From my somewhat limited experience in JGE, it seems that the space environments you can fly around and navigate to are essentially the exciting parts of each planet system; when you jump into any system, you are transported to the part that has the stations, anomalies, asteroids and all the other ships in it. When you want to move to another system, you do so via jumpgates (as the name suggests). I tried flying away from the general area using just normal engines, but I turned around when I realised that wasn’t the way to get about. You see, all space games have a really big hurdle to overcome and that is this: space is huge. Getting about space in any realistically simulated way would be mind-numbingly boring. Hence, game developers have condensed the experience into more palatable chunks using various virtual techniques, like warping, and Jumpgate Evolution is no different – It was even named after one of those techniques!
While in each system, you have a normal thrust engine and a boost engine. The boost engine I used would take me from one point of interest to another in real time and my ship covered about 30,000 clicks in about 30 seconds. Once I was in the vicinity, I disengage the booster and flew around using normal engine speed which, for me, had a top speed of around 200 clicks per second. This system makes the pace of general travel around systems just about perfect.
The UI incorporates the usual, but nicely implemented navigation panel, which shows a summary of points of interest against different categories, such as enemy ships, navigation points and stations. You can filter the list by expanding or collapsing each category. There is also the very familiar radar tracking windows, which I am pretty sure we first saw in Acornsoft's Elite, back in 1984 - although this one has a lot more detail to view. There is also a chat window and a mission window. Many of the various UI elements may be moved and resized to suit. All of these UI elements should be pretty familiar to anyone who has played MMOs, or indeed many other game formats.
In all, the flight experience is exceptionally well implemented. After about an hour, I felt I was flying well. I was able to Newtonian strafe silently across the opening of some enemy station - although I still found myself struggling to regain control whenever I became over-confident. I enjoyed boosting around the systems, checking out whatever was going on. Flying in JGE is also a potentially peaceful experience. In the future, I can see myself playing this game just to chill out and relax. I played at 1920x1200 video resolution, and I could make out the tiniest flecks of laser fire at seemingly enormous distances, and then sail over to them. I used the word “sail” without thinking, but that is what it feels like; flying in JGE feels a like sailing across a big 3D ocean.
Don’t get me wrong though, this is not for the faint of heart (unless all you want to do is sail of course). One of the other big differences between JGE and other space MMOs, and indeed most MMOs, is that it has a twitch-based combat system at its heart. This is no small feat when you’re delivering a strong performance for several thousand people across a network that you do not control and the use of which contends with the other hundreds of millions of folk on the Internet. In the past, that fact alone has been the bane of many MMO developers and has led ultimately to the dreaded ‘Global Cooldown’ in several MMO’s. Well, JGE has no Global Cooldown! It is quite brave of NetDevil to contemplate a twitch-based combat MMO. I cannot, of course, comment on how well this will pan out in a full blown and fully populated game environment, but network performance, thus far, has been perfect.
I think I’m a pretty good gamer, with reflexes for which most 40-something gamers would kill, but I was left aghast by the Artificial Intelligence (AI) of some of these ships. If you’re like me, you will have flown many dog-fights trying to get that edge on your opponent, knowing full well that your turning circles are pretty similar. The NPC’s AI in JGE gave me at least as good a run for my money as any real human in PvP. I probably lost as many fights as I won, and in some of those fights, I have no idea what happened – I’d be coasting, taking out ship after ship, and then suddenly my shield would drop like a stone, and the next thing I knew I’d be back at the station, opening up my wallet to the repairman once more. It is failures executed like this that make me want to fly out there again and improve - to find out why I died and how I was beaten – to determine what I can do to win next time. There is no mistaking that the combat in JGE is where NetDevil has spent most of their time, resources and effort. It is a super slick experience that feels ready for the shelves. I like the low impact loss-management that JGE employs when you’ve lost a fight; it feels more like a game that is here for my enjoyment rather than a grind or chore to rebuild in order to fly again.
I had a small chance to try out PvP, and it was pretty stunning. The action was very fast and furious, accurate and tactical. I found myself physically straining as I willed my tiny ship to turn around an obstacle just a little bit faster, and get that missile targeting reticule to lock just a tiny bit quicker. I was reminded of watching my mum playing Mario-cart in the 90’s - almost off my chair with the effort. It’s been years since I’ve reacted to a game in this way.
