Jumpgate Evolution Hands-On Report: In the Eyes of a Veteran

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The current video game marketplace has not been kind to space combat fans. While we once had store shelves that were full of titles like Wing Commander, X-Wing, Elite, TIE Fighter, Privateer and Freespace. Now the space action genre has all but dried up, with gamers having to resort to the older titles to get their space jollies. The video game market, however, is incredibly cyclical and games that were once faring poorly in the market tend to make rousing returns. Roleplaying, adventure, first person shooters, and RTSes have all been up and down this roller coaster, and if the developers at NetDevil have anything to do with it, the space combat genre will hit another peak in June 2009 thanks to Jumpgate Evolution.

Jumpgate Evolution will bring space combat gamers back into their glory days after a very long reprieve.

Before I dive any further into this Jumpgate Evolution hands-on report, I need to give you a bit of my background info. I’m a space combat junkie. Ever since LucasArts first started publishing the X-Wing series, I’ve been strapped to a joystick and flying around space looking for errant bogies to blast out of the black. While you received a fine dose of unbiased content from Ten Ton Hammer’s Jay Johnson with his unadulterated look at the game, I come from a camp of players that grew up with the space combat shooter.

When I initially sat down at one of the six laptops (yes laptops!) that were running Jumpgate Evolution; I immediately noticed the astounding beauty of JGE. For years, everyone has praised the graphics in EVE Online. However, the graphics in Jumpgate Evolution are as good or better than its more strategic cousin. Compared to some of the very early builds I saw at last year’s GDC and a few of the later conferences, the play areas have greatly improved and offer a titillating amount of visual eye candy. From enormous boiling suns to immense battle stations and wrecked cruisers, the art team at NetDevil has really pushed forward in their efforts in this department. These space areas are not empty, lifeless husks of black; they’re stylized, active areas that players will love to explore and fight in.

Along with the zones, all of the spaceships in JGE offer an incredible amount of diversity from one another. After seeing dozens of screenshots depicting the Solrain, it was nice to finally get a chance to gaze at the Octavian ships. While the Solrain ships are streamlined and sleek (more like the Republic transports in Star Wars Eps. I-III), the Octavian ships practically bristle with aggression. With jutting protrusions and wicked profiles, these ships will definitely sate the users lust to look as badass as they feel.

After selecting my avatar, I put on my headphones and jumped into the game. In many of the previous interviews I worked on with Producer Hermann Peterscheck, he and I constantly discussed how focused his team had been on iteration. The first glance at the player screen made it incredibly obvious that the constant iteration cycles had definitely paid off in the user interface. Old space combat gamers will instantly recognize many of the elements of the genre’s standard HUD. From the opponent viewing window to the center targeting reticule, there’s a lot that stays true to that old formula. Shield status and hull integrity are also quickly recognizable and located at the top of the screen.

The graphics in JGE are incredibly varied from one zone or ship to the next.

However, a bevy of MMO related options have been integrated into the UI. At any given moment, a player can access their email, inventory, character info, mission status, galaxy map, social functions, and more. These were all put at the bottom of the screen in a rather inconspicuous little row. If players want to access any of these options, they can quickly hit their middle mouse button and click on anything on their screen. Since there were no joysticks readily available at the event, how selecting these options works in stick mode is still a mystery to me.

Speaking of the joystick, I would have loved to try the game with one in my hands for a number of reasons. In most space combat games, I tend to feel that throttle control is an incredibly important weapon in most dogfights. If you have solid control of your throttling, whether to slow down to perform a tight turn to keep your bead on a target or to keep distances close while protecting another ship, your results in a space combat game will be exceptional. An enemy may have bigger guns, but if you can consistently stay behind them, you’ll win in the long run. While the mouse and keyboard certainly allowed me to maneuver well enough to get through the first few levels, I didn’t have the tight sort of control that I felt would be available with a joystick.

That’s not to say that the mouse and keyboard combination was inadequate. On the contrary, I thought the mouse and keyboard control was exceptional in JGE and it didn’t hinder my progress at all. I simply know that the joystick control would have given me a greater sense of precision, especially on my turns, aiming and throttle.

Speaking of throttle, this was the one element that wasn’t incredibly clear on the UI. While I’m sure it exists amid the windows and targeting panels and shield indicators, I don’t remember looking at the screen and thinking “Oh, there’s my speed and throttle indicator.” Speed can be judged by the flare of your exhaust ports, but the hardcore among us will want to find that little indicator especially during PvP.

Can you imagine seeing this many ships flying at you?

Speaking of PvP, I was thrilled to learn that fifty versus fifty versus fifty PvP will be in the Jumpgate Evolution experience. This was discussed by Codemasters’ David Solari during his JGE presentation, and the brand new trailer that they’ve unveiled gives a sense of that epic combat feeling of massive amounts of ships flying at each other at the same time. On top of that, the NetDevil and Codemasters teams have also said that instanced PvP action will also be available. Although there are a number of vocal Jumpgate fans that are against instanced PvP, I really enjoyed the concept in Warhammer Online, and I think it’s a great way for people to jump in and jump out of the game if they only have a few minutes of free time to spare.

Finally, there were a number of small things that I noticed while playing the game that I thought were remarkably neat. While using the mouse and the keyboard, I noticed that there was a small targeting reticule that would help me to “lead” the target that I was locked on. The grouping system and the integrated voice chat were very helpful. The different color exhaust port / afterburners are a nice touch to help identify opposing factions.

At the end of the day, I was ecstatic with what I saw with Jumpgate Evolution. From a space combat gamer’s perspective, it feels like the NetDevil team has gone out of their way to insure that all of the little things that we enjoy have been integrated into the game. Space feels denser than I ever thought was possible, and the overall quality just seems to be so much better than any game I’ve ever seen in this stage of production. With months until release, the NetDevil developers can make this game into something incredible for space combat gamers.

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