Free-to-play, space based shooter Star Conflict has been in open beta since the end of July this year, and this last week I finally had a chance to get my hands on it. Often presented as an MMOFPS, this game more rightly belongs in the realm of ship-based first person shooters. There are elements of it that are persistent, but the MMO moniker is not one that should be applied here. More accurately, I would say that this is an online only FPS which has been fused with the necessary social elements to make the F2P model function. (This means an item store, an avatar you develop, and a rankings system to drive sales.) The end result, despite the fears some may have around games without a sticker price, is not at all displeasing.
At this stage of the beta the majority of the game play focuses around two areas. In the first, your hanger, you can spend your time modifying your ship, assigning experience points to your pilot, and tracking your accomplishments amongst the different factions. Once you are satisfied with your setup from this screen you launch into the second area of the game: space. The engine will pick a sector and pair you with other players - launching into a capture-the-hill like game of evasion, attack, and survival. This portion of the game will be familiar to anyone who has played a space-based shooter before. Shields, blasters, zero-gravity, and low level motion-sickness abound. And while it will be familiar to most gamers, I can't go so far as to register this as a complaint.
Zooming around Star Conflict in your tricked out ship is actually pretty satisfying, even before you take into account any of the combat mechanics. It's not quite as peaceful as a trip across the system in one of the Homeworld games, but the expansive levels do give the player the proper level of infinite-space induced awe. Panoramic just barely begins to be the right term. Of course, the first blaster shot across your bow immediately reminds you of the actual proximity of your neighbors. The maps may look infinite, but it is in fact just a short jump away to the nearest person intent on your destruction. Turning to confront your enemy you'll immediately unload the majority of your ammunition and wonder why you can't seem to frag the opposing ship. After a bit of patience, and quite a bit of blaster spamming you'll penetrate their shields and be given the satisfaction of a proper explosion. The end-game for the player vs player combat doesn't seem to be resting so much around who has the best combo timing, but rather on who has the most consistent aim tracking.
To be sure, as the game develops further, combat will become more and more of an itemization race, but for the time being nearly everyone has to settle on the basic level weapons and ships. In general this means that the combat doesn't feel as tight, or as tense, as it could, but over time this aspect of the game should develop. There certainly seems to be enough selections in the store to support quite a varied cast of ship arsenals, the only question will be how they are balanced against each other to support both variety and equality in game play styles.
All things considered, Star Conflict is an ambitious project for the free-to-play game model. The overall quality of the graphics and the scope of the project impressed well beyond what you typically might expect from games hoping to strike it big on a social re-branding of a traditional genre. The developer, Star Gem Inc, clearly wants to deliver a polished, retail game feel in a free package. The only areas actively holding them back from this are the music, sound effects, and player orientation sections of the game. Despite these elements, and the slightly cheesy jump at the MMO wagon, there is enough going for this game to make its continuing development cause for excitement. If we're all lucky, some day soon we'll get to see the final product realized.