Before I delve too deeply into this preview, I want to mention the following: a lot of folks will compare JGE to EVE Online (EVE); this is natural since they are both space flight Massively Multiplayer Online Games (MMOs), and space flight remains a largely underexploited topic for contemporary MMOs. EVE is a very popular and polished game that I played for nearly a year. Although it may annoy some folks, it is natural to draw comparisons when discussing subjective things. It helps one person relate to the opinions of another. After saying that, my first opinion is that it is very clear NetDevil did not build an EVE clone. I think it is also important to note that JGC existed a long time before Eve, and JGE is the natural progression of JGC. Eve is a space commerce simulator; JGE is a space combat game. From my experience, Eve was not about the flying; it was about commerce and industry, corporation building, and mining. Eve required a bit of flying to get around, most of which involved a great deal of clicking in space, and a bit of space combat which also had great dollops of clicking in space. In my opinion, Jumpgate Evolution is the exact opposite of Eve.
Jumpgate Evolution is a space flight combat game with elements of commerce, crafting, and mining. The primary focus of JGE is combat, and it is here where the game is slickest and really comes to life. The universe, as far as JGE is concerned, is made up of several Non-Player Controlled (NPC) enemy races and three playable Nations: Quantar, Solrain, and Octavian. I won't go into too much detail here, as most of this can be found on Wikipedia. Each of these three playable Nations has their own conflict and strife with one another, similar to the tripartite realm relationship found in Dark Age of Camelot (DAOC) by Mythic Entertainment. For me, this feature has the biggest potential to make this game a real winner; playing three sides off against one another, if balanced correctly, can lead to superb Player versus Player (PvP) and Realm versus Realm (RvR) or, in the case of Jumpgate Evolution, Nation versus Nation.
NetDevil has overcome balance issues, especially those that plagued DaoC from beginning to end, by using a different and to my way of thinking very interesting way of skilling-up players. Essentially, players earn experience to buy licenses by accomplishing tasks that then allow them to do other, bigger and better tasks. For example, mine a simple asteroid to gain experience that will allow the player to mine bigger 'roids, or successfully fly a certain type of ship in order to fly bigger and faster ships. There are no restrictions by class, in fact, there are no preset classes -The player decides what to become and becomes better at it by doing more of it- Sounds simple, doesn't it? Skills are not restricted by Nation. Members of each Nation have the ability to skill up, or license, any skill they choose. In this way, each Nations' population will invariably end up with a concoction of skills and skill levels that will not hold dominion over the other Nations simply through poorly developed code - as should always be the case.
The player starts by creating a character and choosing from one of the three Nations to play. From my initial play, it appears that some of character creation is still under development, so I won't elaborate for now. I can state that I was very impressed with the quality of my avatar and would have no issue staring at her for the rest of my playing career.
Once created, the player starts the game being led through a field of debris from a station that was recently destroyed. The narration at this point hints that a big mystery needs solving, and no-one knows how or why the station was destroyed. At this point, I need to field a small confession. When I first started, I was very keen to start flying and had no idea how long I'd have to play, so I didn't pay attention to the mission text and voiceover. In hindsight, I really wish I had.
Another unusual thing about the start of JGE is that the very first time the player is in control of the game they are flying a ship that is leaving a station. This felt to me as though I'd been thrown in the deep end after eating a heavy meal and I was in serious danger of drowning; the result had me scrabbling around the mouse and the keyboard, and spluttering soda about my desk. In hindsight, it was perhaps the best introduction I could imagine. Previously, I had a small stint flying with JGC and had discussed the concepts of Newtonian flight with my Squad (read as "Guild", or "Corp"). I was shaky at first. However, I now know that you have the option of choosing how much reality in which you want to fly. You can disable the dampeners and fly around just like a Viper in Battlestar Galactica if you wish.
Newtonian Physics: It took me a while to get my head around the whole Newtonian thing. But the easiest way I can describe it to you is: if you are flying in one direction and attempt to turn your ship around, you will just be flying in the same direction as you were before, but looking the opposite direction. Thrusting in any direction, keeps you moving in the direction of thrust until you thrust in another direction, regardless of where you decide to point your ship. So just like in BSG, you can spin a full 180 and fire at the ship 'on your 6', while maintaining the same heading.
So, in all, this went really well. I had learned more about flying in JGE in five minutes than I had in about two hours on JGC. I have also had (everything crossed) a 100% success rate in docking the ship. Yup, docking is not done on an auto-pilot. You have to fly into the station yourself, adjusting to a projected approach path and using your own skill as a pilot. Saying that, JGE doesn't care about roll or pitch of your ship, just as long as you have entered the approach path on a more or less straight line, your ship will be accepted once within the bay doors and parking is then automated. By the way, I think I invented some pretty funky approach vectors last week, and I can pretty much guarantee that, at least once, you will say to yourself "I have no idea how I made that, but I did".
Flight is achieved in two modes, which you can alternate between using the default center mouse button. Although it took a little getting used to, I find I can switch in and out of modes very effectively. The main mode uses the mouse to control the direction the ship is pointing (as opposed to travelling - please see Newtonian blurb above) and for firing and free-targeting. However, if you have dampeners engaged, moving the ship around with the mouse will also alter your direction of travel, much like a classic arcade ship controller would. Changing modes with the centre mouse key puts you in a straight flight path and gives you a traditional mouse cursor that you can use to work on the various UI menus that surround the main screen. You do not have free-look when in either mode, so looking around the ship (for instance, behind you) is achieved by selecting a different camera view, using the numerical keypad. Or, of course, you may execute a Newtonian 180, which would probably be considered overkill.
Here I would like to make a prediction: I predict that anyone who plays seriously, will play with the dampeners off. Once you've had a chance to fly around and shoot stuff you will see that you just don't have the same level of control whilst dampened, even though it's far simpler in general flight. This is probably a very fair trade-off.
Flight can be in the default third-person, where the camera is behind and either above or below your ship depending on whether you are diving or climbing, or you can fly in first person, where the camera is effectively looking out from within the cockpit. The game plays subtly different for each of these perspectives; first person seems to react a little slower to my mouse than third person does - although this could be my imagination.
Flight is one aspect in which JGE has everything else I've ever played licked (even my beloved Elite and Freelancer). It is without a doubt the best game I've ever played from a space flight perspective. I loved Eve, but that click-on-a-point-in-space-to-fly-there malarkey... That just didn't do it for me. I'm the pilot of a frickin space ship! If I'm the pilot of a space ship, I want to F - L - Y it. This is, of course, helped a lot by technological advances in the intervening years, and why not? It should be!