Star Citizen's CitizenCon 2948 in Austin, Texas, brought lovers of the under-development and crowd funded space game some real treats and even the most cynical watcher would find it hard to fault Cloud Imperium Games' vaulting ambition.
CitizenCon 2948 has brought something committed fans, backers and sceptics can all agree was good. A real gameplay demonstration of a new planetary surface multiplayer mission that those who have the unfinished blockbuster title will be able to enjoy before the end of the year. Or so we're told.
And that's not all - an entire planet is scheduled, with a new city - both playable in part at least.
This was a 3.3 Alpha demo - which could be released as early as Thursday this week. A number of elements shown won't be with players until 3.35, due by the end of the year, or within a month, depending on who you believe.
It wouldn't be a Star Citizen event of course without a technical hitch or two or three, and sure enough, as a demonstration team attempted to log in to show off the new multiplayer mission, things went wrong and an awkward pause ensued in front of the live audience, as well as us stream watchers.
"Shouldn't we have queued this up before?" asked game mastermind Chris Roberts of Design Director Todd Papy as they stood rather exposed on stage. Quite.
Then the mission started and the game crashed. "We haven't seen this error before," said Roberts, glancing at a monitor. Even in giving bad news the man has nervous energy, we'll give him that.
Right, that's enough of the bad - what about the good? Let's set the AltChar stall out quickly first. At least two members of the team - myself included - have backed the game. Mostly because we like insane ideas, and it's an insane idea - one that might just work.
However, more than two years after we laid our money down, logging into Star Citizen every two months or so doesn't give more than an hour of enjoyment at best. And for us, it's not enough.
It has remained a demo of a game that might one day be. In the meantime, Roberts Space Industries have continued to pump out wonderful space ships for backers to buy - many at steep, steep prices. All the time without anywhere interesting to fly them, or much to do in the game.
So what we saw from the CitizenCon opening show did give us hope.
We saw the player character awake in a new style habitation pod, more detailed and realistic. "These will be customisable and upgradable in the longer term," said Roberts. He says "longer term" a lot and you can almost hear his developers sigh.
The character picked up a cup of fresh coffee - and inspected it before drinking. The animation was good, splendid even. Then we got a walk around the space port of Leavsden, in the new city of Lorville. Now this was excellent stuff, it's a dirty, dusty future depicted here, probably giving Cyberpunk 2077 a run for the money, at least in terms of look and feel.
A bar in the port was rough, grubby. "We've got ice cube simulation!" Roberts shouted as the player bought a drink. Mean looking security guards patrolled the streets, and they didn't tolerate loitering or personal scrutiny. This is all set on the "company owned planet" of Hurston, with the city of Lorville itself dominated by the massive structure of the Hurston Dynamics building - a company seemingly set on mining the entire place into dust.
The scale of the building was immense, as we later saw a ship fly close by it; moreover the entire city of Lorville "is about the same size as Austin itself" in scaled terms, Roberts told the audience. We were thinking "yes, but when do we get to play in it?" I'm sure we weren't alone.
We also had another glimpse of the game's FOIP system - Face Over Internet Protocol. This is designed to capture your actual facial movements via webcam and stream them onto your character. In this instance it was used when looking at a another player character we'd called up in game on the communication system. A video call, if you like. It did look a bit weird at this stage of development, we have to say. If fully implemented however, it will be a unique selling point for the game, and great for content creators. Until everyone else has it.
Then we saw the city's transit system - futuristic, heavy looking trains. A completely usable system too - complete with arrival and departure message boards, and screens to prevent track suicide attempts - or embarrassed respawns. It was mighty impressive, with the detailing of the station the player boarded at feeling just perfect.
Cloud Imperium Games
So we saw the train journey through Lorville - "commuter citizen!" exclaimed the irrepressible Roberts - finally jumping off to meet a shady NPC with some good voice acting and picking up a mission to illegally retrieve a top secret prototype thing from a crashed satellite several hundred kilometres outside the city boundaries. Boundaries which, by the way, feature a shanty town of those excluded from Lorville itself. Details.
Then we were on to the mission, flying across the surface of Hurston - a pretty chewed up looking planet by and large, with Todd Papy told us, "desert, savannah and a polluted coastline." You could see some of the strip mining damage inflicted by the company as we flew over. Again, impressive.
Landing in said savannah - "fauna and weather in the longer term" said Roberts, and the devs sighed - the first clue in the mission was picked up from the crash site, and some new character climbing movement demonstrated. Much work remains in this regard, but the picking up and discarding of objects is well done.
In the second part of the mission, a good FPS firefight broke out in the open with some bad guys - we assume other players - and our guy was rescued by his player character mates rocking up in a big new gun/drop ship called an Anvil Valkyrie. This was the highlight of the stream, as we flew low over the planet, with players manning the Valkyrie's two top and bottom turrets and door guns - one on each side. It all looked very Vietnam-esque.
Cloud Imperium Games
Finally after the player character dropped out of the the drop ship, we came to a firefight in an underground complex. From that we can report that hit animations are good, gun reload animations equally so. The lighting is also excellent. The whole thing concluded with the player getting a substantial cash reward for completing the mission and going off to buy a new spaceship in Lorville - at a spaceship dealer of course. Who also had a massive new Kraken carrier vessel in stock, drawing gasps from the audience.
So, what's to say in conclusion? There wasn't much in the way of space flight shown - and you know how much the Star Citizen fanbase loves their space ships. However, this was actual gameplay, not the massive city or planetary exploration seen at previous CitizenCons - only not to actually materialise to play.
And that's the test, if we can play some of what we saw from Austin before the year's end, we'll be satisfied. Still sceptical, but satisfied. Chris Roberts' and his team of 500 are showing us ambition, and more than a little brilliance. But it's all for nothing if all of us are too old to enjoy the damned game when it appears in 2035.