Ah, demos. They were these things we used to have that let you try out part of a game before you decided to buy it. Now, there are so many inexpensive games available digitally that most developers don’t bother making demos. But there’s a good reason that the Russian developers of Skyjacker made a demo: they’re not quite done with the game yet, and they’re looking to crowdsource some funding through Kickstarter. That’s been quite successful for some other game ventures, as you may have heard.
Of course, after Tim Schafer’s success there’s been an explosion of Kickstarter proposals for new games. So what makes Skyjacker stand out? Well, for one, it’s a space sim, which is a classic genre that essentially hasn’t seen any new games since 1999’s Freespace 2, considered by many to be one of the best games ever made. Skyjacker’s developers are also talking up some cool features like fully destructible spaceships that can be blown apart one piece at a time, freeform gameplay that lets the player pick and choose missions and develop their own relations with various factions, and a bunch more. And, unlike most Kickstarter projects, there’s already a fully playable demo. I downloaded it, dusted off my flight stick (literally; it was dusty) and took it for a test flight.
The first thing I noticed, before even launching the game, was that the flight stick support was spot on. In many games of this type I have to spend a while reconfiguring the controls to something that feels better, but with Skyjacker all the controls were right where I would have put them. They are all reconfigurable, of course, I just didn’t need to (and don’t worry, a flight stick is not required; there’s mouse-keyboard control as well, although I did not test it). The second thing I noticed is how pretty it is. The graphics engine is quite impressive, with crisp textures, bright colors and some sweet explosions, and the art direction is quite nice as well, with some interesting ship designs and a consistent visual feel to everything. So I was surprised to learn that the development team will actually be doing a full engine port of the game into Unity — the current demo is apparently for gameplay concepts only. So how are those?
I immediately felt at home with the general flight model, which is essentially the same type we’ve seen in the Freespace games and earlier classics like TIE Fighter (although other flight models are planned too; see below). The first of the two missions in the demo is a basic tutorial, which shows the player how to fly around an asteroid field and blow up some stationary targets, and I was zipping around and taking them out in no time. The second mission is beefier, tasking the player with blowing up a convoy of cargo ships and dealing with its escort of fighters. This mission shows off the destructible ship tech in the game. As I closed in on the cargo ships and let loose with my cannons, I was able to blow off pieces of the ships, and could strategically aim for their engines to disable the ship before it could escape. This looked and felt fantastic, and will definitely be a cool feature to have in the full game.
Dogfights with other fighters were less fun. There’s no “leading” reticule like in the Freespace games, so it can be hard to hit the quick and agile fighters with slow-moving cannon fire. Auto-locking missiles fare a bit better but they’re in limited supply. I ended up having to get up close to take the fighters out, which wasn’t too hard given that the enemy AI was never much of a threat. I never even noticed the enemy fighters harassing me while I was blowing up the cargo ships, and once those were all destroyed I had no trouble weeding out the fighters one by one. The developers claim that enemy AI was toned down for the demo because they’re too tough otherwise, so hopefully the full game will be more challenging. The other major complaint is the audio; sound effects are fine but the voiceovers are barely intelligible. English localization is one of the major things left on the list for development, so we can look forward to some much improved voicework in the finished product.
Overall, I was quite impressed, and many of the features that are promised for the full release sound quite cool. I’m particularly fond of the customization options for the player’s ship, which go far beyond the standard swapping of weapons or engines. For example, certain ship components can actually change the flight model being used. When flying in a close-quarters asteroid field, the player might prefer a semi-Newtonian model that allows maneuvers like drifting sideways or backwards. All that’s required is a different wing component on the ship, and the whole flight behavior changes.
With so many features planned, it’s easy to think that Skyjacker might be a bit overambitious. But the playable demo is already fun enough that I have pretty high hopes for this one. But that leads us back to the Kickstarter, which still has a way to go. At the time of writing, the team has raised just over $30,000 out of their goal of $200,000 with ten days left on the clock. But a similar project, Starlight Inception, was in much the same position before pulling through in the final days, so Skyjacker definitely still has a chance. If you enjoy some space fighter combat, give the demo a try, and if you like it, consider making a pledge. My stance is that the more space sims we get, the better. It’s been a long time since I’ve played a good space sim, and I’m looking forward to climbing into the cockpit again.