Game: Elite: Dangerous
Developer: Frontier Developments
Release Date: December 16th, 2014
Platform Reviewed on: PC (copy provided by developer)
Frameshift Drive Charging
Elite: Dangerous is an online space combat/trading game based upon the original Elite released in 1984 on the BBC. In Elite Dangerous, you take the role of a space ship commander (CMDR) and your goal is to become “Elite” rank in one of three categories: Exploration, Trading, and Combat. Those will be your primary means to make money in Elite Dangerous. Trading can consist of running trade routes, smuggling goods, hauling contracts, mining asteroids, or even fencing stolen goods you picked up via piracy. When it comes to combat, you can be a bounty hunter and take assassination contracts. Sail through space as a pirate or sell your services as a mercenary — you can even fight in conflict zones for a particular faction and cause.
You can also be an explorer, go out to the deep dark and explore systems no living player has even left a frame shift wake in. Perform astronomical scans and planetary surveys, and venture thousands of light years from civilized space to find those juicy M class planets. Follow that up with a trek back to civilized space to sell your data to your preferred faction or whoever will pay. Exploration’s biggest rewards aren’t monetary but getting out there and seeing the really unique stellar formations that exist in Elite‘s procedurally generated galaxy.
Space is Big, Really Big
The procedurally generated galaxies might be the biggest accomplishments of Elite Dangerous. 400 billion star systems generated based on our current understanding of how solar systems, and even the Milky Way galaxy formed. Think about that number for a moment: 400 billion systems. With that many systems, almost any stellar configuration you can imagine is out there. A system with 16 stars, or a system with six black holes — these systems are out there. All objects in every system have an orbit complete with celestial movement. I imagine, at the time of writing, players haven’t even explored a full two percent of the systems out there. The galaxy includes many “real” star systems that were generated using actual astronomic data for the stars and the exoplanets in that system. That may not mean much to some people, but for us science fiction geeks it is awesome.
Once you undock in your Sidewinder (the starting ship) for the first time, whatever you do from that point forward is up to you. Frontier Developments calls Elite Dangerous an MMO and in the strictest sense of the definition, it is: its massive multiplayer and online, but this isn’t WoW in space, this isn’t even Eve Online. It is Elite Dangerous. The lack of direction and the utter lack of any sort of hand holding or guidance will no doubt turn away some gamers. Those who are used to a much more structured game that leads them along a carefully crafted chain of quests along with gear grind may not enjoy it.
Speaking of grind — there is a grind in this game, but it is only as bad as you let it. If you absolutely have to get into an Anaconda or Python as fast as possible, you may find yourself doing the most boring things possible to maximize credits per hour. Alternatively, if you want to have fun and actually enjoy the game, I’d suggest finding something you enjoy and using that to “make you way” in the universe, or if you’re like me just bounce around from one thing to the next.
I’ve worked myself into an Asp and went exploring out in the deep dark. Unfortunately, I lost it in an accident with a binary star system. Unable to afford the insurance cost I was reduced back to a Sidewinder, the starting ship, and with a healthy chunk of cash in my pocket I worked on rebuilding my fortune. I’m now in a fully A-rank fitted Lakon Type-6, and an A-rank fitted Viper. Both ships combined cost more than my Asp ever did. It was a hard but rewarding slog back to the top and at times I had to remind myself why I was even bothering. Elite Dangerous is an apt name for this game.
I’m not certain calling Elite Dangerous an MMO is really an accurate description of the game. There is little reason to engage in anything that most players would consider standard MMO behavior — that is to say, there is little to no reason to “party up” or fly in groups and there are currently no mechanics that facilitate this behavior. You can trade cargo in space by having a friend eject it, and scooping it yourself but that is about as meaningful as player interaction is in this game outside of shooting each other.
