Chris Roberts is back, and he’s bringing space with him. After half a decade as a film executive, the Wing Commander creator has assembled a small team of contract developers, including several ex-collegues from Digital Anvil and Origin, and has built the foundations of a persistent online multiplayer space game. Set in the year 2942, it’s a tale of Earth defending its galactic empire from barbarian-like aliens massing on the borders, while another power emerges on the eastern edge of the star system. In other words, it’s the decline of the Roman empire, but in space.
Within this set-up, players can chose to become merchants, pirates, bounty hunters, explorers or fighter pilots, earning credits and levelling up to buy flashy new equipment. There’s no subscription fee; instead, players buy the game (or in the fiction of the experience, they reserve a spacecraft) and then purchase virtual goods – or they don’t. Everything can be bought with an in-game currency earned through completing missions; it’s not pay to win, it’s pay to hyperspace though the upgrades.
Built into the multiplayer universe is a separate singleplayer campaign mode named Squadron 42 in which players carry out a military career on the borders of the empire. This can be played offline, but if you maintain an online connection friends are able to jump in and act as your wingmen, earning themselves credits in the process. Fans will also be able to run their own servers featuring star systems that they’re free to mod – although these will be separate from the wider, persistent universe of the game itself.
Although Roberts is only showing technical demos at the moment, the visual fidelity is astonishing. Running on a PC with a GTX 670 graphics card, we see gigantic, kilometre-long carriers, their exteriors constructed from seven million polygons. Player craft feature over 200 parts, with over 60 animated sections that all make sense, that all have a purpose. The handling model is based around Newtonian physics. “There’s a rigid body, it has mass and it has maneuvering thrusters, that articulate and generate force,” says Roberts. “The maneuverability is completely down to the weight of the craft and power and articulation of the thrusters. In combat, if you’re hit in a back thruster the handling will be different – there’s a lot of fallout.”
The developer will generate missions on a regular basis, but the plan is that players will also be able to offer each other jobs, such as tracking down and eliminating an enemy. Importantly, victory in PvP combat will not simply be decided by which player has the more powerful craft or higher ranking.
“It’s skill-driven,” says Roberts. “If you’ve upgraded your craft you’ll have some level of advantage, but you don’t necessarily win – there are downsides to having a big tank of a spaceship because of how we’re running the flight model and the physics. If you buy bigger thrusters, you’ll need more power, so that means a bigger reactor, which will weigh more. So someone could build a light, nimble fighter and if they’re a good pilot they can avoid you. Sure, one hit from your super tank will destroy them, but maybe you can’t move fast enough to engage them.”
It’s a hugely ambitious and open-ended endeavour – a fact Roberts readily recognises. “Essentially, what I’m aiming to do is take Wing Commander, Privateer and Freelancer and put it all into one consistent universe,” he says. “I wanted a universe that has a lot of possibilities, a lot of geopolitical conflict, but also a military campaign where you’re fighting on the frontlines”. This is, pretty much, the fantasy he shares with the ardent fans of those titles, who even now run their own modded Freelancer servers almost a decade after the game’s release. If Roberts builds this universe, they’ll come. Space is open again.