[Editor’s note: Kat was mildly inebriated when this entry was written. Please gauge her spite accordingly.]
You might have heard last week’s Retronauts, in which our fearless leader and company sat down to respond to letters courtesy of you, the loyal listeners. Well, I assume that you’re a loyal listener. If you are, take a moment to pat yourself on the back. Maybe you remember the letter lamenting the death of space combat simulators. I do, because outside of giant robot and Pocket Monster-collecting genres, space combat is the genre nearest and dearest to my heart. So allow me to do a bit of lamenting of my own.
Over the course of the letter, our anonymous reader (I say anonymous because I don’t know his or her name, and I’m too lazy to go back to the podcast to look it up) wondered aloud why space combat had to go the way of the Pet Rock, CDs, and adventure games. And I think it was Sharkey who responded by positing the theory that space combat died because, outside of a graphical facelift, all of the necessary territory had been covered. With FreeSpace 2 and (urgh) Battlecruiser 3000AD, where else was there to go?
Well, MMOs for one. That territory, of course, has been canvassed pretty thoroughly by EVE Online. But you could also argue that (1) EVE Online’s combat is, in the words of someone or other on the podcast, “boring as shit” and (2) it doesn’t really cover the whole Luke Skywalker angle. You know, taking the controls of an X-wing and blowing up the Death Star kind of stuff. That’s all anybody’s ever wanted to do, and even going back to the original X-Wing, LucasArts has never quite gotten it right. EVE Online only really covers the capital ships, and their idea of an attack on the Death Star is to ram one of the Titan mega cruisers out of their safety bubble while its captain is offline and bombard it to death. So, maybe EVE Online isn’t quite the heir to the space combat throne that we’ve all been looking for.
Jumpgate Evolution, on the other hand, is quite a bit more tantalizing. Not only does it promise full starfighter customization, but it’s offering the chance to join three factions and participate in battles featuring hundreds of ships. Sure, the latency will probably cut into the experience a bit, but sit back and imagine it for a bit. That’s the stuff of dreams. Now imagine if they replaced Jumpgate Evolution with “X-Wing Online.” Even the idea of a new X-Wing or TIE Fighter game is enough to bring the Internet to a screeching halt while eliciting streams of excited punctuation and joyous cursing from every Star Wars fan who has anything resembling a pulse.
The problem, though, is that even as sources public and private positively scream for a new TIE Fighter, LucasArts isn’t biting. They’ve jumped ship and pretty much left PC gaming to Blizzard and Valve. They wouldn’t even bring their multi-million dollar baby Star Wars: The Force Unleashed over to the PC, so why would they ever bother to exhume the corpse of Totally Games and ask them to make another X-Wing? The best we can hope for is that they’ll get Factor 5 to go back and make another Rogue Squadron game for the Wii, or whatever system they decide to develop for. Otherwise, they’re more than happy to leave the pile of money an X-Wing Online would garner on the table and go on making two (count’em: two) lightsaber games for the Wii.
As for the rest of the old-school space combat simulator developers, Origin has long since been assimilated by Electronic Arts, and Interplay is still a shambling corpse. These days, your best bet is downloading Freespace 2 and playing the Battlestar Galactica mod, or checking out the Elite mod that was built using the Vega Strike engine (side note: Why call a space combat game “Vega Strike”? Seriously, I’m betting there were at least a few disappointed video poker players when that game came out). And, of course, there’s always Jumpgate Evolution, which will probably find a very nice little niche next to EVE Online and every other MMO that exists under the shadow of World of Warcraft. The reality, though, is that the major developers aren’t going to be throwing any major money at starfighter combat anytime soon. This is a genre that has always been realized best on the PC, and these days, it seems that market only has enough room for The Sims, World of WarCraft, Half-Life 2, and whatever else Blizzard cooks up. Everything else need not apply.
It’s a shame, too, because I do still think there’s some potential to be squeezed out of this old bird. If nothing else, the advent of the sandbox genre should give Electronic Arts a few ideas on how to retool Privateer for a new generation. And god, why hasn’t anybody made a good starship simulator yet (Star Trek: Captain’s Chair not withstanding?) Why the hell are the Japanese the ones picking up the slack on the Nintendo DS? None of that’s going to happen, though. Not until a lighbulb flashes in some LucasArt’s exec’s head ten years down the line, and they ask, “Say, why don’t we try bringing back those X-wing games, for old times’ sake?”
So there’s your answer, anonymous Retronauts letter-writer. It’s all Lucasart’s fault space combat simulators are dead. Typical.