Jumpgate Evolution - hands-on

You don’t wash your dishes with a lawnmower. Even if they’re encrusted with a week’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’s an inelegant metaphor, but one that applies to the ambitious design MMO house NetDevil has planned. They’ve merged two seemingly dissimilar, dirty things together (an MMO experience and real-time space combat gameplay), and now it’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’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’s an MMO for folks (like me) who miss the charming barrel rolls and tense missile locks of Wing Commander, but it’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’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’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’s purchased enough licenses to equip big guns (Jumpgate won’t use a class system for characters). We circle-strafe a tall space station in our corvette, lobbing mortars at the station’s individual turrets, then its power generator, dealing splash damage all the while.

It’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’re not auto-targeting a lumbering space pebble, but seeking out little nuggets along the asteroid’s surface, then zapping them with your resource ray. And now that we’ve got a feel for the cockpit, we’ll definitely report back once the Jumpgate beta hits around Q2 of this year, after we’ve gathered an idea of how developing a character integrates with PvP, forming alliances, and Jumpgate’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.
– 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’t have a clear sense of the factions’ intentions or personality.

Jan 8, 2009