There are more video games at this year's Electronic Entertainment Expo than you could shake a stick at, but one game we chose to spend time with was NetDevil's Jumpgate Evolution, the long-in-development massively multiplayer online game that focuses on space flight and combat. And not much more, these days. Previously, Evolution was billed as being a broad, all-in-one sort of game in the grand tradition of such computer-game classics as Elite and Privateer. These were games that would let you not only get into spectacular deep-space dogfights, but would also reward you for exploration, trading and economic strategy, and in-depth ship customization.
While we're told that all that exploration and trading stuff will be in the game to "some extent," the latest version of Evolution shown at E3 strongly emphasizes space combat. NetDevil staffers explain that the change in direction was made to give the game focus; rather than attempt to be an updated, modern version of Elite, Evolution will instead be more about the story of its three factions--the corporate Solrain, the honorable Quantar, and the imperialistic Octavius--and how each of the three morally ambiguous factions is, in no uncertain terms, at war with each other. It's also about how you, as one of the elite pilots belonging to one of the three factions, must seek out and destroy all enemies of your cause.
Before playing the game ourselves, we watched a brief demonstration that included a mission to cripple an enemy space station guarded by numerous enemy fighter ships. While Evolution's space vistas have always looked appropriately vast and colorful each time we've seen it, the starscape in this demo was much more densely packed with planets, space stations, star systems, and other landmarks, which made the quadrant seem a lot more populated. NetDevil staffers explained that this change is not an accident. While you'll still see hundreds of computer-controlled fighter ships in any given sector--often fighting with each other if no other players are around--the game's different playfields have not shrunk in size from the previous iteration. "The space is simply being better utilized," with more interesting targets of opportunity and more interesting scenery.
And just before playing ourselves, we watched the brief introductory video for the Octavius faction, which includes a rousing speech by the current emperor played behind a montage of Octavian war factories assembling missiles and miniguns to attach to fighter ships, followed by each of these fighters launching into deep space with a lusty battle cry. We're told that this cinematic sequence will be shown to new players, and within seconds, they'll be out in the world, ready to fight for their faction without having to do some kind of boring tutorial. We're also told that although the game will absolutely support competitive player-versus-player combat, players won't be steered toward competition until they get some experience under their belts and end up at about level 10.
In addition, while the game's PVP zones will be faction-versus-faction-versus-faction battlegrounds where any player may attack any other player of an opposing faction, they will all require you to opt in, instead of forcing you to experience the joys of getting ganked (killed suddenly and unexpectedly by higher-level players you couldn't have defeated anyway). However, there will also be plenty of player-versus-environment content, as well as quests that focus more on broader objectives, such as capturing key landmarks or zones, rather than requiring players to kill X number of bad guys. As a result, NetDevil hopes that characters of very different level ranges will still be able to effectively work together, even if they can't always fight side-by-side in battle.
We then jumped into a session with an Octavian character just starting out and were immediately tasked with rescuing the inhabitants of a besieged space station by first killing off the attackers in dogfights and then flying up to an emergency vent and "interacting" with them by pressing the "O" key to rescue the civvies. Our dogfights were simple enough to win--we used the W, A, S, and D keys on our keyboard to steer our ship (plus the Q and E keys to barrel roll to either side) and our left mouse button to fire the main cannon. The handling in the Octavian starter ship is, as you might expect, extremely forgiving. We're told that the game will still, like in its previous version, support both lenient physics models and a more realistic model that can be toggled on and off as before. (The game will also still support the impressive triple-monitor setup from last year's E3, as well as the full array of flightstick controllers we saw last year). And because the game models actual ballistics for fired shots, you don't need to actually lock on exactly to your target to score hits (it actually helps if you lead them a bit). This is because your success in combat will ultimately come from how good your steering, aim, and reflexes are--none of the variables in battle are controlled by hidden dice rolls as they are in so many other online games.
We have to admit, we're more than a little surprised to see this change in focus for Jumpgate Evolution, but it's possible that the change will ultimately help the final product. The game currently has a working release date that the team has recorded internally but is not divulging publicly...so it'll launch when it launches.