmosphere or run around on the ground.
Entering or leaving an atmosphere is always a satisfying transition of light and sound, especially dazzling when the sun plays on the horizon. Seeing and feeling the ship’s speed, rumble, and handling change as it slips into the blackness of space has not lost its cool factor. I’ve never stopped to take so many screenshots in a game, awe-struck at the varied and picturesque landscapes I find myself in.
Landscapes aren’t the only reason to take screenshots, either. Gameplay can be bizarre, like when I flung a pile of dead AI enemies out of my cargo hold over a mountain range using a tractor beam gun. (I took all their gear.)
Bugs can be entertaining and frustrating at the same time, like when I discovered after being let of out prison that I was missing a head and the vital “mobiGlass” wristband that provides an in-game HUD.
The game’s AI characters are delightfully off-putting. They stand in creepy grids, they stand on chairs silently in common areas, and occasionally end up in strange places.
If you’ve managed to get used to some of the quirks and avoid major bugs for a while, it’s easy to forget you’re playing with alpha software.
There’s a constant threat of bugs, and the recurring certainty of wipe that destroys all your virtual treasures like in-game currency, loot items, and hard-earned ships.
This puts a sharp edge on the time you spend playing.
In the most immediate sense, you could freeze or get stuck in some impossible place and need to restart. You may encounter a more complex bug that requires you to reset your character and progress. Since there’s always a planned wipe coming as development rolls on, there’s no point in getting too attached to anything you’ve purchased in the game.
The only thing that’s consistently yours is what you’ve paid real money for. I bought a starter ship for $45 that grants access to the game. Plenty of fans and longtime supporters have spent more than $1,000 on these pledge ships.
The looming promise of conflict adds a tension that’s fundamentally shaped my experience with the game. It’s forced me to treat everything as though it’s temporary, to live in the moment and remember to enjoy what I’m doing because that’s the only reason to bother. The grind is only temporary and short-lived.
Isn’t that the point of a game? Shouldn’t it be about fun and not taking things too seriously, to enjoy each moment you spend with it? It’s possible that you might fail in repeated attempts to do some straightforward thing, but it’s also possible to spend hours having a blast with strangers. I keep logging on because it can be really good in unexpected ways, even if it’s not a gaurantee. If the game ever sheds most of its bugs and stops having wipes, it will lose something existential that I enjoy about it right now. It’s not that I embrace anything buggy with rose-tinted glasses, but that Star Citizen’s universe makes them worth it. There’s something true to life in there.
The people you’re playing and chatting with may vanish with you in a “30k”, which is the shorthand for a server crash named for its accompanying 30,000 error code. You can tell when it’s going to happen because elevators and trains stop running, doors stop opening, ships stop getting delivered to hangars, and things throughout the universe just sort of stop behaving like you’d expect. People cry out in a global chat like it’s Alderaan’s Slack channel when the Death Star floats into town.
Global chat is available for every server, which spans the whole in-game universe and typically has around a hundred people in it1. I’ve been in a decent pile of servers, and generally find strangers to be helpful, generous, and funny. (Being a buggy, famously-unfinished game, a healthy sense of humor seems like a requirement.) It’s refreshingly common to see people go out of their way to help one another, to gift large sums of in-game currency just being nice, and to help new people get their bearings in an already-complex game further challenged by bugs ranging from expected to exquisitely rare.
A common greeting is “o7”, which is a friendly salute. Picture the “o” a little head with the “7” being a little arm bent up to it.
People aren’t always kind. Some choose to play the game as pirates which, I’ve learned, is not the same thing as jerks or trolls. I went to join somebody for a mission once only to land first and have them destroy me along with my ship just to take a nothing-special gun I had on me. Things like this happen regularly, sometimes with an angry victim lashing out in the global chat. It surprised me at first that others in the server generally defended the scoundrel and advised the victim to relax and keep playing or take a break. Get over it, get revenge, learn from it, whatever. “Everything is a trap until it isn’t,” somebody told me. Big cities and starports are usually armistice zones, where the game doesn’t let you fire handheld or ship weapons. Everywhere else is a free-for-all. The only recourse a victim has is to accept crime charges when prompted (from the hospital bed where they wake up), leaving the perpetrator with a criminal status. The severity of the status may limit the offender’s access to stations and services, and can only be resolved by paying fines, hacking systems in specific places to remove their crime stat, or spending time in prison that they can reduce with prison work.
Not only do I accept this, I appreciate it as another thing that gives the game its edge. Space is big and dangerous, and people are generally kind but some are not. You can make friends you trust and play with them, you can go it alone and save people or kill them and steal their stuff. To limit a certain type of gameplay would take variety out of that world that makes it feel vast and expansive and leads to so many unexpected things. At the end of the day, it’s a game. If you prefer a gentler experience, there’s probably some other game you’ll enjoy more.
I’ve tried just about every kind of gameplay I can, by myself and with others I’ve met randomly in whatever server I joined. I’ve experimented with head tracking to glance around a cockpit moving my head. I got myself a pair of joysticks. It probably won’t end there.
One of the big wipes (3.18) is coming any time now and it’ll be my first. All my credit and collected stuff and game-purchased ships will vanish, back to a zero balance and my humble starter ship.
It’ll be a chance to start again, to test what I’ve learned, and explore whatever new things and new behaviors are added to the ‘verse. (Fans commonly refer to being in “the verse” and I like to imagine everyone’s secretly a poet.)
It’s so big and so detailed I can get lost in it and just have fun. In that way, Star Citizen reminds me of that first season of Westworld that’s electrified by the premise of its main characters entering a detailed world they know is a game. In Star Citizen, the artificial characters are hilariously unconvincing as human beings, and bugs can complicate very simple things. There’s a glimmer of that same magic, the fun of entering an expansive world where you don’t really know what’ll happen.
If you want to take the plunge, definitely use somebody’s referral code2—even a random one—to do someone else a solid and start with more in-game currency. Spend a bit of time getting oriented with YouTube videos. Space Tomato has a staggering amount of fantastic, up-to-date content.