Jumpgate: The Reconstruction Initiative
|a game by||Netdevil|
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As online gaming continues to attract increasingly bigger audiences, developers are exploring new genres in the hope ot wresting the attention of the online community from the big boys -namely EA, Microsoft and Verant, with Ultima Online, Asheron's Call, and EverQuest respectively.
Netdevil is the latest arrival on the scene with Jumpgate, a game that roughly equates to Elite Online, except without the huge diversity of futuristic locales and planets that populated David Braben's original classic. For space combat fans with a fast Internet connection, Jumpgate must sound like a dream come true.
A whole universe to explore online, including trading and fighting with other players, exploring deep space and forming allegiances around the world, and of course, kicking the shit out of them. It's an enticing prospect, and one we wasted no time in investigating. Jumpgate has only been live for a matter of weeks but already their servers are heavily populated with enthusiastic space pilots. We decided to join them to see what all the fuss was about. This is what we found.
Help, I'm New Here
First impressions of any online RPG are important. While experienced online gamers will persevere through the most unfriendly interface and the most complex and unhelpful 'newbie' induction process just to see if the game is really worth their time when they eventually find out what it's all about, newcomers to online gaming will run a thousand miles if they are left staring stupidly at the screen without any clue what to do when the game loads up. The first screen you will see when you arrive in Jumpgate is about as self-explanatory as it could possibly be. You find yourself at a space station where you can configure your ship, buy and sell equipment, take on missions, or jump into a simulator and learn how to fly the ship you start with. Everything's clearly labelled, and it should be obvious to most people exactly what it is they are looking at. However, knowing which missions are best to take on at the start, or whether it was worth upgrading my ship with my initial credits, was another matter entirely. I decided to ask someone. At the top of the screen there is a rectangular box where you can see what people are saying on the chat channel. There were a lot of people on at the time, but I had no clue whatsoever what any of them were saying. They were all speaking German. No help there then. I typed in 'Does anyone here speak English?' There were several replies, all in German except one, which simply said 'no'. I remembered reading on the Jumpgate site that pressing F5 would bring me to the 'newbie' channel where someone would help. I pressed F5 and found more people babbling away, again in German. I typed 'Am I the only English-speaking person here?' Back came the reply 'type :eng'. I did as instructed and lo and behold, the English-speaking channel came to life. This is not a huge problem, I found my way there eventually, but I later found people in the game who didn't know this command existed, and as a result played a fair way into it cut off from people who spoke in their native tongue. Netdevil take note: ask people their language preference before they start the game, instead of leaving them to find out for themselves where they're meant to go to find people who speak their language. A row of buttons with a choice of language for chat channels would do the trick.
It Gets Better
There were plenty of people on the chat channel. They seemed like a friendly bunch. I asked a few questions, mainly advice on how to get started and which missions I should try first. There was a system OP on the chat channel at the time. These people are Netdevil officials who are there to help new players with problems and queries. The OP sent me a message asking me what I needed help with, and gave me advice on the do's and don'ts for starter pilots. Well, this is a first. If you've ever played EverOuest or Ultima Online you will know what a nightmare it is trying to get hold of one of these people if you ever have a problem in-game. In Jumpgate, they're just sitting there in the chat room helping players out. This is absolutely the way forward for online multiplayer RPGs, and I expect Jumpgate will retain more novice and casual gamers than its competition for this reason alone, and deservedly so.
Onward to the mission screen, where an impressive array of mission types lay waiting. Transport missions (take an item to a destination for a financial reward), combat missions (kill something), escort missions, faction runs, there was a lot to choose from, which is a good thing as at the beginning of the game missions are your only means of earning credits.
Completing missions in Jumpgate achieves two goals: you get financial recompense which you can use to buy better equipment for your ship (or even a new ship if you get rich enough), and you get experience points. Experience points accumulate and you eventually go up in level when you reach the required amount of points to progress. There's nothing unusual about that in an RPG, but what is unusual is what happens to you when you die. Unlike most of its rivals, which punish death by taking away a set amount of your experience (thus hindering your progress to the next level), in Jumpgate you keep all the experience points you've gained, but you lose your ship and everything that it was equipped with too. Whether this is a good thing or a bad thing depends largely on what matters most to you. At higher levels, experience takes much longer to accumulate, so if you're a power-gamer who wants to get to level 50 as fast as possible, then keeping your experience points is a good thing. On the other hand, if your goal is to get the best ships and weapons in the game, you won't be too happy when you lose the lot because you accidentally crashed into a space station and got yourself killed when the phone rang. It won't really be apparent how people are going to take to this method of penalising death until many of the players in the game reach high levels and suffer huge losses when they meet their maker, but if we hear of anyone topping themselves because they got blown up and lost those nifty weapons it took them six weeks to save up for, you'll be the first to know.
