Elite: Dangerous Review

Before we get to the imploding heat-fusion core of this review, here’s something important to remember about Elite: Dangerous: it’s an always-online game where even the single player component requires a semi-constant connection. On launch day (ie; when this review goes up,) Frontier’s servers may have problems.

The recent history for always-online PC titles suggests this will be the case, though at the time of writing launch day seems to actually be going pretty smoothly. That’s good news for all concerned.

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It’s not every always-online game that works well enough for you to take screencaps on launch day.

During the Gamma process (the period on which this review is based, and one which was near-identical to the launch build) Elite: Dangerous had significant server hiccups around major updates but generally stayed functional outside of those periods. Once any launch day rush passes, I’d expect this to be the norm for the game. Just don’t be surprised if the servers get a little sketchy now and then.

Gaming historians or those with suitably long memories will know that the original 1984 Elite somewhat inadvertently created the notion of ‘sandbox’ gaming. Designed in part as a reaction against the prescriptive nature of linear games, its revolutionary (for home computers) 3D graphics and complex gameplay stood out in an era where major publishers were unable to see beyond arcade-styled releases.

In the interim 30 years, games have caught up with Elite’s hyperspace leap in design. Revolutionary ideas from 1984 are now commonplace, and Elite: Dangerous finds itself adopting established concepts like persistent online marketplaces and drop-in-drop-out multiplayer, rather than pursuing radical innovations.

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Perhaps the most harrowing view of any young pilot’s life.

Though it may not be the vanguard of a new revolution, Elite: Dangerous does find itself part of a space game renaissance; and with such a dearth of top tier space sandbox titles in recent times, the design philosophy of “what if Elite had been made in 2014?” is still suitably bold. The game’s traditional learning curve, which means even straightforward actions like docking require some semblance of skill and mastery, also feels refreshing.

To a whole generation of players who may, at best, have played Elite-inspired titles, they’re now getting a new take on the real thing.

Elite: Dangerous retains the series’ unusual mix of egalitarianism and laissez-faire capitalism, putting every player in a low-level ship (this time, a Sidewinder,) giving them a handful of credits and pushing them out of the space port to make their fortune in the big wide galaxy. “Big wide galaxy” feels a little inadequate as a description, really, given that the game has (quite literally) billions of stars to visit.

You can certainly argue about the actual merits of including so very many individual systems, but it does contribute to something Elite: Dangerous handles extremely well: scale. The first time you zoom out on the galaxy map and see your local systems get swallowed up by layer after layer of star clusters, until all you can see is the game’s approximation of the Milky Way, it’s a daunting moment. Early trips out into deep space feel like pioneering jumps into the unknown.

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This is the galaxy zoomed RIGHT in.

You get used to that feeling, of course. But Elite: Dangerous caters directly to those fascinated by the formation of unique astronomical bodies, offering rare systems with binary stars and black holes to gawp at. The game’s visual presentation is such that this can be its own reward, but there’s also a practical monetary reason for pushing right into the deepest depths of space. Exploration data, while not the most efficient generator of cash, can be sold for decent returns to interested parties.

The way to make serious bank in the Elite universe, though, is through trading. Almost every system has a marketplace, and through diligent observation of the supply and demand in the local area (Elite: Dangerous is a game where you might even find yourself taking notes) it’s possible to make a pretty penny. Your starting ship only has a small cargo hold, but with a bit of dedication (and some luck with high-reward missions,) it’s easy to be sucked right in to the open-ended cycle of “perform task, earn money, buy better ship capable of doing more of said task, earn money, buy better ship …”

Euro Truck Simulator In Space may not sound immediately attractive, but the combination of Elite: Dangerous’ wonderful flight model and intergalactic ambience just about prevents the act of space travel from getting stale. It’s clear how this game has found such favour with Oculus Rift users, including our own Paul Younger.

Ship upgrades feel like meaningful progression, because each one performs with a unique sense of character; from the ultra-maneuverable Viper fighter, the strangled churn of the clunky Hauler’s engines as it drops out of hyperspace, to the familiar silhouette and roomy cockpit of the Cobra Mk III. The playable ships may only be nudging 15 or so at present, but each one has a distinct feel.

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I have this completely under control.

Elite: Dangerous has been through various Beta/Gamma stages over the past six months and development has progressed at consistent and encouraging rate. Career paths like asteroid mining and features like a reputation system (boosted or hit by your actions towards a particular faction, albeit painfully slowly in the case of the former) have all been added. A recent patch made bounty hunting more of a viable option for making money during the early game. Given their track record to date, I’m willing to believe Frontier’s timeline promises for introducing aspects like proper, co-operative player ‘wings.’

But there’s no denying that Elite: Dangerous is taking the thoroughly contemporary path of “launching” before it’s strictly ready.

