Throwdown: Elite: Dangerous Versus Star Citizen

Disclaimer: Yeah, I know neither is finished. Yeah, I know there’s a lot left to do on both. This is a casual overview of what I personally feel about the two games after having spent some time with each this past weekend. 

Everything is cyclical. We suffered through a “Woodstock 2”, and some weird fascination with the 1980’s, and now that kids born in the 90’s are getting older, I suspect that we’ll have a revival of…eh…what did we get from the 90’s, exactly?

So goes video games. We’ve gotten revivals of adventure games, plaformers, and other early concepts that were only cool back then because it was the best technology could do. It seems that the next big new wave (see what I did there?) of resurgence is the space simulator genre, because aside from Star Citizen and Elite: Dangerous, there’s a lot of other spaceship cowboy games out there like Starpoint Gemini 2 and Entropy and more in the X series of games, among others.

Both SC and E:D have important pedigrees. SC is from Chris Roberts, who basically defined what we have come to expect from space sims, thanks to Wing Commander. Although Wing Commander might be considered to be THE reason early gamers shelled out hundreds of dollars for a CD ROM drive, the game wouldn’t exist if not for Elite, a seriously old school black-and-white wire-frame “3D” space sim and trading game from David Braben and Ian Bell. That each of these games are (more or less) coming back to the fore with a vengeance is good for the suffering space sim fan, but because the Internet demands the best, we’re forced to ask: which one is better?

Ohhhh…Loaded words, those. “Better” is subjective. I can only give you my point of view here, based on my experiences with each. I’d advise you to put your grimy hands on each (which I assume you have done if you’re a space sim fan, or are looking forward to doing otherwise) and make up your own mind.

Star Citizen

Even if you’re not a space sim fan, you probably know about Star Citizenalthough you could be mistaken in thinking that Robert’s was trying to build a Death Star based on the amount of money he’s pulled into to fuel this (some would say stupidly) ambitious project.

SC is actually one half of a whole: There’s Star Citizenthe “MMO-esque” online space sim universe, and Squadron 42, which we’re told will be a single-player or co-op experience (think Borderlands). Right now, Cloud Imperium (the developer, not an in-game faction) has released bits of the product to backers and early adopters, starting with an interactive hangar, and currently with Arena Commander.

Arena Commander allows backers who have supported the project at certain levels to get into their ship (or a loaner ship) and fly around, shooting drones or other players in “arena” combat. There’s also a free-roam scenario if you just want to get the feel for piloting without stress.

One of the technical selling points of SC is how their ship design and the physics model interact. As you maneuver your ship, rather than just applying the physics to the ship as a whole, maneuvering thrusters on the ship are used to actively push the ship in the desired direction. This can lead to scenarios where damage to your ship could prevent your thrusters from working, thereby causing you navigational issues. It’s a pretty cool feature that I’m sure will lead to a lot of swearing from players when they can only spin in place because they lost most of their maneuverability. Another mechanic tied to maneuvering is “G-forces”. If you accelerate too fast, too quickly, your camera starts to gray out, and if you sustain this state for too long, you can black out. While I appreciate the “realism” of this specific mechanic, I’m not entirely sure if I care for it. But we are talking about a game that forces you to open the hatch of your ship, climb a ladder, walk to your command chair, and activate the ship before you can actually play, so I guess modeling the whole experience is part of what we agreed to when we bought into this project.

I found Star Citizen to be the easier to control of the two games, and although it might be my atrophied skill with a flight stick, I found it a lot better to use the keyboard and mouse. The flight mechanics seemed to be well done at this point. I wasn’t always sure about speed, though; My speed seemed to change from where I swear I had left it. Might be due to the damage conditions I mentioned above, though, which would be really cool.

