Jumpgate Evolution - hands-on

Massively multiplayer outerspace action

You don%26rsquo;t wash your dishes with a lawnmower. Even if they%26rsquo;re encrusted with a week%26rsquo;s worth of shameful burrito negligence, you do it the right way: let them soak and steep, hoping that the grime frees itself overtime. It%26rsquo;s an inelegant metaphor, but one that applies to the ambitious design MMO house NetDevil has planned. They%26rsquo;ve merged two seemingly dissimilar, dirty things together (an MMO experience and real-time space combat gameplay), and now it%26rsquo;s a matter of immersing them in enough development to produce a clean product.

How do you join character persistency with twitchy sci-fi dogfighting? It helps to have done it before - Evolution is a sequel to the original Jumpgate, an MMO the dev released in 2001 that remains adored by many communities (and is still up-and-running), but didn%26rsquo;t gather much momentum because its publisher, 3DO, barely supported it. The remake is similar - not mathy or plodding like EVE Online, but more of a cockpit-and-crosshairs experience. No hotbar. No ability cooldowns. No filing through dense menus to set a course between sectors. It%26rsquo;s an MMO for folks (like me) who miss the charming barrel rolls and tense missile locks of Wing Commander, but it%26rsquo;s laden with enough persistency to let you fly cooperative missions and develop your character up to captaining capital ships.

We begin as a member of the Solrain Commonwealth, the power-hungriest and most corporate of Jumpgate%26rsquo;s three playable factions. We scan a nebula to uncover a pirate probe cloaked inside the red haze, which bugs the pirates enough to zip a few squads of red, claw-shaped ships at us. Minutes in, we%26rsquo;re blasting Infernals (the pirate faction), lasering enough red and green into their weak scouts to crack hulls. The comfortably shootery strafing and ship mobility stood out; moving our fighter laterally with WASD feels just as responsive as forward movement. We upgraded to a different vessel after that, asking NetDevil to pull up a higher-leveled pilot that%26rsquo;s purchased enough licenses to equip big guns (Jumpgate won%26rsquo;t use a class system for characters). We circle-strafe a tall space station in our corvette, lobbing mortars at the station%26rsquo;s individual turrets, then its power generator, dealing splash damage all the while.

It%26rsquo;s these action-oriented moments that reassure us that Jumpgate will center itself on active gameplay. Even mining resources off asteroids is made more engaging - you%26rsquo;re not auto-targeting a lumbering space pebble, but seeking out little nuggets along the asteroid%26rsquo;s surface, then zapping them with your resource ray. And now that we%26rsquo;ve got a feel for the cockpit, we%26rsquo;ll definitely report back once the Jumpgate beta hits around Q2 of this year, after we%26rsquo;ve gathered an idea of how developing a character integrates with PvP, forming alliances, and Jumpgate%26rsquo;s player-driven economy.

+ Aside from the mech genre, space combat is a gaping black hole in PC gaming we desperately want filled. Mixing real-time combat with MMO persistency hits a great note. Proposed extras like in-game radio stations could make cruising empty space less mind-numbing.
%26ndash; What we saw was light on lore and context - staples of the genre like pop-up radio avatars need to be included, and we didn%26rsquo;t have a clear sense of the factions%26rsquo; intentions or personality.

Jan 8, 2009

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