When you’re not fighting or flying around, you’ll be docked at a station. The station UI is pretty slick and self explanatory. While both in flight and docked, the bottom/centre of the screen gives you the main game options, but when you’re docked, you can look at ship hangars and equipment, or browse the markets. In JGE, your inventory is not tied to the station at which you dropped-off the equipment (thanks NetDevil). Stations are where you will meet with mission NPCs and repair any damage that occurred on your last foray.
Interesting Quest Dynamics
So there I am, docked at my station after having found this weird glowing giant red jumpgate-type thing in space, when I noticed I had received an in-game email. “How sweet,” I thought, “a missive of thanks from NetDevil for playing the game.” However, upon reading the message, I was met with an extremely threatening and somewhat disturbing letter from some dude I’d never heard of before, who’d learned of my discovery of the aforementioned red anomaly and started to threaten me. I found this use of in-game email from an NPC directly to me to be an extraordinarily simple, but yet very astute and effective idea for advancing the plot. From that point forward, I paid attention to the mission text and wanted to go back and re-start the game. I found the plot and main story arc very compelling. I wanted to get out there and find out what was really going on.
The last element I want to touch upon is the graphics. Those who have read my articles in the past will know that I love my graphics. Not just design, but also using technology to render a universe that is beautiful, appropriately realistic, and overall immersive. Immersion is my holy grail. When I fire up a game I want to be in there. When I stop playing, I want to wonder where all the time has gone. Nothing helps to immerse me more than graphics do. My expectations are pretty high. Put simply, JGE is beautiful. I’d seen several videos which, in hindsight, I don’t think did the game’s graphics justice. I think what I was most impressed with is the performance of the engine and the implementation of the sense of motion. I have no idea what sort of Frames Per Second (FPS) I was getting, but playing was a superlatively smooth experience. I heard that NetDevil hoped to make JGE work on older machines, and I can well believe it. I am playing on computer which was built last spring - it is a year old and was not cutting edge then. There were no settings that I could have turned up any higher, including full anti-aliasing, and the game play stayed ultra-smooth throughout.
I noted a few graphical glitches that still need to be ironed out, but nothing that spoiled my overall experience - and I think I need to be realistic here. The game is not even in closed beta yet, and I have seen MMOs on-the-shelves with more bugs than JGE has in Friends & Family testing phase.
I started writing this preview with the intention of avoiding too many Eve Online comparisons, but as the last week has progressed, I have realized again and again how much this game reminds me of another great MMO, albeit one in a different genre – Dark Age of Camelot. I know what you’re thinking, “goblins and dragons over spaceship and lasers,” but stay with me. There are not many MMOs that deliver a three-sided conflict - and three opponents is a vastly different dynamic than just two. That alone is enough to identify that JGE and DaoC share a similar pedigree. DaoC did a lot of things well, but what it really did best was combat mechanics. Never has a game incited more players to become involved in the ‘min-maxing’ and templating side-game than has DaoC - every last point of statistic x counted, and tactics, guile and combat strategy counted too. In this, I think JGE will be very similar. When I look at the equipment and guns on the load-out of my ship, I am reminded even more so than with other space MMOs how directly related they are to the suit of armour and sword on my Guardian. Although subtle, there is a third aspect in which JGE feels very similar to DaoC. This is the means of switching between mouse-cursor and ship movement modes by using the centre wheel, similar to the way DAOC implemented avatar navigation. I found myself naturally laying out the equivalent functions, like target nearest and next enemy, and fire/attack, in the same way on my keyboard as I had when I played DAOC. Although the similarities exist, JGE is a unique experience of its own. NetDevil has tipped their hat to some of the best ideas in the industry.
Jumpgate Evolution is a space combat game in all its glory. If I had to level any criticism, it would be in this one area: in my opinion, and without having had the chance to try out the other game dynamics to any real extent, you’ll need to be a fan of space flight and combat to get the most out of Jumpgate Evolution. The game does plenty of other stuff for sure; mining seemed like it could be fun, manufacturing also, and as you can see I really enjoyed the quests and story arc. But the nub of this game - the real heart that will keep yours beating throughout the entire experience - is space flight and combat.
I came to JGE not expecting to enjoy it immensely. The videos I’ve seen gave the impression that it might have been too arcade-like for my taste. It took me thirty minutes of hands-on to work out that this was far from the truth. JGE is a serious space combat game that is seriously fun. If, like me, you’ve been waiting for a space game wherein you can zoom around the galaxy and participate in intense dog fights against your deadly nemesis, then Jumpgate Evolution is for you.
Big ‘Thanks’ to Wolphard and Elovia of the Flaming Pie Squad for their support in putting this article together.