Using weapons is intuitive. You lead the target by firing at the boxes that extend in front of it, although there were two boxes, labeled 1 and 2, with no explanation of difference noted in the game itself. Your primary weapons are neigh unlimited, and your secondary weapons (on the Origin 300i that I have) have a much lower RoF and are, I assume, more powerful for it. Missiles require a lock on by clicking the mouse wheel, and the clicking again fires the missile. Since 90% of what you need for basic flight sits on the mouse, it’s really easy to get flying with Star Citizen.

One thing that I’m not a fan of is the overall simplicity of the game. However, this is Arena Commander. It’s an “arcade shooter” with some additional mechanics thrown in. It’s not supposed to be more than it currently is. You launch, find your targets, and engage. End of story. I already mentioned the black-out mechanic, but I’ll reiterate that I’m not a fan. I’m also not a fan of abysmal load times. I had issues installing the game, first off, with download speeds reported in the kilobytes for a seventeen gigabyte product. The game itself also takes a long time to load. Again, it’s a WiP, so I’m not going to say “fuck it” and chuck the…media I don’t have…out the window.

Elite: Dangerous

I was on the fence about Elite: Dangerous for a while. I had backed SC during it’s Kickstarter phase, and thought that it’s ambition would be enough to satisfy my Wing Commander slash Freelancer (both Chris Roberts products, BTW) cravings. Then I saw a video in which the player had to actually land his ship, complete with landing gear and everything, and realized that I needed this game. I bought the Mercenary Edition pre-order, but over the weekend I upgraded to the pre-release Beta Access tier so I could play the game as it stands.

I never played the original Elite. I think in 1984 I was on the Commodore 64 playing mostly RPGs. It wasn’t until the late 80’s when a friend bought a Tandy 386 that I looked at simulations like MechWarrior and Wing Commander. I had another friend who was really into the hardcore sims like flight simulators and military wargames, but I couldn’t even lift those manuals let alone keep all the jargon straight. The late-model sims I played had just enough keyboard commands (via keyboard overlays!) to keep me feeling like I was pushing buttons and flipping switches, but not so many that it was all I was doing.

But this genre kind of fell out of favor as gaming transitioned to an almost all console, all the time market, where you had to be able to do everything with just four buttons, a D-pad, and two thumb-sticks. Using a complex series of button and trigger combos, sim games could be played, but to me, part of the “simulation” nomenclature means having a certain feeling of complexity that comes from replicating the mundane as well as the exciting, and playing DDR with your thumbs and fingers doesn’t have the same resonance as flying your hands over your keyboard does.

Like SC, there’s two components to E:D, an online massive universe (I mean, massive — supposedly there will be 400 billion stars to visit) where you have to suffer…I mean, play…with other people, and a solo component where you can play alone or in a “group” where, from what I understand as I read it, allows you to play exclusively with your friends, a la Freelancer.

E:D‘s flying seems a bit more complex than SC‘s. One benefit is that my Thrustmaster T.Flight HOTAS X is recognized as a pre-mapped input device (unlike in SC) and all of the buttons are more or less spoken for. However, the controls default to some weird combos. Pitch is forward and back, roll is side to side, and yaw is either twisting the stick, or using the rocker on the throttle control. However, it doesn’t feel right in this configuration, for some reason. This threw me off because I wasn’t able to effectively steer using the stick, which was made all the more difficult when trying to align myself to the small entrance to the station that was constantly rotating. I re-mapped the yaw to the X-axis and the roll to the twist/rocker, and I think that feels better.

One benefit, though, is that you can opt to have the game present a “pre-flight checklist” before you leave the station. This is an actual checklist that has you activate each of the items listed. You have an entry for each button action, and when you hit that button, you get a check-mark. Only when everything is checked can you leave the station. It’s a good sanity check for when you return to the game after absence, or need to get used to the control schema.

You have to actually raise and lower your landing gear. Hardcore! When you leave the station, you need to fly through the station’s aperture to leave, and again when you land. You can (and will) encounter traffic trying to use the exit in the opposite direction (word on the street is that griefers in the online version are making sure you know this fact). When landing, you need to go to the proper platform, lower your gear, and actually land on the platform before the magnetic locks take over and put you on the ground. When you leave a station, fly near a sun or planet or other object, you have “mass locking”, which is gravity that prevents you from using your jump drives. Just fly away far enough, and you’re golden.