Player “Wings” are coming according to Frontier but unless they include ways to share mission rewards and other activities I don’t see much of a reason to even bother with it. It is odd because the game supports voice chat, so clearly Frontier had planned for a high degree of player interaction. The voice chat even uses a grainy space filter that sounds like you’re actually talking over a space com. In its current form, Elite Dangerous is more of an Online Shared Universe, or OSU, rather than an MMO. If you go into it expecting to be able to work with your friends or to join a guild, prepare to be disappointed in that regard.
From the Shores of Montezuma to the Rings of Neptune
Elite Dangerous does have a story. There is an interesting cold war scenario going on between two of the major factions, the Federation and the Empire. There are daily news stories and events heavily referencing this conflict. You can go and assume your place in these story events and fight for the Empire or Federation in these near-proxy conflicts, but they will progress with or without your help. Player intervention will determine which way the conflict goes but it doesn’t have to be yours. You’re not a hero in Elite Dangerous — you’re just the commander of a spaceship. Your effect on the story may not even be great. However, I’ve never really felt like I was “part of a faction” when I was forced to join a faction in any other game. Yet in Elite Dangerous find myself on the look out for Federation ships to pirate and helping Empire ships as I fly around space. Currently I’m a squire in the Empire and they are friendly with me. The Federation wants me for smuggling drugs and weapons. There is nothing in my character sheet that says “Empire” or “Federation”, and anyone targeting me would not know my allegiance. However I know it, and that is enough. The Federation ships certainly know it as their hulls shatter under the force of my cannons.
Combat in Elite Dangerous is fantastic. The flight model isn’t one hundred percent realistic and I can’t imagine it would be fun to fight in if it was. Otherwise, the few Kerbal Space Program combat mods would be far more popular than they are. The actual flight model has a massively reduced yaw from side to side that encourages rolling towards a target and then thrusting towards them rather than trying to yaw from side to side to get guns on target. It’s great and I’ve never felt gimped using a joystick over a mouse or mouse over a joystick. Everyone says a joystick is best but honestly I never felt more effective in combat with a joystick than without. A gamepad like the Xbox controller is even feasible if noticeably less effective in combat, at least with fixed weapons. That said, a gamepad is great for lazy trade runs between stations or for jumping long distances.
Ships in Elite Dangerous have a vast array of weapons to choose from. They range from purely defensive mine clusters to high-powered fixed rail guns that accelerate metal slugs at a fraction of the speed of light. All of them are great fun to use and have amazingly meticulous designs. In my Asp I can look to the side and see my guns rock back as they fire— it wasn’t expected in a game where you never actually get outside to view your ship.
The attention to these small details really highlight and show why Elite Dangerous is considered so immersive. Not only is the game visually stunning, but the detail is astonishing at times. The first time you get your cockpit breached and the glass shatters and air rushes out, activating your emergency life support functions will stun you. It was amazing and after I’d docked and saved myself I was just floored. Elite Dangerous is the first game to get me researching the Oculus Rift for the gameplay experience.
Despite this attention to detail, Elite Dangerous is a game that isn’t quite finished in ways you’d expect. It’s akin to a house during construction. The drywall, plumbing, fixtures, and electrical are there and it is, technically, a house you can live in. The small creature comforts are missing though, and there are still a few scraps from construction strewn about. The three ways to make money just do not have much depth. You’re either trading, exploring, or blowing people up. There isn’t much variation between blowing people up and taking their cargo, or smuggling legal cargo into systems where they’re illegal, and features like mining feel utterly rudimentary and in their current implementation are not really worth it once you get a larger ship. I’m sure all this will change in upcoming patches and expansions. Elite Dangerous has no monthly fee and many players are more than willing to play what is there while they look forward to what is coming.
Right now Elite Dangerous has an excellent core game to build on. It runs excellently on my modest computer. It is visually stunning and the sound design is just amazing. But it isn’t quite finished and that is what keeps it me from giving it the perfect score I want to give it, especially considering how many hours of my life it has consumed since the time of review. With that I’m forced to give Elite Dangerous a score of eight out of ten. Perhaps later I can come back and revise my score to more accurately reflect what I feel — could have easily been a ten with just a few more months of development time focused on expanding the core gameplay elements.
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