The first thing you notice about Jumpgate Evolution is its clear, strong sci-fi theme. From the initial screen to the game's UI, everything shouts 'space' and the distinctive look-and-feel of the game certainly differentiates it from fantasy MMOs. However, a lot of the space theme is awfully... familiar. Sure, there's not much you can do with the general theme "spaceship in outer space", but JE instantly brings several other sci-fi MMOs to mind as early as the character creation screen.
As far as creation options go, you're quite limited -- there are three nations, the mercantile Solrain, visionary Quantar and heroic Octavius. You have a choice of helmets and faces that display behind said helmets, including (gasp!) a couple of female-looking options. We weren't sure if they were actually girls, but close enough for our liking.
Once your character's created it's off to the obligatory cutscene intro vid, where floating spacewrecks and emergency radio broadcasts set the scene -- attacks and tragedy mean that you need to battle an enemy called the Inferno to clear your name. This smoothly leads into the first mission: destroy six Infernal Pirate ships.
You're instantly put in control of a spaceship and given some pop-up hints to help you target and kill the enemies around you. This is the make-or-break point of a game like this: the moment that the player really gets to see what they'll be doing for the majority of their time in-game. Does Jumpgate pass the test?
Our initial impressions aren't too hot, sadly. Coming from a more traditional MMO and FPS background, rather than a flight sim background, being thrown into combat is like being tossed into a sea without knowing how to swim. The screen whirls around, the ship moves wonderfully smoothly in entirely the wrong direction and before you know it there's an asteroid in your face and you're feeling awfully seasick.
Perhaps it's just us -- we have no doubt that someone used to flight sims and playing with a joystick (the game is designed for both keyboard/mouse and joystick controls) will pick up the controls and feel right at home. However, it took us quite some time to adjust to the controls and play style, and once we'd figured out how to move around and find enemies to shoot at, targeting and shooting them was fiddly and imprecise. It's hard to lock-on to a tiny rhombus when you're feeling queasy from all the wiggling around your spaceship's doing.
Once you've finished your first
kill ten rats kill six spaceships mission, it's off to the nearest docking station to stare bemusedly at all the trade spam (what on earth are radioactives?) floating around the top of the screen and chat box, equip the new gun we earned on our first mission, and accept another. This mission doesn't involve killing a set number of miscellanous bad things, but instead requires us to fly into a space anomaly and press O -- and then kill a set number of miscelleanous bad things. The missions are short which keeps the initial pace up, fortunately.
NetDevil have aimed to adhere to one underlying principle with Jumpgate -- blowing stuff up (which, if the initial missions are anything to go by, is most of the game) should be fun. Now, we can't deny that the graphics are slick and beautiful, the UI is concise and (with several movable elements) nicely usable, and some of the game concepts -- including factions, medals and licences -- are quite innovative and will add life to the game. Being able to pick your own path by buying different types of ship, forge an empire by becoming a great trader and take part in large-scale space battles is certainly appealing, too.
But, fundamentally, is blowing stuff up fun? Do we want to blow more stuff up? Our initial struggle with the controls and frustration carried through several missions, and ultimately -- we can see that this would be fun, but it wasn't for us. With some polish and playtesting amongst a non-hardcore flight-sim background maybe this game will be more accessible to those of us from a more traditional WASD upbringing, or maybe we simply aren't the target audience. Regardless, NetDevil have some interesting plans for this game, so we'll be watching to see what happens -- sick bags at the ready.