Jumping between system is either wonky, or I just don’t understand it. There’s two phases: the initial in-system jump, and then the between system jump. You travel between PoI in a system using the first, and between solar systems using the second. Each takes fuel (I believe), so you need to find a station and top off if you have to make long trips. I’ve frequently overshot destinations (when I could find them) and I really don’t understand what the UI is telling me (“slow down” is both descriptive and vague at the same time) or what I need to do in order to get to where I need to be. I do love this mechanic, though, as it reminds me of — once again — Freelancer, which my friends and I ran a server for, and played to death.

Combat is a little more frustrating than in SC, mainly because of the controls. I’m finding that personally, I’m having a harder time lining up shots, although the above-board availability of three axes of movement allows me move around objects like asteroids with ease. I was totally destroyed with consistency in the combat tutorials, though the death sequences are really nice: shields down, your cockpit takes gradual damage with the canopy developing cracks, until you take enough damage to explode. Thrilling!

Right now, E:D is further along in development than SC, which is frustrating for SC because I think E:D has less money, and went to Kickstarter after SC did. So they’ve done more at this point with less. You can take missions, transport and bounty, and even do some free-trading by picking up goods at a station for a low price, and then selling them for a high price at another station. There’s contraband (complete with police scanning your ship) and black market goods. Ships can be upgraded, and new ships can be bought. I haven’t gotten to that point yet, though I have done a few between-system delivery missions for easy cash.

Who Wins?

Right now, I prefer Elite: Dangerous because it’s more of “a game” than just an arena. But that’s not the whole story, because if we look at the road map for both SC and E:D, they have really similar ambitions, down to the potential for first person, out-of-ship action on planets and stations. I think maybe E:D has a better chance at appealing to the explorer mindset, as 400 billion systems is just an opportunity too great to ignore, while SC will appeal to fans of more traditional MMO-style “action and bravado” gameplay. I also think that E:D might appeal more to fans of EVE Online who want a first-person EVE experience, but I can’t articulate why I feel that way.

If you want the more complete experience right now, I’d suggest Elite: Dangerous because it’s further along. However, if you don’t want to spend the $75 USD for the beta, you can probably get into Star Citizen for less and get your ship exploding fix just the same. In the long run, however, it’ll require another look at both, side by side, to see if either one comes out on top.

Realm Works from Lone Wolf Development

I’m a fan of getting shit together. Judging my my self-assessed performance last session on Hoard of the Dragon Queen, I need to step up my organizational game when it comes to preparedness.

RealmWorksI found Realm Works from Lone Wolf Development (makers of Hero Lab) when I was cruising around the net looking for RPG resources. Now, I swear by Fantasy Grounds, which is excellent for creating brand new modules and campaigns, but I need something to allow me to just take notes of important aspects of the different sections of each episode in HotDQ. I can get the long winded low-down by reading the book, but sometimes things double back on plot points, so when I reach further in the campaign, I realize I’ve flubbed an important part by not having read ahead, or done some rather slick RP that ends up not fitting into the narrative. So reading ahead and taking notes and organizing plot points so I don’t run over my own foot is something I really need. I could use regular pen and paper, but with the need to cross reference and get speedy access to stats and other characters at the point in time where they’re needed, having a technological method should help a lot.

Realm Works is like a massive wiki, but also not. It’s a three ring binder, but which provides tabbed dividers that you can fill with whatever you need. It’s not really a great campaign creation tool, although with a big shoehorn you could get it done; Fantasy Grounds is far superior in this regard. RW is like a three ring binder of index cards, then: you supply a lot of one-liners that describe what you need: “King Gerald is having an affair with the ambassador from Luretia”, or “The players will be watched as they attend the opera”. Using dedicated, structured sections, a GM can fill out a few lines with shorthand info that makes it good reference tool for quick information.

