In Frontier Development’s Elite: Dangerous you play as aging pilot Matthew McConaughey who is searching the galaxy for a lucrative new element named Love. Or, you are exploring the unknown by your own rules as the dashing and often brash Captain James Tiberius Kirk. Then again, you could use your quick wits to evade the authoritarian laws as you take on some of the more unsavory jobs the verse has to offer as the smuggler Malcolm Reynolds. It’s dirty work, but it pays.
Indeed, Elite: Dangerous is a game that give you free reign to play it your way and more importantly make credits your way. In what is sure to be the first of many mmo-esque games that are slated to launch over the new two years, Elite harness new game development ideas and technologies to create a truly massive game-space that is sure to tickle humanities love of the skies.
Elite is a game that prides itself on its approximately accurate portrayal of stellar distances, sizes, and scope. For the first time in a long time, developer ambition has met technology powerful enough to create a truly massive experience that is also oppressively isolating. You fill see first hand how large the Milky Way truly is – Frontier has taken our current knowledge of our galaxy and accurately plotted the predicted locations of many known stars in the year 3300. The Voyager space probe is even in the game, exactly where it will be over a thousand years from now. [pullquote]Elite’s use of a detailed algorithm to create a digital version of the Milky Way containing approximately 300 billion stars is truly impressive[/pullquote], and Frontier has stated it would take 150,000 years of real time for every system in the game to be explored, assuming player count remains roughly the same as it is now. The current tally as of a few weeks ago was set at 125 thousand currently charted systems, which is just 0.000015% of all in-game systems.
There are five different ways of earning credits available to every player from the onset of the game: Exploration, Bounty Hunting, Questing, Mining, and Trade. While there are no skill trees or “traditional” RPG elements needed to complete any of these paths, as is the case in EVE Oneline pilots will need to outfit their ships properly to get the most out of their desired playstyle.
At the start of the game, you’re given a basic ship that can pretty much do everything in the game, but you will need to acquire credits to purchase better ships and outfit them for space. Explorers will want to shy away from having too many combat ports on their rig, where bounty hunters will want the to be outfitted with laser cannons and missiles to take down their marks.
Whichever way you decide to earn credits is ultimately up to you and your personal taste, with each path bringing its own highs and lows in gameplay. Personally, I found exploration to be the most rewarding aspect of Elite – especially now that your name will be marked on the map as the person who discovered a system for all the world to see. But that isn’t to say that I never veered off into moving a few loads of cargo between stations or tracking down a bounty here and there. It’s just that exploration to me offers the largest variety of pacing as the universe harbors so many surprises, and that’s only set to improve as more and more systems and features – such as planetary exploration ala No Man’s Sky – are added. But really it comes down to the sights and sounds found when exploring the unknown, by plotting a random star on the chart and spending a few hours system hoping to your destination.
With Elite being more of a simulation than just focused on combat – unlike its main rival, Star Citizen – you’ll quickly find that there are vast distances between systems and solar bodies which creates a game of highs and lows. Action is broken up by extended periods of travelling between destinations, and at present there are three modes of travel speeds: Basic Flight, Supercruise, and Hypercruise. Basic flight is use for short range combat, docking with space stations, and mining operations, Supercruise is used to travel between solar bodies, granting you the ability to cover the distance between a star and it’s furthest planet within minutes. Finally there is the space-folding Hypercruise that pushes your ship’s frameshift drive to its maximum potential to easily bridge the unimaginably massive distances between stars and stellar systems. Just make sure you don’t run out of fuel, as you’ll end up adrift in space and slowly running out of oxygen.
However, in its current form, [pullquote]Elite is almost a proof of concept – a massive tech demo with an idea that is a mile wide, but only 10 feet deep.[/pullquote] What do I mean by that? Well, there are a lot of good ideas here, but they aren’t supported by much of anything. Once you see and do all the highpoints you’ve pretty much exhausted what the game has to show you. Sure there are more features coming down the road, such as more missions, a more robust alliance system, planetary exploration, creating and managing space stations, etc.; but as it stands, Elite: Dangerous lacks meaningful content. It still feels as though the game belongs in Early Acces, detracts from the overall experience. Feeling as if the current out-of-the-box experience is a beta build for the game that lacks depth of play to its current features leaves a slightly sour taste in the mouth, even if regular updates have already seen additional features and improvements made.
Sure, there are quests you can pick up from various space stations; but they generally offer nothing more than your standard “kill this” or “acquire this” affair that has plagued mmo’s since their inception. Other games generally combat the tediousness of quest by adding lore elements to them to build up a narrative and give purpose to otherwise mundane activities. But Elite provides little context to questing, and on the whole it lacks any sort of direct in game narrative to help define the experience. Even Minecraft has a narrative to it’s otherwise open ended gameplay: Dig for minerals to build equipment and slay the Ender Dragon. But in Elite you acquire credits to build up your ship which in turns make you more efficient at doing your desired task, but to what end?
Furthermore, what is a frameshift drive and how does it work? The in game description states that it is “a device that allows super cruise travel and hyperspace jumps between star systems.” That’s it, no explanation on how it works or what fuel it uses, but I suspect it is Helium-3 as you can skim fuel off of near by stars. There doesn’t need to be an explicit story to create a narrative, but the current game lacks an explanation for almost anything found within.
