Depending on how you look at it, the history of 'crowd funded space-sim passion project turned industry defying development landmark' Star Citizen stretches back to either 2012, or much further into the past, to the golden age of the genre.
Here we are, almost a decade after the title was announced, and the crowdfunding continues. Amid all the news, the announced features the playable modules and the various controversies, one question stands out - is Star Citizen worth backing in 2021?
This is a complex question that needs examining from multiple angles, as a whole lot of context accumulated over the past nine years that may influence the decisions of prospective pilots.
While Cloud Imperium Games has made trying out the game itself easier over the past few years, the different methods of buying in have become highly complicated too. What would your money be buying, actually, and what are the benefits of pledging now as opposed to waiting until release?
What is Star Citizen?
It's usually a good idea to know what you're buying before dropping the cash, and while we assume anyone reading this will have cursory knowledge of Star Citizen, here's a primer.
Star Citizen will be a massive persistent first-person/third-person space simulator/shooter/RPG/MMO acting as the spiritual successor of 2003's Freelancer, a much more humble and less ambitious title, while carrying the classic influences of the legendary Wing Commander series. Star Citizen is the passion project of veteran game developer Chris Roberts, creator of Wing Commander and Freelancer.
Launching alongside, or slightly before, the "persistent universe" MMO portion of Star Citizen will be Squadron 42, a story-driven single player campaign set in the same universe and sharing game mechanics, assets and characters. Squadron 42 is boasting some serious star talent, and will be closer to the original Wing Commander experience.
What Star Citizen is now is a work in progress project which, after 9 years of on-going crowdfunding efforts has amassed a budget of $350 million with no release date in sight. This may be a red flag for some, but various portions of the game are playable for backers - more on this later.
Part of the reason for the development time stretching out this long is "feature creep", a phenomenon that's basically crowdfunding stretch goals without inhibitions. As Cloud Imperium Games kept raking in the millions, the extra budget made adding new features viable, and the developers kept jumping onto the opportunity.
Back in 2012 when Star Citizen was announced, it had a fraction of the current vision's ambition. Essentially it would have been a spiritual successor to Wing Commander, offering a story mode campaign dogfighting simulator possibly with a traditional multiplayer mode.
Currently, we're looking at a scale-recreation of the entire galaxy most of which will be procedurally generated with some key hand-crafted areas; seamless transition from space travel to atmospheric flight to on-foot exploration; dozens of potential in-game occupations; political, mercantile, economic and social features; full-blown on-foot FPS mechanics; multi-crew ships; exploration mechanics; dozens of ships and much, much more.
Player freedom is a driving directive of Star Citizen's design, with the overall vision boiling down to giving players a massive, exciting and mysterious galaxy in which they actually can do anything. Many games throughout the history of the medium have tried to nail this open ended "do whatever you want" dream, but often the technology simply wasn't there, and these games also lacked direction. The plan, at least, is for Star Citizen to avoid these pitfalls.
When will Star Citizen launch?
The three-hundred-million dollar question! Over the years, both Star Citizen and Squadron 42 had tentative release windows which were routinely missed or delayed due to the onset of feature creep as the scope of the project rapidly broadened.
Due to this, Cloud Imperium Games just decided to drop the projected release dates entirely. Right now, we have no clue when either game will be "out", and instead we have a Roadmap, which is a comprehensive inside-look into development progress.
Here fans can keep track of various "deliverables", which are clearly defined development milestones that the people working on Star Citizen have completed, what the current timeline of future deliverables are and what each department is working on. Between the Roadmap and the many, many playable modules of the game, Cloud Imperium Games is doubling down on transparency - partially due to past criticisms about the lack thereof, which resulted in skepticism about whether the budget is actually going into creating the game.
Star Citizen has weathered its share of controversies over the years due to the constant delays and feature creep routinely pushing out the release date. Many critics call it "vaporware" already, or allege that it will never actually be finished and released, with backers throwing money down a drain.
Admittedly, in the early transitional period following the sudden funding boom, Cloud Imperium Games wasn't doing a good job of communicating with backers or setting realistic goals, however recent efforts to make the development process more transparent while giving players more reassurances of progress have paid off. Between the currently playable modes constantly expanding and the public Roadmap, it's clear that progress on the Star Citizen project is barreling forward at speed.
The lack of even a tentative release date does indicate that final release is still a ways out, so if you are considering backing Star Citizen keep in mind that launch won't materialize for a few years, realistically. That said, you can jump into the playable sections of the game right away.
How much does Star Citizen cost?