The UI is pretty daunting, however. While very flexible, it doesn’t allow for custom layouts. Information is presented in a list format, divided by headers and sub-headers. Sometimes labels are present, sometimes they aren’t. Everything is initially entered in a one-line textbox that expands as you need it, unless it’s numeric or special case data. Naturally, there’s integration with Hero Lab (which I don’t own) for NPCs, and you can also “embed” maps, external documents, and even audio and video (I think). The best part is that you can create or modify existing structures as needed. For example, I created a “template” for a D&D 5E monster/NPC which contains all of the info I need. I just fill in the form and save the record, and that creation is available for reference when I need it. The best part is that all I have to do is use the name of a record in the body text of a field, and RW will offer potential matches to other known records, automatically creating hyperlinks between the two.

All of the reference material constantly talks about how RW is a GM tool for creating and managing campaigns, and that a player edition is forthcoming. RW is not a virtual tabletop. However, it does allow a GM to reveal information to players on a record by record basis. For example, amidst everything listed about the King, the line above about him having an affair could be released to the players on it’s own. This way, the GM can push out just what the players learn as opposed to dumping everything at their feet (including maps and such). I have no use for this whatsoever. I can see how a party in agreement might pick up RW and the upcoming player versions ($9.99 per individual license is the current, proposed MSRP for the Player Edition), and how it would work well for folks not needing or wanting a vTable, but I have to circle back to the UI; it’s just not all that appealing. It’s functional, and I cannot think of any way to allow for the flexible management of data that RW is aiming to handle, but…yeesh. The gaming group would need to just spend a few sessions doing dry runs to ensure that everyone knew how to use the software properly. The benefit is that anything shared with the players goes into their personal dossier, so they can refer back to info they learned without actually having to meta-memorize it. That has a lot of merit.

From my perspective, though, as an organizational tool, it works great…when it works. It just completed a KS campaign, and the tool itself is widely available, although admittedly incomplete. There are a few things remaining on their to-do list (which can be found scattered around the forums). One thing that needs some work is their SimCity-esque design choice to authenticate and sync data to “The Cloud”. See, in order to get the data from GM to players, LWD requires that users A) create an account on their server, and B) connect to “the cloud” to create a new campaign (which they call a “realm”). Then, and only then, you can either sync the realm to “the cloud” once changes are made, or work offline and sync when you damn well please. When I bought the software, I couldn’t create an account. I tried several times over two days. I finally uninstalled it and re-installed it to the suggested directory on my PC (I normally put everything on a platter drive to keep my SSD as lean as possible), and I was able to register. That’s correlation and not causation, so do with it as you will. Then, however, I tried to create a new realm — create a new file — and I was denied because of a connection error when trying to sync the new file to their server. While I can see the appeal of having data like this in “the cloud” — it’s actually one of the things that sold me on this product, being able to sync between stations without Dropbox or something similar — LWD’s infrastructure is experiencing some issues that, due to design choices, makes the program a virtual paperweight when it experiences issues (in honesty, only when you sign in, or create a new realm, not if you want to work offline and un-synchronized, which works just fine).

I think that maybe RW is overkill for what I need, or maybe it’s because the unflattering UI makes it seem less worthwhile than Fantasy Grounds, Evernote or OneNote, or just good old Google Docs, but once you get over the learning curve and adapt to the clunky visual representation, Realm Works is a great organizational tool which should help speed up a gaming session for the GM.

Bonus Round: Virtual Audio And OBS

Last night I jumped into TeamSpeak to find Blamefulgecko hanging out in the lobby. I warned him that I was going to start streaming some Final Fantasy XIV, and that any conversations we might have would end up being broadcast to the world (and by world I mean myself, as my monitoring of the channel was the only registered viewer).

Turns out my voice was just fine on the recording, but Blame’s was almost inaudible. Technically, this was a “good thing”, as it kind of means that I can be in a channel with someone and they can yell all they want and they won’t be heard in the stream. But on another hand, it might be cool to hear what other people are talking about. Come for the game, stay for the colorful commentary, as it were.

