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Elite, Elite, Elite: that's all some people ever go on about, despite it only being played by kids who stayed behind after school to attend computer club, glumly trading wireframe commodities on a BBC Micro before being picked up by concerned parents in beige Austin Allegros with plastic covering on the rear seat. Nevertheless, David Braben's space trader/combat game still seems to hold an almost mystical appeal in certain quarters, to the extent that any sniff of a new space game immediately sees it heralded as the new Elite.
Admittedly sometimes the comparison is understandable, when the games are the likes of the X series, the Wing Commander spin-off Privateer, and EVE Online. However, Jumpgate Evolution is not the new Elite. What it is, according to Codemasters Online producer Mike Rowland, is a blend of Elite, Freelancer, Wing Commander,and X-wing vs. TIE Fighter, all thrown together in a massively multiplayer online universe.
"It sits among all of them," explains Rowland. "Our target was to make a really good fun combat game with a lot of elements of MMOs." Rowland is currently overseeing the final stages of the game's development in Denver, Colorado, but flew back to the UK to guide us through the game.
Nearby Leamington Spa may be grinding to a commercial halt, but every taxi driver knows the way to Codemasters, and the presentation and playtest take place in a brand-new wing of Codies' building, replete with its own pub. That said, drinking before playing Jumpgate Evolution isn't advisable, as even through the brittle sheen of sobriety, it has been known to cause motion sickness.
Barf Bag Please
True to form, following a good hour at the helm I start to feel a bit queasy, although I bravely manage to force down a pub lunch. Also enjoying the bread and cheese is none other than former PC stalwart Richie Shoemaker, a man who has probably flown more hours on EVE Online than virtually any man on Earth. And lie's feeling as sick as a dog, even before the sweaty ciabattas are served. This is a problem that Codemasters are aware of (the motion sickness, not the Italian bread), and have included a a first-person cockpit view, but it doesn't capture the kinetic experience of full-on space combat.
That combat takes place between three distinct nations: the militaristic Octavius; spiritual space hippies, the Quantar; and the Mafia-like Solrain. As in a regular MMORPG, you select a character and head into deep space to level up. And while there are no rats in space, it does follow a familiar formula, with early missions requiring you to take out a set number of enemies. The combat is a simple case of firing your primary guns at the handy target just in front of the enemy, as well as locking on and letting him have it with a few missiles. With missile-dodging evasive moves also available, it's possible to get in half-decent dogfights, particularly in the PvP areas, which can host 50-a-side battles between 150 players.
For the first 10-15 levels, however, it's standard PvE stuff, as you return to your hangar to claim your reward and modify your ship. New ships become available, but in case you've become attached to your old ones, you get to keep them in your hangar.
In a further comparison, licenses have to be acquired to fly particular ships, effectively defining your character. For instance, if you want to be a flyboy you'll take combat licenses, or alternatively get commercial licenses to forge a living as a space trucker.
Throw in secondary tier gameplay such as mining and crafting, and there should be enough to keep the most avid space cowboy busy. While we can't see it threatening World of Wcircmft, it'll run on similarly low-spec machines, including laptops. As Mike Rowland says, "Blizzard ensures that even guys in Korean coffee houses with terrible spec PC's can play.
"It's a great philosophy to have, you don't have to have the shiniest graphics or the latest technology in your computer to play. It's very important for us to get as many people in the game as possible because that means more customers." Ker-ching!