The Money Game
Controversial death penalty aside, Jumpgate is pretty much exactly what you would expect it to be. It's all about earning money and buying bigger and better ships, weapons and items. There are lots of ways you can do this, but in the beginning you'll be doing transport or faction missions just to get some coin to upgrade your ship, and I would be lying if I didn't say they get repetitive, and fast. The lower level game in Jumpgate is very tedious, particularly in comparison to other online RPGs. The bad news is you can expect to put in about 30 hours of game time before you get to do something a bit more interesting (ie killing stuff). The good news is once you level your character to a reasonable degree (level eight and up), the game gets a lot more exciting. With a half-decent ship and good weapons, you can enter into combat with alien NPCs (the Conflux) with confidence, and take on more challenging missions. You are also in a position at this point to enter into player-versus-player combat with members of other factions in the game.
Jumpgate is not the most original game in the world. It does exactly what it says on the tin, and while it's addictive it doesn't promote mindless levelling. It's still quite possible to pop in and out of it for an hour at a time however and feel like you've achieved something. It remains to be seen how much impact the ongoing storyline will have on the game universe and how it will affect the game (see World Almost At War panel), but as it stands it's still a highly entertaining online space combat sim with an excellent player community and a customer service system that is second to none.
Meeting people isn't easy
Jumpgat&s chat system is a little strange, to say the least. Having seen Anarchy Onlinefs revolutionary chat system, It came as something of a shock to discover we had to use function keys to switch between chat channels, and type convoluted commands to send personal messages to other players that nobody else could hear. It's often difficult to remember which chat channel you are on (there is no visual representation of the mode you are in), and while it's fair to say that you get used to all this after a while, it still feels cumbersome. Given that Jumpgate is a persistent ongoing universe, and as such is prone to major changes through its history, I would suggest that Netdevil put the chat interface at the top of their list for potential improvements.
World Almost At War
Three sides to every war
There are three main factions in Jumpgate. The inhabitants of Solrain, Octavius and Quantar each have their own distinctive ships, weaponry and style of playing. You get to choose one of these factions when you start the game. The Solrain are master traders, the Octavians are basically out to kill everything, and the Quantar thrive on mining. Jumpgate features an ongoing storyline (which has yet to unfold) but you can bet that it will involve a massive fallout at some point between these three factions. The current peaceful state in which they all coexist will be tom apart as players from rival factions go for each others' throats at every opportunity (well, at least that's what should happen as far as we're concerned). This is when Jumpgate will come alive and become more of an experience than a simple game. We'll be keeping an eye on the situation, and giving you an update on how things are progressing in a future issue.
Download Jumpgate: The Reconstruction Initiative
So there I was chopping trees to build up my strength, in order +-that I could defeat a rabbit that had been terrorising me, when a kindly stranger appeared. The conversation was hardly riveting but being the sort of fellow I am I couldn't help but be pleasant. Then, without so much as an insult or provocation, my new friend turned on me. Before I could raise my hatchet, my limbs were off, my most prized possessions taken and the rest, along with my fleshy nuggets, left scattered across the leafy glade. As an unseen ghost floating above the debris I couldn't help but feel that a wrong had been done, a warrior deprived of his rightful glory - a rabbit cheated out of a good kill.
Needless to say that after what had been a tedious month up until then, I never returned to the world of Ultima Online. Just as well I think, for had I been chopping wood any longer I may well have been tempted to move on to bigger and better things and become, like the otherwise amiable Chris Anderson, an EverQuest bore. As it happens Jumpgate has taken over and 1 find the depths of space a far more interesting place to be. Of course it helps that the few hundred regular beta testers of what is the first true online sci-fi RPG are a far friendlier bunch than those from my dark goblin days. Here in a fractious universe, governed loosely by the TR1 (The Reconstruction Initiative), even the pirates are pretty friendly. On those occasions when the squads from Solrain, Octavius and Quantar (or mixtures thereof) do get it on, the conflicts are short-lived tit-for-tat affairs. However, such fragile peace is sure to end when later this year Jumpgate passes its final test stages and people start having to pay a monthly fee to play. As we all know, once you start investing money as well as time into a game, the stakes get that much higher.
