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What would you do if you were dropped into the captain’s chair of a spacecraft, handed the keys and told you had an entire galaxy at your disposal? No, really — what the hell would you do? That’s the basic premise of Elite: Dangerous, an incredible space simulator from Frontier Developments.
After a very basic set of tutorials to get you acclimated with your ship’s controls, ship-to-ship combat, and the intricacies of navigating between spaceports, Elite drops you into the aforementioned chair of the game’s most basic spacecraft and then promptly buggers off. This is your game, this is your galaxy, and Frontier will be damned if they’re going to try and place limits on what you intend to do with the vast expanses of gameplay awaiting you.
And I really do mean vast. Set in the year 3301, Elite runs in sync with Coordinated Universal Time (albeit with almost 1300 years added on), meaning that time really does have meaning — planets, stars, constellations, all will move in sync with one another, as they would in our own galaxy. Speaking of which, technically this is our own galaxy. Elite features an almost one-to-one recreation of the Milky Way. That’s 400 billion star systems to explore, each with their own planets, asteroids and randomly generated mysteries to uncover. Humanity has colonized a mere sliver of this vast expanse — it’s up to you, and the millions of other players who populate this Massively Multiplayer Online (MMO) game, to explore the rest.
Of course, exploration isn’t the only goal. Sure, you can point your ship into the deepest black, crank up the hyperdrive and blast instantly between star systems, looking for unexplored worlds and hidden treasures. Any data collected can be sold for credits, so it represents a lucrative method for those with the dedication to spend a lot of time hopping between the stars. But where’s the fun in simply navigating through uncharted seas — or, rather, skies.
If exploration isn’t your thing, what about trading? Elite features a vibrant in-game economy. Your actions will directly impact the experiences of other players. Flood a port with a particular type of goods and prices will drop. Discover a rare substance being traded at a distant port and you’ll open up trade routes for other players to exploit. You can control supply and demand in Elite — albeit at a microscopic level — through your actions as a trader.
Not satisfied with legitimate cargo? Become a smuggler. Steal narcotics, or alcohol, or slaves, or arms, or any number of blacklisted items, and sneak them into ports. Get them into the hands of willing buyers and the profits are yours to reap — but get caught by security scanners and be prepared to lose that ship you’ve so carefully upgraded.
If trade doesn’t interest you, become a fighter. Combat is a core part of Elite — even though it’s also possible to entirely ignore it. Head into a star system and take out illegal traders, or rogue pirates, or those with bounties on their heads, and you’ll be rewarded handsomely. Alternatively, become a rogue, and prey on cargo ships, wandering explorers, or even other players, reaping whatever expensive items they may have held.
Elite grants players a wide palette from which to paint their character. That it does so with little to no handholding is an exercise in frustration during your first hours with the game. It doesn’t help that Elite was designed for PC. It’s now available on Xbox One as part of Microsoft’s Game Preview program, which allows gamers buy a title while it’s still in development, helping test and shape play before the final release. It’s a superb idea, stolen directly from Steam’s Greenlight system, letting passionate fans buy into a game months before it launches.
On Xbox One, however, the button deficit of a controller becomes immediately apparent. Several buttons serve dual, or even triple, purpose. The right stick can control your craft’s movement thrusters, but with a click of the left stick, it’ll control your head movement which allows the player to view the menus hidden at either side of your craft’s cockpit, for instance. Oh yes, there are multiple menus, that are navigated through by looking at them and using the bumpers, which normally control your craft’s speed when staring out of the main window, and the D-pad — see how this can quickly become confusing?
Maneuvering your craft isn’t exactly a simple task, either. You’ll spawn at a spaceport, safely docked. Here, you can refuel your craft, repair it, or upgrade it with a staggering number of items and weaponry. Want to swap those lasers for auto-targeting turrets? Or swap out cargo space for a more aggressive scanner? Perhaps swap your shields (don’t ever do this, I learned that the explosive way) for a fuel scoop that lets you extract hydrogen from stars (you can see why this was a bad idea…). Elite lets you tailor your ship to the specific tasks you wish to accomplish — and if you’re not satisfied, save up credits and buy a bigger, faster, deadlier or more capacious ship.
While docked, you can also access each port’s commodities market, read in-game news briefs and collect bounties, jobs or missions. News briefs actively update depending on what’s happening in-game — on PC, there are 7 system-spanning factions battling for ultimate control, which players can join and help spread their influence. It’s a function that will be coming to the Xbox in a future update and adds a story element to the game that, as with everything else, can be actively engaged with or completely ignored.
You’ll make the majority of your money, at least in the first few hours, by accepting the various missions at each port. These can vary from seeking out new trade routes, delivering a treaty to another star system, or taking out a group of rogue pirates, and dozens more. Doing so will increase your influence with whomever controls the region of space the port drifts through — which in turn will unlock more lucrative contracts and other perks.
So, you’re in your ship, contract in hand to seek out a port that offers consumer technology for sale (as my first mission demanded), and ready to go. You’ll take off and leave your port — simple, right? Wrong. Even after the tutorials, even after getting to grips with the controls, even after calming down from your panic attack at the extent and complexity of the various menus and submenus, you’ll then have the daunting task of threading your ship through the postbox-style opening of your port (unless you were lucky enough to spawn on a port with outdoors docks).