This is also a bit of a complex question. Currently, players are able to pledge money towards the development of Star Citizen and Squadron 42 in multiple ways, but not all of them buy you access to the game itself.
To "buy" Star Citizen - or, well, pre-order really - right now, you need to purchase one of the many Game Packages available. These are bundles including permanent ownership of a spaceship which you will fly around in-game alongside some currency, a spot in a hangar and ship insurance. These Game Packages buy you eventual access to Star Citizen itself.
The cheapest Game Package options cost $57.15, which is standard for AAA games. This will get you either a Mustang Alpha or an Aurora MR, both of which are single-seater, small starships perfect for new players. You'll also get a hangar slot in the cheapest hangar variant, 1,000 Credits and a 3-month insurance policy on your ship.
Note that this does not include Squadron 42, just Star Citizen - the story campaign is sold separately also for $57.15, and buying that will only get you access to the story mode, not to the persistent universe. If you do want both, there are combined Game Packages for $82.55, which is cheaper than buying each separately.
There are also more expensive Game Packages which include better ships and more goodies. You can buy standalone ships, which may or may not be cheaper than a game package as addons for your account, but you'll only actually be able to fly them if you have access to the game via an eligible pledge.
You can peruse the Pledge Store for myriad ships, packages, add-ons or physical merch.
Is there a Star Citizen demo?
Not exactly, but there are ways to sometimes give the game a try, should you be on the fence about dropping money on the game blind. Cloud Imperium often hosts Free Fly weeks or weekends, when a selection of flight-ready ships can be tried out for free in the various currently playable modules of the game.
This is a good opportunity both for entirely new prospective players to give the game itself a spin and see if this is the sort of thing they're willing to spend on, as well as for existing backers to try out new ships and see if they'd want to buy them as standalones.
How much of Star Citizen is playable?
Quite a bit, actually. While the game is still in Alpha, Cloud Imperium Games has made four distinct "modules" playable already. Three are separate, enclosed modules revolving around a specific type of game activity, alongside the currently playable version of the persistent universe itself, which is the most accurate depiction of what the game will be.
Arena Commander is the current incarnation of what was called the "dogfight module" a while ago. This is a separate module where you get into a ship, fly around and blow up NPCs or other players. This is the original space-sim gameplay model distilled down to a simple form, and possibly the closest snapshot of what the 2012 idea for Star Citizen was that we'll get. It's all about flying spaceships around nebulae, asteroid fields and orbital stations, getting into action-packed shootouts.
The Murray Cup is a racing game mode, where players can pick from a narrower selection of small, nimble single seaters and zip around an atmospheric race course that winds through a futuristic city floating among the clouds.
Star Marine is the on-foot FPS module, offering various typical arena shooter game modes across a selection of maps, allowing you to try out what Star Citizen will play and feel like when you are not flying around in a space ship.
Finally, the Persistent Universe is the real deal, and is constantly being expanded. This is what best reflects both the current state of the game as well as what the goal the developers are working towards is. It incorporates elements from the other modules and includes other features exclusive to it, like seamlessly switching between on-foot exploration and flying. This playable Alpha also features missions, social mechanics, an economy and more.
Keep in mind that any progress made in the persistent universe prior to release will be wiped when the game finally launches completely. Between these four modes, there is a great deal of content already available in Star Citizen, meaning that pledging now is more akin to buying an early-access game as opposed to a pre-order for which you don't get anything until release.
So, is it worth backing?
Obviously, this depends greatly on what kind of a game you want, but assuming you like what Star Citizen is trying to achieve and enjoy space-sims, then the answer to whether the project is worth supporting and whether you can expect to get an entertainment product in return for your money that's worth the cost, the answer is a resounding yes.
While we are way past the Kickstarter days when backing the game was about giving it the chance of being made at all, with $350 Million in funding it's safe to say that Star Citizen will be made whether or not you back it - buying in is no longer an existential question for the project, so waiting for full release is totally viable.
However, there are benefits to being ahead of the curve. Backing Star Citizen now gets you a better price on ships and other in-game items than you'd get after release. With the playable modules, you'll be able to get a familiarity with the game in advance, giving you an advantage over new players when it finally releases. Plus, you know, the playable modules are great games in and of themselves already, so it's an entertainment product worth its price in the current state too.
If you are interested in the project overall, or game development, taking part in such a unique and one-of-a-kind project's evolution and journey from alpha to full release as an active participant is definitely worth the novelty as well.
You can wait for a free fly event, or jump into the game right now - either way, we'll see you around the 'verse.
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