Take combat, for example, which works marvellously well in the abstract sense of a one-on-one training mission or the periodic hyperspace interdictions which can drag your humble trading vessel into a fight-or-flight scenario. Space duels in Elite are a matter of deft energy management (juggling between weapons, engines and shields) and clever manoeuvres. Some of the game’s most satisfying moments come from pulling off the old “thrust into reverse to pop out behind a foe and blast them” trick, or holding off a superior foe just long enough to fire up a smouldering Frame-Shift Drive and limp back to port with a cracked canopy before the cabin oxygen runs out.

The flight and combat models work in glorious harmony; so it’s rather a shame that the combat missions (such as they are) can be so lacking. Popping in and out of the same three or four random encounters searching for a specific NPC or wandering pirates won’t be enough to sustain a combat-thirsty player base. Especially when some of the combat missions are bugged to the point of preventing you from turning them in.

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Doing good in the galaxy, one six grand coffee run at a time.

There are hints at slightly more structured missions, such as the task of retrieving a black box from deep space (which also requires you to learn the art of gliding past space-police scans in “silent running” mode to evade detection of your illegal cargo,) but this is another example of things to be expanded on in the future.

No matter whether you’re playing Elite: Dangerous in Solo mode (AI encounters only,) Open (possible player encounters and fights) or Private Group (basically Solo plus being able to see friends,) your actions are influencing the overall dynamics of the shared galaxy. The lone save slot can even move freely between those three game mode types.

Marketplace supply and demand will fluctuate according to trade density, something which I’ve seen happen myself as a particularly lucrative route slowly degrades. Until just a few hours ago I’d have said this aspect was working smoothly, but over the weekend the market effectively broke and Frontier are (presumably) now all-hands-on-deck to return profit margins to relatively normal levels before someone presses the “launch game” button. They’ll hopefully dedicate some attention to the galaxy map trade line indicators too, which are currently borderline useless as an accurate guide to resource movements.

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Elite does “the majesty of space” pretty damn well.

Other dynamic aspects like influencing minor system factions through missions show promise, but are still in their infancy in terms of what meaningful impact they’ll have on the game. Could turning a system to anarchy increase the likelihood of a black market for illegal goods showing up there? Perhaps, but for now this is all just speculation. Frontier clearly have important plans for the faction system (based on the proposed launch day story-line of an Imperial succession war.) It’s just not yet clear how that’ll all work. Or if it will work.

My most immediate and selfish hope for the future of this game, though, is an update system which doesn’t wipe all my keybinds. Every. Single. Time. I’m used to keeping a back-up of the file now, but that shouldn’t really be necessary.

Speaking of control schemes, I’ve been playing Elite: Dangerous with a sort of hybrid 360 pad and keyboard set-up. Most of the crucial commands fit on the pad, with a few more hotkeys dotted around the keyboard for when the act of pulling up the in-cockpit comms panel for retracting landing key seems too much like hard work. Mouse and keyboard works too, although I found keeping track of targets a little harder with the mouse than a pad. That could be down to personal preference. If you’re taking your space sim seriously, of course, you probably own some sort of HOTAS gizmo. And possibly a triple monitor set-up to go with it.

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The ever-lovely Cobra Mk III.

Elite: Dangerous has delivered on the foundational basics, creating an outstanding flight model and a relatively clear early-game progression from Sidewinder to Cobra. But after trading, exploring and blasting themselves to a kitted out Cobra, players will begin to bump into the edges of the title’s incomplete design features. It’s quite possible to grind for ever-larger reserves of cash (and spare ships,) or knock around in pirate haunts for endlessly re-spawning sources of bounty money, but anybody wanting to get started on serious factional reputation gains, meaningful influence over controlling parties in systems, or engaging in fleshed out, stable, co-op activities with friends will find their sandbox ambitions limited.

There’s a great deal to enjoy about Elite: Dangerous, from the tone-perfect space immersion and sense of sheer scale, to ship handling and the relative freedom of choice in player activities. It really does feel like a “what if?” 2014 version of the 1984 classic, right down to how the game’s more enigmatic elements fit right in with today’s conventions of sharing information online. You don’t have to go far to find trade tools, threads on locating black markets, bounty hunting tips and all manner of other social interactions.

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Destroying a shield-less Sidewinder almost seems unfair, but he DID attack me first.

I’ve no idea whether the decision to launch in December has to do with financial book-keeping or the simple desire to have it out in the year of Elite’s 30th anniversary, but by forcing the issue Frontier Developments are inviting criticism for a game with several loose ends. In three to six months time Elite: Dangerous could be a phenomenal title. As things stand, it’s (servers-permitting) a pretty damn good one with a whole lot of potential.