This was a dark path to turn to, because it involves installing…virtual audio cables. Let’s discuss.

What the F**k is a Virtual Audio Cable?

It’s what it sounds like: a virtual audio cable. Normally, your sound is routed from it’s source — a game, or TeamSpeak — to a destination — your desktop speakers, or OBS — via Windows Audio or dedicated drivers. The source usually just uses whatever is marked as “default output” in your audio properties, although TS allows you to route output to any qualified device driver. OBS, in turn, can pick up any qualified device driver to receive.

The problem is that you, the user, have very limited control over this. You can pick an output path from one side, and an input path from another, and that’s about it.

A virtual audio cable is just another path, but it allows you to circumvent the usual path. Why, you ask? This will allow you to free up the usual path for other audio, and gives you more control.

The Free And Easy Path Of VoiceMeeter

VoiceMeeter

VoiceMeeter

In looking at VAC’s, I happened across an app called VoiceMeeter. This gem is a virtual mixing board, which turned out to be almost exactly what I wanted.

VM has three inputs, and two outputs. Two of the inputs are physical, like two headsets or a headset and a webcam mic, connected to the same PC. The third input is virtual, which means “software”. This would be your desktop audio player or TeamSpeak. The outputs consist of one physical, like a headset or desktop speakers, and one virtual, which is a source that an app like OBS can use for its input stream.

I mean, that pretty much sums it up right there.

Testing…1…2…3

After installing VM, I rebooted all audio using apps. In VM, I set the first physical input to be my Pysko headset mic (aka High Definition Device). I didn’t want a second physical input, so that was blank. The virtual input was set to the ASIO (Audio Stream Input/Output) option, which is just a general sound card driver, and the only option I had.

VoiceMeeter_Teamspeak

Teamspeak settings

Next, I set the A channel output to be Creative ASIO, which is kind of a default, and the source of contention which we’ll get to later. I set the B channel to use the Psyko headset.

In TeamSpeak, I set the Playback Playback Device to use the new VoiceMeeter Input, which tells TS to send it’s output to VM’s virtual channel.

VoiceMeeter_OBS

OBS settings

In OBS, I set the Microphone/Auxilary Audio Device to use the VoiceMeeter Output, which tells OBS to receive it’s audio from VM’s virtual channel.

The idea, then, is that TS’s audio — other people — will mix with my headset mic through VM, which outputs the audio through a virtual channel and into OBS’s microphone input channel. Ideally, everyone who talks on TS will have their voices merged with my microphone voice, and that mix will be broadcast to the world.

We Do Not Welcome Your Feedback

The thing is, it worked great! The setup achieved everything that I had hoped to achieve. But there was a slight — yet still annoying — issue.

I like to have my chat audio in the headset, and my game audio through the desktop speakers. I couldn’t achieve this. Now, my own voice was piped through the headset, and the TS audio was piped through the headset and the desktop. When playing a game, that would mix the game audio with voice chat, which is unacceptable.

believe the issue is with the ASIO driver. From what I can gather, this is a generic driver that is used by many things. When selecting ASIO as a physical output, it outputs to all ASIO-using devices. For me, this is the headset and the desktop system. So when everything is routed to the ASIO output, it’ll ooze out of any ASIO connected device. I’ve found that I can mute my own headset so I don’t have to listen to myself, but I can’t stop the TeamSpeak audio from broadcasting through two devices.

 

I don’t know if what I’m trying to do here is actually worth the issues. For one, it’s simply to give stream viewers something additional to listen to, which takes the burden off of me to provide a running commentary. On the other hand, it’s not always a given that folks in TS are going to want to be part of the stream. Another alternative, I suppose, is to have one physical mic for TS (the headset), and one physical mic for the stream (a webcam). This would sound strange to viewers of the stream, since they’d hear me responding to people that they can’t hear, but it would provide maximum anonymity for TS users who don’t want to be heard on screen.