Archive for August, 2018

Bringing the space opera into the media of video games is a tricky proposition. What players actually want from such adventures is a multitude of planetary systems, with populated cities and orbital stations, that you journey between via a space ship. A digital rendition of the paper-based RPG Traveller, for want of a better comparison. Or perhaps the conflated power fantasy of both Stars Wars and Trek. What you inevitably encountered, until recently, was a well-managed, walled garden that hinted at a wider cosmos somewhere just beyond the game’s limitations.

The original Elite, with its focus on trade and space combat, was the first video game to attempt the audacious endeavour of creating a galaxy of possibilities. It still didn’t generate any sense of character, or planet-based exploration, thanks to the technology of the time and the sheer amount of processing power required to achieve a wider perspective. Look to the latest iteration in the series today and, while there’s a lot more detail and personality on your journeys through space, it’s still all centred around your vehicle. Consider the diversity of population in the latest city-based Sci-Fi adventure, Cyberpunk 2077 – which, amazingly, brings road transport into the mix – then times this across multiple planets, with multiple species, and you can understand the processing debt programmers would have to manage.

Mass Effect did a laudable job of having a character-driven plot set against a sizeable universe with a good mixture of well-populated locations. It paved the way for the ever growing universe of Destiny (1 and 2), but both franchises still sadly lack the thrills of ship-to-ship engagements.

The procedural generation of environments was the cool tech solution that revolutionised things for Hello Games. After a rocky start, No Man’s Sky is among the first titles to tick all the required boxes of creating a playable space opera. While the ground combat pales against the slick execution of Destiny, the fact that you can travel, trade and battle across a mind-boggling array of planets is still incredible. The recent addition of a multiplayer only added to its levels of engagement – and that’s before you dig into the huge number of Sci-Fi tropes that are recognised throughout the game.

Elsewhere, Chris Roberts, of Roberts Space Industries, cut his creative video game teeth with the Wing Commander series – which was one of the first games to bring characters to an Elite-styled space shooter. His return to the genre is even more ambitious, but the development of Star Citizen has been arduous and plagued with complaints of dissatisfaction from its investors. You have to respect the scale of the endeavour, but it definitely feels like the preserve of the high-end PC gamer. That said, there is a development team in Toronto about to bring a similar experience to the Nintendo Switch. Although Starlink: Battle for Atlas is definitely skewed towards a younger audience, the combination of planetary exploration and interstellar combat looks like a great option to get your space opera fix while on the go.

What’s amazing is that while other video games feel recognisable and familiar despite their ambition – depictions of city life in GTA and Assassins Creed, fidelity and real world car physics in Forza – the playable Space Opera is still formative. Great strides have been made recently, but we’re still waiting that ‘killer app’ paradigm shift. Perhaps Bethesda Games and Starfield will be the ones to grasp that prize, perhaps not. Regardless, we’ll be among the first on the boarding ramp, space helmet in hand and intergalactic travel bag hovering at our side when it releases.

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