GDC 2009: JumpGate Evolution Updated Hands-On - Flying, Combat, and Flightsticks

SAN FRANCISCO--The 2009 Game Developers Conference continues, and with it, demonstrations of games such as JumpGate Evolution, the upcoming massively multiplayer space dogfighting game from Denver, CO-based NetDevil, creator of the original JumpGate from 2001. JumpGate Evolution will be, according...


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SAN FRANCISCO--The 2009 Game Developers Conference continues, and with it, demonstrations of games such as JumpGate Evolution, the upcoming massively multiplayer space dogfighting game from Denver, CO-based NetDevil, creator of the original JumpGate from 2001. JumpGate Evolution will be, according to NetDevil frontman Scott Brown, a bigger, better version of the original game that will build on everything that fans enjoyed about the original game.

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Space. The final frontier. And the first place to go to blow up a whole bunch of other spaceships.

Brown graciously walked us through the game's basic features, pointing out how Evolution will retain all the core elements that defined the original game--space dogfighting along the lines of classic PC games like X-Wingand Wing Commander, with the trappings of massively multiplayer online games (such as missions, in-game economies, and player-versus-player battles). To that end, we were shown flythroughs of a handful of different deep-space zones which are being built to be huge, but to look interesting, full of colorful nebulas and star systems, as well as shattered planets and asteroid fields that house hidden space stations and alien infestations. In the game's current friends-and-family beta state (an extremely small, internal beta state that usually precedes closed betas), there are about 50 star maps, each about 10-15 cubic kilometers in size. Brown pointed out that in a recent beta session, about 100 player ships were in the same zone, but because of the vast size of the area, there wasn't any crowding at all. The same was true of several of the zones we saw today--the current version of the beta lets you toggle flags for all friendly and hostile ships in the zone to appear onscreen with colored markers in the distance. This sense of space should stay constant throughout the game, even though, as Brown pointed out, enemies will constantly respawn and the universe will house anywhere from 25,000-30,000 computer-controlled enemyentities at any time.

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You're not alone in the universe. There will be aliens, and they won't like you.

Netdevil actually hopes to see upwards of 200-300 players in the same area at once, and has purposely built the game to scale down to extremely low-end computers--Brown suggests that the game will run even on computers with Nvidia GeForce 2 cardsand on some laptop computers with integrated graphics. If you have a high-end rig, of course, you can scale up the detail, but the idea behind JumpGate Evolution is to have massive amounts of players all in the world in the same place at the same time, interacting, fighting, and enjoying the game together. Interestingly, the game will encourage group play by way of a new feature, "soft grouping," which will automatically set ungrouped players in the same area, who are working on the same quest, to help each other, rather than forcing them to compete. Any time any such player scores a hit on a quest enemy, all players on that quest in the area receive credit for the damage and all players will receive quest loot . And should you decided to take the extra step of they jump in to help finish the battle, loot, which will be automatically divvied up--there won't be any need for squabbling over who took the one good item because everyone will come away with something.

But as it turns out, some of the most challenging areas of the game will require you to navigate tight straights, like anextremely snugfield of space rocks that less-than-extremely-bright space pirates may pursue you in. You might also find an alien infestation like the one we saw, in which an alien race had corrupted the surface of several asteroids and implanted turrets to fend off invaders; in order to clear them out, we destroyed each of the turrets, the last of which went up in an explosion that cracked a hole in the asteroid, giving us entry inside to locate and blast the heart of the alien. However, throughout most of the game, collisions between your ship and the world won't be terribly damaging. Your ship will have energy shields that will deplete slightly if you bump into an asteroid, but they'll regenerate quickly enough.

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Think you're a big game hunter? Why not try a capital ship on for size?

The one exception to this rule will be in the instanced, high-level battleground zones, where you'll be able to tangle with extremely powerful enemy capital ships. These foes are so deadly that the slightest collision will cause your ship to immediately explode. These deadly foes have various hardpoint targets like gun turrets and fighter launching bays that you can bring down with concentrated fire. Taking down a cap ship will net you bonus points that you can spend on additional ships andupgrades, and if this kind of battle is your thing, you'll be able to get to these zones shortly after starting a new character, and spend all your time here, gaining experience and levels.

To handle these massive foes with skill and finesse, you may want to use Evolution's more-advanced controls.All ships come equipped witha thrust dampener that effectively lets you bring your ship to a standstill with little or no drag, even after sustained acceleration--similar to the arcade-like feel of Digital Anvil's 2003 space shooter Freelancer. However, you can toggle your dampener on or off at any time, which will model full Newtonian physics for your ship, causing you to continuously drift after hitting the throttle unless youaccelerate in a different direction, or toggle your dampener back on. Coming in hard with an initial thrust, then drifting sideways will let you pull off more-precise strafing runs, since the actual shooting combat of the game takes place in real time and requires you to manually aim your shots with your mouse or flightstick controllers. (There will be no abstracted dice rolls that determine whether or not you hit...just how well you can aim and how good you are at leading your foes based on your current weapon's speed.) Of course, if you'd really like to feel like a starship commander, you can opt to play the game using flight controllers, such as a USB throttle plus flightstick, as we did today using a Saitek USB x52 for our throttle in our left hand and a flightstick in our right. Moving the throttle forward accelerates your ship; moving it backward kills your thrusters, while your flightstick controls your ship's bearing and aim, and giving your stick a twist will turn your ship. We have to admit that we were a bit rusty with our flight controls, but they do indeed work, and they work well and make the game feel much more like piloting an actual ship.

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JumpGate Evolution blasts off later this year.

In addition to PvP and battleground content, JumpGate Evolution will have all the trappings of a massively multiplayer game, such as a full loot system and crafting that will let you build custom upgrades for the many, many ships in your collection. There won't be any limit to the maximum number of ships your character can come to own in the game, and you'll probably end up owning at least a few different ship types, such as fighters, bombers, freighters, and miners, especially if you're looking to get heavily involved in player-versus-player battles. High-end PvP will take place around player-built space stations that can be built as part of a collaborative process between miners who mine resources, manufacturers who craft space station components, haulers who transport and assemble these components, and fighters that attack and defend these key points. Once your space station is built, it'll appear on the local 3D map of any nearby players in the area and may be attacked or defended. Player-versus-player battles will take place in outer fringe areas that are separated onlyby geography, so switching between player-versus-environment combat against computer-controlled enemies and player-versus-player combat will just be a matter of flying somewhere else.

JumpGate Evolution seems like it should have a ton of cool stuff to offer anyone interested in exploring and conquering space, or just blowing up spaceships. And any longtime space commanders looking to dust off their flight controllers should definitely keep an eye on the game. It's scheduled to launch later this year.

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