Theaters of War is the new game mode for Star Citizen announced at CitizenCon 2949. We were lucky enough to be among the few to go Hands On with it for a session. So why are they introducing it and how does it fit in the game?
Star Citizen has long had the options for both Arena Commander and Star Marine game modes on the main menu screen - but how many people regularly selected them? Few, we'd guess.
They've essentially acted as "trainers", providing an opportunity to familiarise yourself with the game's controls and basic concepts. Maybe there was a "shop window" effect with Star Marine in that you could see where an on-foot shooter mode might fit in the broader SC world and the audacious ambition of Roberts Space Industries in making one. Yet if that style of shooter is your thing, then are better, dedicated options out there.
So the announcement of Theaters of War at CitizenCon 2949 is an interesting one. If you didn't catch the announcement or just need a recap, here you go:
- Up to 40 vs 40 player PvP mode
- 30 minute time limit
- 3 distinct stages of combat possible
- Attackers vs Defenders
- Spawn points
- Four different personal loadouts
- Foot combat
- Ground vehicle combat
- Spaceship combat
In effect, as the effervescent Sean Tracy (Cloud Imperium Games' Technical Director of Content) put it at CitizenCon, this "combines all the work we put into Star Marine and Arena Commander". It is the logical offspring of both.
We were lucky enough to play one complete match at CitizenCon with no less than Tracy himself on our team (we won't comment on his K/D ratio or ours for that matter) and, well, we can report it was fun.
Fun in that we got to shoot someone in the face, fun in that we got to control the turret in an Ursa Rover and hammer some cowering infantry players. Fun in that we got shot in the face, and blew ourselves up with our own grenade. Fun in that we hit a ship with a rocket launcher, and fun in that doing so only seemed to annoy the pilot enough to bank his ship to target us. It is really good to see all those assets that already exist in the game being put to use, and being blasted into smithereens.
All this in the Star Citizen world. The one that if you are believer in the game and its goals, you already love.
There is the question of character continuity. Star Citizen is a game in which you play as you - whoever you is in game - and that's one of its attractions. You're not a ship - as you effectively are in Elite or Eve for example. You are embodied. So why the hell are you suddenly fighting on some godforsaken planet with a bunch of other dudes for an objective that likely doesn't fit with the aims or objectives of your character?
Answer? It's a reenactment, like "a Gettysburg reenactment" said Tracy. So the new mode will take incidents from the wider Star Citizen lore and enable players to participate in them. Which is an entirely satisfactory explanation in the name of having fun. And ultimately, that's what Tracy, Richard Tyrer (Lead FPS Systems Designer) and their team are aiming for with this mode - fun.
In the demo, it was the Advocacy versus the Supreme. Cops and Robbers if you like, depicting an historical battle in which the forces of law & order attempted to wrest control of a sprawling, abandoned mining facility in the Nexus System from a bunch of renegades. Tracy's team are imagining they will select particular incidents from "two or three hundred years of lore" in order to set up different fights for us.
As Tracy explained, producing Theaters of War made them think about some "obvious" things.
"It was really obvious that the animations needed to be sped up. I mean, when we're mantling over things, there is just not much of a sense of urgency. It was kind of, you know, climbing over things just taking his time. Also reloads much faster, getting into ships, when you're under fire, getting into a ship can't take 15 seconds, or you're gonna die on your way into the ship."
There was also tuning required for the game's FPS weapons - previously modelling accuracy at different ranges for different types of weapons hadn't been given super careful attention.
We've no doubt there were some frank discussions within the Star Citizen team about the whole idea, and such discussions are entirely productive if you're trying to make the truly exceptional gaming experience that SC is striving to be. "Why should we do this?" "What about work on the central SC game?" and so on.
The fact is, all the game assets were there, so why not use them to give us, the players, some excitement? I've never got to jump in the back of an Ursa Rover in a "real" combat situation, or performed a low-level strafing run in a Drake Buccaneer, with players firing back at me. I have now though. You know what? I liked it.
The mode also brings into full relevance vehicles such as the Anvil Ballista - a dedicated air defence system that the main game currently has little use for.
Theaters of War performs another important function for Star Citizen too. It will provide data. Data on weapons, on armour, on ground vehicles, on space ships. The kind of data you can't model, or even produce in a QA environment. So if something needs nerfed, or tuned up, then the data from real players is there to look at to inform those decisions.
Theaters of War is currently envisaged as providing a quick hit of the Star Citizen world, not a four hour long hauling/piracy/bounty-hunting/whatever deep space immersion session.
"The idea was that we give a 30 minute experience that was chock full of combat right in your face, straight away," as Tracy told it.
The Star Citizen player base is a little older than many games, and generally has more time commitments (we have to work hard to afford our nice rigs right?). So being able to grab an hour, or even 30 minutes of an evening and ending that session with a feeling you've done something in SC would provide a certain level of satisfaction.
Currently scheduled for release in "early 2020", Theaters of War still requires some work. Star Citizen's general impending netcode update is vital for a start but there are also some mode specific tasks - matchmaking, for example, should allow you to easily make a squad with friends. A chat channel is required for proper smack talk too. Or just to ask that moron in a speeding Ursa to pick his under-fire infantry up.
"I'm pretty happy with it now," said Tracy. "One of the things that I tried really really hard to do here was to take fun first. I mean, as you guys know we love our visuals. We can make beautiful things. Let's make it fun first and then make it beautiful right?"