I have a slightly embarrassing confession to make. Before I was able to really start looking at Elite: Dangerous’ ‘Powerplay’ features the other week, I had to remember how to actually fly my ship. After dumbly gazing around the dusty cockpit of my Cobra Mk. III for a short while, I swallowed my pride and returned to the tutorials for a crash course.
You don’t want to know how long it took me to re-master that bloody Sidewinder face-off mission.
Once I was satisfied that I’d resumed familiarity with my hybrid controller-and-some-keyboard-bits set-up (no fancy joystick for me I’m afraid,) I took on a straightforward looking bounty contract as a ‘live combat’ refresher course. After tracking him down and dropping out of supercruise, I deployed my hardpoints and … suffered a total power drain, leaving me a particularly idiotic looking sitting duck.
I’d bought a new turret (taking advantage of the Powerplay beta’s reduced pricing structure) and forgotten to check whether I actually had the juice to run it. Elite: Dangerous, then; still wonderfully unforgiving for the ill-prepared.
Fortunately that was the last moron tier mistake I made, as some of the intricacies of the flight model, trading, and plotting routes through the universe started to come flooding back.
Speaking of plotting. And routes (well, maps,) the most significant introduction to Powerplay is the network of competing factions, spreading their malign and/or glorious influence across the stars. Players are free to pledge their loyalties to whomever they choose (though flitting about between powers has penalties, so think before you decide,) and there appear to be political hues to suit most tastes.
The nearest chap in my neighbourhood, for example, was a ruthless Federalist who wanted to expand his influence through the use of military and civilian intelligence, and aimed to maintain control through military strength. He also appeared to be massively over-stretched, and many of his systems were said to be in “turmoil,” ready to revolt.
His ethos didn’t appeal, and his falling status appealed even less. So instead I hitched my wagon to Prime Minister Mahon of the trade-centric Alliance, who were making encouraging noises about opposing the “slave wage culture” inside the Federation.
The intent behind Elite: Dangerous’ Powerplay update is to add a distinct, and arguably more overt, layer of galaxy-altering player activities on top of those (such as localised faction affiliation) that already exist.
When the game launched in December 2014, it did so with the fundamental basics of mining, bounty hunting, trading, and exploration, but the influence of player actions on the overall universe seemed scant. While the main powers were lightly sketched (you knew when you were in an Imperial system, for example,) their presence was mostly shown in the aesthetics of space ports or the availability of certain vessels. With Powerplay, there’s now the opportunity to attach yourself to a name, a face, and an ethos, within the faction of your choice.
Once signed up with a given power, it’s possible for players to rise through that organisation’s ranks and receive certain faction-relevant passive bonuses (say, reduced ship insurance costs or lower fines for bad behaviour.) To do so, it’s necessary to further your faction’s cause in return for ‘merit’ points. Just like being in the Space Scouts.
In the case of Mahon’s Alliance, that involved me ferrying various pieces of trade legislation to systems that were either under Alliance ‘control’ or in the nearby sphere of influence and being ‘exploited.’ Some of this was for personal gain (to hoover up some merits,) but in some systems my contribution was adding to the collective goal of wresting control from a different power. Factions don’t just give passive bonuses to players, they also change the rules in systems under their control. Alliance-controlled locations, for example, turn into ideal trade hubs for agricultural goods. A good summary of faction bonuses and boosts can be read here.
It’s plain that these changes are further intended to drive social interaction outside the game itself. Frontier want you hooking up with like-minded faction members to plan expansions and defend present territory (especially as that territory will be giving you bonuses to your trade, or your criminal enterprises, or whatever.) No matter how in-depth the game lore gets, it’s unlikely to be a substitute for good old fashioned human rivalry.
In theory, minor powers with enough player backing could rise from obscurity and become fully-fledged players (Frontier say there will ultimately be twenty ‘major’ powers at any given time.) This would surely require a sustained campaign from a large group, but the idea of pushing an obscure faction to glory is precisely the sort of thing that resonates with some players.
The impact on the economic structures of the Elite: Dangerous universe from all these inter-warring powers is potentially enormous. I say potentially, because at this point I have no idea how it’s all going to play out (nor would I trust anybody who claims that they do.) I’m not even sure whether all of the various faction effects were working in full during the beta period I played. That seemed a little odd, since you’d imagine an accelerated beta is the ideal time to test how everything interacts, but it’s quite possible Frontier is building up to this rather than just flipping all the switches at once.
There’s more to Powerplay than the factions, of course. Additional ships, better turrets, mining drones, and changes to mission and bounty systems are all in there. But it’s the galactic push-and-pull, the painting and repainting of different colours on the new Powerplay map, which feels like the most significant, and potentially game-changing, addition.
That’s the word, once again. Potentially. So much depends on how players take to the different factions, how various groups approach the mechanics Frontier is putting in place, and how the universe copes once it has all kinds of different passive changes running right through its veins. Powerplay feels like the layer of narrative and player-drive faction activity that Elite: Dangerous has needed since launch, but I’ve little doubt it’ll require (and receive) substantial tweaking and shaping past beta and beyond.