Elite: Dangerous – combat, trading and exploration beyond the stars

Elite Anniversary

In 1984 I saved my pocket money and bought myself the Commodore 64 version of Elite.

That summer I discovered something incredible. A representation of a region of the universe in which I could do whatever I wanted, whenever I wanted. 

The game’s sparse vector graphics, all white lines and black emptiness, managed to provide a vast explorable space inhabited by traders, pirates, bounty hunters and fearsome Thargoids. All of them seemed to be living independently throughout the game’s eight galaxies – it was up to you to decide how to fit in and conduct yourself among the throng, exploring, trading and surviving.

On 5 January, 2013, Frontier Developments closed its Kickstarter funding campaign for a new title in the fabled series: Elite: Dangerous. Headed by Elite co-creator David Braben, the company managed to raise almost £1.6m. Fortunately, I’d joined 25,680 other backers just in time, and at the premium beta tier, so the chance to get back into the Elite universe was tantalisingly real, but still achingly far away.

It wasn’t until 30 May 2014 that the premium beta launched and, having built a new PC specifically for playing this one game, I was back in again.

For a longtime fan like me, the experience was magical. Beautiful visuals, absorbing audio and super-smooth controls and motion once again dropped me into a small ship, surrounded by an immense universe, begging to be explored, watched and tested. But this time there were other, real players out there, mixed in amongst the non-player characters, and it isn’t always easy to tell one from the other.

Since then we’ve progressed through a second premium beta, and into the standard beta phase. Every update has brought in new features, opportunities, challenges and players, but the essence of what it means to be a part of the Elite universe has somehow been maintained.

That’s no moon …

The first dramatic improvement over the original 1980s version of Elite comes in the form of docking with, and undocking from, beautifully rendered space stations, complete with fully realised external features and dynamic, credible internal spaces complete with operational landing bays, other ships coming and going, and surface vehicles trundling around the roads that follow the inner circumference of the station. The control towers and ancillary buildings of each dock force you to stay alert until the moment you bring your ship in to touch down gently on the centre of the landing pad, when clamps grab the ship and your engines are powered down.

Many of the details that could only be imagined among the 1980s wire-framed renderings are now visible in glorious, silky smooth HD imagery. It’s worlds (and decades) away from the concentric rings animation that used to serve as the visual clue that you had docked successfully. After perhaps the 100th attempt.

I have to say at this point that I find flying with a stick and throttle controller (the Saitek X-52) so much better than anything else. I tried an Xbox controller at the video games Bafta awards event, and keyboard and mouse at home, but I personally found both of those inferior to a “proper” control system. You need to exercise some finesse, especially in and around stations, as docking can still be a slightly worrisome undertaking when your ship has a belly full of very expensive cargo.

The process of piloting has also become a whole lot more demanding. Players now have the ability to redistribute the ship’s finite power resources to where they’re needed most, which will depend on circumstances. For example, having been dragged out of super-lightspeed travel (referred to as frame-shifting) by some low-life pirate wanting to separate you from your hard-earned cargo, you may choose to run (divert all power to engines) or fight (constantly juggle power distribution between weapons and life-support systems) or go stealthy (shut down all non-essential systems to minimise your ship’s heat, and therefore radar signature) to get the upper hand. Then there’s the opportunity to explore newtonian physics flight mode by disabling flight assist, which definitely gives you an edge during combat, but it really takes some practice to use effectively.

Weapons, friends and cargo

In addition to all that are the choices for loading out your ship with various weapons that all have pros and cons – you have to figure out which configuration suits your playing style. For example, there are the ubiquitous laser choices (pulse, beam, military etc), missiles or projectile weapons. The latter are good for maintaining stealth as they have low power requirements and are hard to detect because they have minimal heat signatures, while lasers deliver more damage with successful hits. These can all be countered to some extent by selecting different classes of armour or active defences too, so there’s no one-size-fits-all weapon that’ll give anyone an unfair advantage.