You need to get this right, because linger too long after launching and the port’s security will destroy your ship. Crash into other ships or the port itself and they’ll destroy you. Activate your weapons systems and you’ll be destroyed. Speed and, mercifully, you’ll just be fined. Elite has no time for your bumbling foolishness — get to grips with the game now, or you’re doomed, commander.
Once you’ve got it, though, and make your way into open space, Elite transpires to be one of the most engrossing games you’ve ever played. Even in its unfinished state — a specific, player-versus-player multiplayer fighting mode will launch soon, while end goals include making every planet and spaceport walkable outside of your ship — it’s an incredibly impressive achievement. It helps that it is staggeringly beautiful. Ports, ships, the black of space, the churning fusion of stars, the rich beauty of habitable planets, the tense density of an asteroid field, and everything else in between is impeccably rendered.
The sense of scale is also beyond words. Certain ports will dwarf your ship hundreds of times over, but are positively diminutive in a galactic scale. At your ship’s lowest speed setting, leaving a port and aiming at the planet it orbits will take hours before you reach it. Not fake, in-game hours, which pass in minutes, but actual hours. Point at the next planet out from a system’s star, and at your slowest speed it would take an entire year to reach it — leave your console on now and come back at Christmas and you’ll still only be halfway there. My first “Holy shit” moment came when I jumped to a star system to be greeted by a massive, burning sun — it utterly filled my view, a ginormous, burning orb, seemingly meters from my tiny vessel. Nope. I was six days away.
Truly, some of my favorite moments in Elite came from the game toying with my sense of scale. Kick your vessel up a notch into Supercruise, which varies from 18 miles a second to faster than light, and the time between planets in a system drops to minutes, or seconds. Racing up to a planet and watching its size gradually increase from a pinprick to a gigantic body never failed to amaze.
It also highlights Elite‘s demands for perfection, however. As you approach said planet, you’ll have to get the balance just right between speed and distance, gradually slowing yourself down until your craft can safely drop down to normal speeds a few miles from your intended target. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve flown straight past a planet and had to pull a U-turn (at several thousand miles a second, no less) and try my approach again.
Balance is the something Elite constantly reinforces. During combat, you’ll need to balance between your engines, your shields and your weaponry as you dogfight over all three dimensions with your foe — or foes. You’ll need to balance remaining fuel with the distance required to reach a port that actually lets you refill, as not all do. You’ll need to balance risk versus reward when attempting various missions, or suffer the destruction of your craft and an expensive insurance claim (yes, there’s thankfully craft insurance, so you can recover your set-up for a nominal fee).
There’s also the issue that, for many, the game’s opening hours will be a tedious turn off. You’ll spend a lot of time flying between various ports and star systems, doing menial, repetitive tasks. Grinding your way to a better ship takes several hours at least, while the missions you’re given are all varying degrees of tedious. Your limited ship will also impact how far you can travel — one session I spent an hour trying to go one system over, as I had to instead loop through seven others, because that first one was just slightly too far away to jump to.
It also doesn’t help that in its current state, Elite has more than its share of bugs. Lag spikes can occur if there are numerous players in one area, while jumping between star systems seems to bring animations to a grinding halt on occasion. Crashes seem a frequent occurrence, too — something a search of Frontier’s forums confirms. One session, my game crashed every time I jumped to another star system. Switching to solo play, which keeps other players out, but in-game events intact, helped remedy the issue. An update to fix things can’t be far away, but it’s definitely something to consider.
[pulquote]Push through that initial barrier, however, and what Elite has to offer is utterly addictive.[/pullquote]
Push through that initial barrier, however, and what Elite has to offer is utterly addictive. Carving your own little identity in the Milky Way is intoxicating. Working your way up to a master hunter, or trader, or explorer takes time, dedication, and skill — but the rewards are reaped on a galactic scale. The rush of successfully taking down a gigantic cargo ship, or the immense satisfaction in discovering untouched star systems, or the financial gains of successfully trading the rarest materials, that’s what players will take from it.
There’s also the promise that there’s even more to come. On-foot exploration will come eventually, the PC’s faction system is coming, there’s CQC mode to look forward to, and so much more. Elite‘s massive galaxy will only continue to expand in content — though, thankfully, not in size. It certainly isn’t for everyone, but at least on console it’s unrivalled in scale and technical scope, with the obvious exception of the upcoming No Man’s Sky on PS4.
It wouldn’t be fair to attribute a score to Elite as it stands, given this is still a preview title. But if I had to? Four stars, easily — even with its punishing opening hours and scattered bugs. With the proviso that you really make the most of the one-hour free trial available, you could find yourself spending hundreds of hours rocketing through Elite: Dangerous. There’s a whole galaxy out there — and it’s yours for the taking.
Elite: Dangerous is available on Xbox One, PC and Mac. PC users currently have a more advanced build of the game, but most features should eventually find their way to console.
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