Wednesday, February 22, 2017

Taking Flight en Masse

Wings of Saint Nazaire is an indie space combat flight-sim introduced as a pre-alpha demo back in 2014.  More proof-of-concept than actual game, Nazaire's most outstanding feature is its use of simple polygonal shapes bitmapped to display highly detailed pre-rendered sprites.  It's a form of graphical ingenuity that hasn't been used much since the days of Wing Commander I and II.  Back then it was by necessity, since computers of that era struggled to render more than triple-digit polygon counts.  However, in this day and age, video game platforms, such as the PS4, can render up to 1.6 billion polygons at once.  Considering the average vessel in Wing Commander had a double-digit polygon count that means over a million craft on-screen at once is in the realm of possibility, right?'s not quite that simple.  There's actually a large number of other factors that will eat into the available processing power; tracking data, A.I., physics modeling, and particle effects are just a few examples.  There's also the whole 1080p/60fps matter to consider as well.  That said, hundreds of spacecraft should be perfectly doable, and with some code optimization that number could even climb into the thousands, which would allow for some truly colossal battles.

As much as I appreciate Star Citizen's attempts to innovate on the space combat flight-sim genre with respect to lovingly 3-D rendered spaceships, I find myself wanting to see what a push in a tangential directing would result in.  You of the hang-ups I have with a lot of space combat flight-sims is their lack of scale.  With the exception of a few standout titles like Tie Fighter and Freespace, most of these kinds of games feature more than a dozen vessels in a given combat zone.  It feels especially weird when technical documentation about some-such carrier spaceship claims that it has a fighter complement of over one-hundred craft, yet in-game a player will never see anywhere near that number.  Wing Commander II got around it to some degree by assigning the player a lot of scouting and patrol missions.  Either that or on rare occasions a story-based reason would be brought up to justify the small number of strike craft ("Our fighter deck has been damaged...again.  We can't launch or land anything!").  It's alright...I guess, but I'd still like to see a space combat flight-sim that swaps out the detail of a magnifying glass for the majesty of a panoramic.

Wings of Saint Nazaire appears to be taking some tentative steps in that 'wider view' direction.  Whether or not anything will come of it remains to be seen.  According to the developer's blog, progress is being made, but real life demands have inhibited the studio's forward momentum.  Hopefully fans will get to play an updated version of the game sometime soon.  Also, here's hoping that the envisioned end product doesn't get gutted along the way like what happened to House of the Dying Sun.

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