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Star Citizen General Article: Dog Fight Module Examined

By Red Thomas on June 07, 2014

Like many of you, I’ve been itching to try out the new DFM ever since Chris Roberts announced that it would be one of the earlier modules released for the new game he’s building. I wanted to play it so much that several weeks ago, I took off work, bought a bunch of pastries from a very fancy local bakery, and made my way up to Austin in an attempt to abuse my press credentials and log a little flight time. The press credentials didn’t do me much good, but the minor bit of social engineering did. ( FYI, CIG’s media relations guy is a sucker for fig and goat cheese macaroons. )

No sooner does the afore-mentioned gentleman’s eyes glaze over in sugared delight than I suddenly hear a chorus of consternation from the bull-pit where CIG has all their hot-shot programmers hard at work. My excitement was dashed across the rocks of new bugs and three-hour compile times. I tell you all this because I want you to understand just how pumped I’ve been about playing the DFM. Well, it’s finally out, and now I get to tell you what I think about it, and what it might say about the future of Star Citizen.

An Awkward Start

The initial experience wasn’t one to inspire confidence, as I immediately had a bug that prevented me from patching my hanger load up to the new version with dogfighting. In my emotionally compromised state, I nearly lost a keyboard to my short-lived explosion of rage. Hey, I’ve been waiting and periodically teased with this for months. A delay on the cusp of actually logging in was… well, there’s a term for it not used in polite company.

I deleted my files, re-downloaded the installer, and tried patching again. This time it worked and I was in! Of course the first thing I did was head straight to my Anvil Hornet, fumble around trying to find the blasted ladder, and finally jumped into the padded leather seat. Then I sat there for a minute waiting for the ride to begin, which of course it didn’t. It’s because in my eagerness I’d sprinted right past the new helmet, CIG’s admittedly cool way of granting qualifying backers access to the DFM.

The shield effects are very nice, and I can’t wait to see what they do on larger scale ships.

After running to snag the helmet and back to my Hornet, sans the mystical where’s-the-ladder dance, I climbed in and watched in wonder as the Arena Commander software booted up before my eyes. I just took the default map and jumped right in, where I found nothing to shoot at because once again in my excitement, I’d missed an important step. The default option when you get into the Arena Commander mode is to fly around freely. I quit and loaded again, this time choosing the Vanduul Swarm option.

Up to this point, this has been an awkward experience. I mean, first time rounding third-base with someone you’ve had the hots for kind of awkward. All the waiting, and the “almosts,” and the fumbling over yourself and everything else because you think it’s finally going to happen… and cue Katy Perry.

Rough, But Has Some Fireworks

If you were to look at this just as a space sim in a pre-alpha state, you’d have to admit that this game has some potential, but it’s really rough at the moment. Though, the part that really makes my eyes gloss over some of the rougher edges, is the fact that we’re looking at the bones of what will become an MMO. That’s not to say CIG hasn’t done some seriously sexy space sim work in this pass. The effect of weapons fire on shields looks very nice, indeed. I’m incredibly excited to see how that effect plays with some of the larger freighters and capital ships.

One of my favorite parts is the GUI, though. It seems like an odd thing to be excited about, but I think there was a lot of thought put into expressing as much information as possible in the simplest GUI they could manage. There are a few bits of artistic license taken, but the radar screen is probably one of the best concepts of 3D representations I’ve seen. It combines elements I recognize vaguely from past games, but I don’t know of anyone else who’s done this well at combining them into something useful that also looks as good.

The work on damage modeling is looking really nice.

Another impressive component I noted was debris. When a ship is disabled, it doesn’t disappear right away, and you do take damage from running into things. I found that out the hard way when I sawed the wing off a Vanduul fighter, only to fly through the cockpit and take myself out. That’s going to make for some interesting PvP later on, I think.

This first pass at the dogfighting module has definitely added some great stuff to the game, and I think there’s a lot of hard work in it that shows. That’s not so say there aren’t bugs, though. There are definitely bugs. Just getting into the game was an issue for me. I’ve had a couple loading issues once the gamed launched, and that was after the launcher failed to update correctly twice. The thing is, that doesn’t really bother me much. I’ve actually done a bit of programming over the years, and I know you just have to expect these problems until you get to the final polishing stage of development. You’ll have them right up to the very end, because each bit of new code is going to break something you didn’t expect.

Sophisticated Clues

Something that doesn’t stand out immediately when playing around in Arena Commander is how much work has gone into the DFM over the last six months. There have been some seriously cool features implemented, and I think hint at even cooler things down the road.

First is the UI. The radar as I mentioned earlier is spectacular, and the damage displays in the HUD are beyond cool. It really shows the level of effort they’re putting into the component-level modeling of this game. You can see reflections of your shots hitting targeted hostiles as you connect on your shots.

Context menus for weapons, power, and shields hint at complexities that haven’t been fully developed yet.

The target handling component is pretty dang fantastic as well. Using something called a Docking Slot Manager (DSM), you can track multiple targets at once by scanning them, and then hitting G to lock them in as a target. From my X-Wing vs TIE Fighter days, I can tell you that’s a pretty major improvement in a hot fight over the old system of tracking a single target at a time. I can see it being particularly useful once capital ships are in the game.

One of the lesser noticeable victories, and probably the most important, of the currently implemented features is the power and shield distribution menus and the weapons management menus. There have been comments made about how more complex versions of these same systems might make the capital ship experiences significantly different than what we see here. Even the smaller ships are said to have much more complex systems than the current implementation in the works.

The unsung hero of the release might be the sound track, though. We’re finally hearing some of the score that will be in the eventual game, and the brassy calls of the French horn with military drums manages its own form of sensationalist messaging. The looping piece on the launcher menu just leaves you begging for more, so hopefully they’ll throw us music-lovers another bone soon.

Pass or Fail?

If this module had released in December as it was supposed to, I would say it was an overwhelming success. Six months late and minus multiplayer, it’s a little harder to call it the huge win it might have been. Much of that is CIG’s fault, though. I’m not knocking the module for its bugs because I expected even worse for a game this early in the development cycle.

I’m knocking the DFM a bit because I don’t think it lives up to the expectations a lot of fans had, and at least in part with some justification after a prolonged delay. Frankly, I don’t have a problem with CIG taking the extra months, and I think the quality of what we have in front of us shows it was well spent. I worry that it might not sit as well with fans, though.

I think that CIG could have done a little better job managing fan expectations. They started doing a great job of it over the last week by being frank with the problems they were having and letting the community know as they solved them. This is what CIG should be doing on a much more consistent basis.

Launching minus the multiplayer after a longish delay because you needed more work on the multiplayer is sort of a tough shot for the game. If you dismiss that, the DFM really does give me a lot to be encouraged about, though. There are cool systems partly implemented, the HUD was really smartly done and looks great for the initial pass released to the public, and there are some incredible effects thrown in for good measure.

So yeah, I’d say the dogfight module passes muster, but there are still some pretty major holes that need filled in a much expedited manner. Multiplayer needs to be in quickly, and that’s probably the main thing. DFM wasn’t quite the big win I’d been expecting, mostly I think due to slightly exaggerated player-expectations. Those are things CIG should have no trouble targeting, though. So in the words of Eric Peterson, “I’ll see you in the ‘verse [eventually]!”

Red Thomas / A veteran of the US Army, raging geek, and avid gamer, Red Thomas is that cool uncle all the kids in the family like to spend their summers with. Red lives in San Antonio with his wife where he runs his company and works with the city government to promote geek culture. Follow him on Twitter as: @RedThomas_

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