Pillars Of Faith
At the moment, with about ten hours of flying time under my belt, I'm trying to earn my way to becoming a level 3 Solrain pilot. A hi-tech trading nation, Solrainians are by a nose the most popular choice for Jumpgate players. Octavians - warlike nomads - and Quantars - hippy miners - are roughly neck-and-neck in the popularity stakes. In my cramped hold is a small package destined for The Great Pillars, five jumps away deep in a sector held by the Octavians. Though I personally have no quarrel with them, JOSSH (Jumpgate's news portal jumpgate.mightygames.com) informs me our two star nations have been scrapping, and with an Octavian ship buzzing about at the edge of my radar, I should at least keep an eye open for trouble. Happily. I can report the ship turns out to be mining asteroids - a lucrative trade if you have the right equipment - so after breathing a sigh of relief, I cut the power to my engines, ready to manoeuvre into a jumpgate bound for the next sector.
Which is where things go wrong. Halfway to the next gate a Conflux (nasty alien type) ship appears to be heading my way. Worse, the Octavian miner appears from the gate behind.
Though a small ship, I have no combat experience to deal with the Conflux threat and if the Octavian can afford mining equipment he's obviously been around longer than me. It doesn't help that in the Jumpgate universe, ships are far harder to fly than in FreeSpace (though, I'm happy to add. far easier to master than in l-War or Allegiance). As usual I found I was pooing my pants for no reason: my Octavian pursuer - a German fellow - seems quite happy to steam in on my behalf while 1 make a dash for the next sector. I get to survive cargo intact, he gains combat experience and -1 discover later - a medal from TRI. A good trade. Five minutes later, safe from attack and near my destination, like a twat I plough into a relay beacon. Luckily I was insured and after a few seconds I emerge reborn with a new ship and body, back at the station where I started.
The Old Bill
Minor setbacks aside I'm thoroughly enjoying Jumpgate, big fan of space sims that I am. I find the sense of community both welcoming and formidable - other players are generally helpful and the official news and fan sites help to perpetuate the story and conflicts played out in the game. There is tremendous chivalry and fierce loyalty on the EU server - a credit both to the creators and players of the game. Certainly Jumpgate would benefit from a greater range of ships to fly. At the moment there are only four per faction, ranging from a scout to a small freighter, and although I imagine I'd have to play for many months to afford my own Battlestar Galactica, if there were something like it I may well stick around. AI or player-controlled police ships would also be helpful, if only as a career option for new players to help them band together before retiring into a life of trading, piracy or bounty hunting.
Whether or not such upgrades make it into the game, Jumpgate is remarkably complete as it stands, with many hidden depths rippling under what most would see as a simple mission-based online game. Role-playing and trading are central to progress through the ranks, as is effective teamwork. At the moment it is perhaps too safe a place to live an online existence, but it's early days yet. Hopefully my old friend from Ultima Online will pay me a visit. A rabbit friend of mine has a few scores to settle.
Two words: Elite and online. Switch them around and what you get is something along the lines of what Jumpgate is all about. You download the game, log in, pick one of three factions to align yourself with, each subtly different in terms of their designs and skills, get a bog standard ship and some credits and set about making your fortune, either by trading, mining, piracy or bounty hunting. It's been done before, but not with vaguely real people piloting each ship and that alone is what makes Jumpgate such an enticing prospect.
Much more than a space trading game in the Elite mould, Jumpgate takes things a significant step further, allowing players to group together into squads or cartels, building towards a common goal. With pooled resources, groups can have a significant effect on the economics of the game thanks in part to the dynamics of the trading system: each product, for example, is built from other materials, all of which can be traded across the galaxy.
With the right skills and equipment players will be able to make their own products and with new systems added to the game as the user base expands, new markets will open up and groups of players can eventually build stations and buy capital ships to make these regions their own.
The first full release of the game, scheduled for the end of the summer, will feature just small to mid-sized ships, with new star systems, spacecraft and equipment being added on a regular basis. The idea is to create a persistent universe for space pilots to fly around in and hopefully shape, with the programmers stepping in only when things get hopelessly out of hand. For the future, developer Netdevil is planning to add a first-person mode (a la Battlecruiser Millennium), which will allow players a rest from sitting in their ships, to actually get out and board ships or fight through the corridors of space stations. That feature, however, is a long way off.