Another departure from, and massive improvement over, the original version is the ability to add friends and create open or private groups for online play. In this way you can explore the stars, and battle enemies, alongside a small flotilla of pals. While this is a welcome development there is still a need for some additional features before this aspect really fulfils its potential. For example, you have to know your friend’s commander name before adding them – a contacts/social search would be nice. Also, in-game comms are easily missed, especially when you’re trying hard not to crash and burn. Oh and finding your friends can be tricky, too, even if you know where they were when you launched the game. Space is big.

The commodities markets are back, providing trading prices for different items on each space station, allowing you to set up profitable routes between worlds. However, in Elite: Dangerous the prices are dynamic, reacting to changes in supply and demand as traders move cargo from place to place, and unseen political forces exert their influences. This is interesting for traders as it can mean either having to explore new routes in search of higher profits, or accepting ever diminishing returns from regular haunts.

Players of the original game may remember the missions that occasionally cropped up to add some variety and structure. These have also arrived in standard beta phase one and, like previous versions of Elite, they currently consist of running commodities from one place to another, bringing something back from somewhere, or taking on combat or mercenary missions, all of which pay out varying rewards, depending on difficulty. It’s familiar stuff, but these may evolve further as development progresses.

Another vita feature, one that I have craved since the 80s, is a virtual reality cockpit, courtesy of the Oculus Rift 3D headset. I was able to try one out at the Bafta games event a few months ago; suddenly the cockpit surrounds you, and beyond the ship’s canopy, so does the entire universe. It is a beautiful and breathtaking experience. As you turn your head to look around the cockpit, holographic displays pop up allowing you to access most, if not all, of the ship’s essential systems and operations (after all, you can’t see your keyboard anymore!). The Oculus also completely separates your visual attention from the act of flying the ship, allowing you to independently track other craft and obstacles while flying by intuition. The effect is extraordinary.

Taking stock of cash and kills

Since joining the premium beta, I’ve racked up some interesting stats:

  • 14,144,603 credits earned
  • 6,201 minutes played
  • 20 deaths (I remember all of those)
  • 11 kills (and most of those)
  • 0 human kills (this is intentional)
  • 11 NPC kills
  • 5 bounties collected
  • 17 crimes committed
  • 9 attempted murders (no idea where these came from!)
  • 5 murders (unless self-defence with extreme prejudice counts?)
  • 3 thefts (ok, these I do remember - and they’re the ones I got caught for)

So having invested around one hundred hours, I’ve earned over fourteen million credits, of which I currently have a shade over two million in the bank, having bought myself a nicely tricked out Cobra Mk III that I’m using to re-visit bounty hunting for a while.

The road to this particular place was indeed long and winding but essentially began with a lot of exploration. After that came trading. A lot of trading, and with it, a need to keep meticulous paper records of where to go and what prices to expect.

Writing my own notes in this way allowed me to upgrade from a Sidewinder to a Hauler but quickly became impractical as the number of possible destinations expanded. Also, who wants to do paperwork in space? Instead, I started using Slopey’s Best Profit Caclulator which allowed me to progress more surely from the Hauler to a Cobra Mk III to a Type 6 Transporter, and then make the move back to a Cobra with a decent load-out for my bounty hunting tour. Frontier may pull the plug on this kind of unofficial add-on though as it potentially makes investigating game crashes more complex. The studio has said that it will be investigating opportunities for an official API later on so we may well see a return of this and similar tools.

The future of space travel

Frontier has also promised many other features that are yet to emerge. These include planetary landings, the ability to move around inside your ship, to disembark at and explore space stations, ship-to-ship docking and boarding, and support for other platforms including the Mac. Some of these may make it in to the launch version, while others are definitely slated for post-launch DLC packs.

I will probably soon resume my quest to obtain an Anaconda, via the Type 9, before the next big wipe comes along and I start all over again.

In short, this Beta version is as absorbing and time-warping as the original Elite. This time round, however, the classic exploration and trading sim will be competing against a host of other fascinating contenders, including the epic Star Citizen and the indie-flavoured No Man’s Sky. It’s a fascinating new era of discovery.

See you among the stars.

You can keep up with Justin Pinner’s experiences in Elite: Dangerous at his run-stop.net blog.

Powered by Guardian.co.ukThis article was written by Justin Pinner, for theguardian.com on Monday 29th September 2014 07.00 Europe/London

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