A certain lack of direction hand holding is often appreciated by my Dark Souls-loving self, but the half-baked tutorial precariously balances on the line between obtuse and incomplete. More often than not the game will prompt you watch a developer-made tutorial video on YouTube, or all but force you into consulting the official Wiki – which becomes a necessity to even figure out how to take off and leave the first spaceport. If you’re going to make tutorial videos, that are more detailed than any of the tutorials in the actual game, then implement them within the game. This growing trend in recent years of having lore, tutorials, and other aspects of a game being aggregated on one website or another, or a companion App, is a cause for concern, and it’s only getting worse over time.
Elite does manage to achieve levels of emotion I’ve rarely felt from a game. The exploration of the unknown is exhilarating. I’m still nervous when jumping into hypercruise as the sounds of the ship and the music build up the tension, and the first handful of times I dropped out of hyperspace – or found myself dragged out of it thanks to another player or NPC looking for an easy target, only to find myself barreling head first into a fiery star scared me into a panic. The tight combat resembles the Tie Fighter and X-Wing franchises of the mid-90s, and create some of the best, most thrilling moments in the game as you exchange volleys with enemy ships. There is also nothing quite as scary as straying too close to a star and having its gravity-well pull you out of supercruise and having to race to find your escape vector before your ship overheats. It’s sad that these moments punctuate long periods of point-to-point travelling to destinations with very little actual content. Space is vast, sure; but an empty, if pretty, universe doesn’t exactly lead to having an awful lot of genuine fun.
Hardware will also play a major role in your experience with Elite as a pair of loud headphones lend themselves well to the gaming experience by further immersing you into the pilot seat as you cruise the skies. Controls are equally as important as the game is next to unplayable with a mouse and keyboard, with Frontier even going so far as to recommend a flight stick for the most optimal experience (something which is highly recommended). At the very least a D-pad will work in a pinch, but in true simulator fashion you’ll never rid yourself completely of the keyboard – there’s simply too many buttons to keep track of, too many ship systems and menus to manage. For those wishing to completely isolate themselves in space, Elite also offers support for those fortunate enough to own Oculus VR’s Rift headset. Playing it this way is a transformative experience, though being unable to see the keyboard does make it more fiddly than it should.
Make no mistake – for all its stunning looks, sounds and open-ended gameplay, Elite: Dangerous is a niche game directed at a specific audience willing to engage with the online community. While that community is dedicated, it is still on the smaller side compared to how large this game space is, and the lack of an offline option will irk many. [pullquote]You can go hours if not days without seeing another player[/pullquote], and to some extent that is the point of the game’s scope; but it is sometimes hard to differentiate between AI-driven NPCs and actual human beings – something which the upcoming No Man’s Sky is actually set to make all but impossible by design.
Elite is also a crowd-funding success story, raised over a million dollars on Kickstarter and even more via sales of the beta throughout development and plenty of merchandise, which has helped to create a supportive and dedicated online community that is patient and willing to wait for new game features as they roll out. The community is active on Reddit and serves as one of the better places for new pilots when starting out with the game. Honestly, the detailed guides I found were a must for myself as it was over a week before I really got my bearings and was able to fly between the stars with any sort of confidence. But you have to wonder how long that patience will last, and if Frontier starts missing its targets and crucial features start to slip then it could find itself in a spot of bother. Fans are fickle, and it doesn’t take much to turn your most fervent supporter against you – something that another legendary British designer, Peter Molyneux, has learned only too well in the last week.
In the end Elite: Dangerous suffers from the same problems that many large scale space simulators do: the strive for realism also brings excessive lulls in pacing. Elite is trying to be more of a realistic space experience than it is trying to be an adventure game, and that distinction should be made to unaware players before they purchase. Much like EVE, Elite will require a certain level of dedication and significant time investment that not every player will be willing to make.
Those who are dedicated and contributed to the crowd funding are aware of the game’s history and direction, and they are getting an experience that they want. But currently as it stands the game sells for a hefty price tag and I found the game lacking as I couldn’t ever shake the “Early Access” vibe that I felt throughout every aspect of the game. In a time where Early Access is becoming more and more the norm in videogames, many fans of the industry have cried foul at incomplete games being released under a heavy price tag. With the past year having some of the most egregious examples of AAA games clearly being released before they were fully cooked, Elite seems to stand in line with the rest. Now, Elite: Dangerous is not claiming to be a huge AAA title; nor is it filled with game-breaking bugs and system-crashing errors, but it does feel incomplete in various ways.
As mentioned before, there is a lot of good with Elite, and perhaps in a year after the many planned content patches have been released I’ll revisit it to find a deeper gameplay experience, but as it stands I have to break up my final opinion between niche fans and the general gaming population. The niche audience will rightly find this game to be a 9 out of 10, with its beautiful graphics and tight flight controls during combat. Where the general audience might be left wanting more once they get their fill of exploration and combat. I myself needed several weeks with the game before I fully appreciate all it had to offer.
Elite: Dangerous is not a bad game in any regards, it’s often a very good game; but it’s a game that desperately needs more content, and one that only thrills once or twice every few hours.