The space station hovers in the near distance, its entry port slowly rotating as you approach.
To dock successfully, your ship must exactly match this gently turning circle – miss it and you’ll collide catastrophically with the station’s exterior. At first, you think you have it, but then a heavy touch on the joystick sends you off pace. Sod it, you hit the docking computer button. The Blue Danube plays as you safely float in.
If that scenario means anything to you, the chances are, at some point in the 1980s, you had your mind blown by a space simulation game called Elite. With its vast galaxies, its vibrant interplanetary trading system, its orbital routes clogged with pirates, smugglers and alien invasion craft, it was a revolutionary experience.
The original game, released on the BBC Micro computer in 1984, was followed by two sequels of contentious quality, but now it is back again with a fourth iteration – the biggest and most ambitious yet. Elite: Dangerous is a massively multiplayer online fantasy, taking place in an accurately mapped version of the Milky Way, complete with 400bn star systems. Set in the year 3300, the game allows players to live their own lives, exploring, trading, fighting and assassinating – all the while earning cash to upgrade their basic starship.
For the past year, the game has been in a testing phase, allowing fanatical fans to explore its new systems and features, feeding back to Frontier Developments, the Cambridge-based studio working on this gigantic project. To many of those people, it isn’t just a game – it is a connection to an experience that had a profound effect on them. It is their Star Wars.
“I first came across Elite on the Commodore 64 back in 1985 and was immediately captivated by it,” says Odhrán McConnell, who is one of many players returning to the game as a public beta tester. “I was learning to program at the time, so I soon found out how to crack the game to give myself hundreds of thousands of credits and to kit my Cobra Mk. III craft with military lasers and a host of other equipment. I then explored the galaxy in earnest, blasting raiders and thargoids to pieces.”
It’s a familiar story. Elite was always more of an interactive space movie, than a simulation. Its simple vector graphics allowed participants to fill in the details with their own imagined conflicts and situations. The room in which you played the game became your spacecraft; your friends were your crew. “I first played a pirated copy of Elite around 1988,” admits beta tester, Simon Hildrew. “My friend Russell and I used to spend hours each night after school trying to trade up. I remember pre-ordering Frontier: Elite II for my Amiga - it came with a vast fold-out map – I’d spread it out over the table and ponder where I might go next …”
Elite: Dangerous promises to provide that familiar experience of exploration and combat, but in a much more complex environment. Spacecraft and space stations are now detailed 3D models, planets are scaled correctly; trading prices will alter in real-time depending on player activities. This is a truly living, interactive universe.
“It was the space stations that made the biggest impression on me when I first joined the premium beta,” says Justin Pinner, a software developer at the Guardian who has also been playing the beta version of the game. “They’re not only interesting, and in some cases beautiful to look at, they’re also credible spaces – places you could really imagine exploring. The first time I docked was one of those OMG moments when I realised that I’d just done what I’d only been able to imagine as a teenager. The environment that Frontier has provided is not only accessible but visceral too.”
Hildrew agrees. “My first trading trip from one station to another was a surprisingly immersive,” he says. “The detail of the game mechanics, graphics, sound and music really combine to create this very enjoyable experience. Beyond the cockpit, I find the galaxy map viewer provides a fascinating perspective of our milky way. When I first realised you could zoom all the way out, I spent the next 20 minutes looking at stars hundreds of light years away. It gives this awesome sense of scale.”
In the background there is a narrative involving three warring factions, the Empire, the Federation and the Alliance, battling it out to control the galaxy. Players will be able to take on paid and philanthropic missions for any of them, although becoming too closely aligned with one will apparently make you an outlaw in certain systems. Indeed, everything you do feeds into the ongoing narrative. “Choosing to help any given side will affect the power balance in that region,” says Pinner. “This could lead to civil wars as the system evolves – it is already going on in at least one place that I know of: the star system of Lugh.”
It’s not been an entirely smooth flight for Frontier though. Some fans were annoyed by the high cost of joining the beta test (initially £100), others were angered when the planned offline mode was cancelled. You’ll need to be online to play the game now.
“There’s also a bunch of bugs, some of which have been reported as far back as the alpha builds, that have not been addressed particularly promptly,” says Hildrew. “One example is having had my ship explode on me on a couple of occasions when trying to dock, seemingly due to some sort of collision detection error. Another example is the many systems whose maps show asteroid belts that cannot in reality be flown to. This makes mining frustratingly hard.”
But then Frontier knows what buttons to press in order to keep its fanbase onside. The company recently held a fan event at RAF Duxford, complete with a 1:6 scale model of a Cobra spacecraft, and an up-to-date version of the game running on 4K monitors, as well as the Oculus Rift virtual reality headset. “That was just incredible,” says Hildrew. “The resolution isn’t quite there yet, but it’s a very intuitive and immersive way of playing the game. You can look around the inside of your cabin, but more importantly you can follow an enemy ship far more intuitively, only needing to resort to the radar screen if it goes into a blind spot.”
In the future, the studio is promising players the ability to actually explore the interiors of their ships, and to touch down on planets. These will be necessary additions when rival space games like the similarly ambitious Star Citizen and the more indie-focused No Man’s Sky arrive next year. Elite was once alone in its sandbox universe, but now others are coming for its user-base of space fantasists.
But then, there is something special about Elite still. Like Star Wars, it bridges gaps between an imagined future and an idealised past. One player has already spent £3,000 building a custom cockpit in which to play the game, complete with an array of ultra HD screens. There’s going to be a huge boost in sales of flight joysticks – the best way to handle the game’s Newtonian flight model. Elite was always about living in the game. If Frontier can iron out those bugs, if it can manage a seamless online performance, the players will do the rest. The players always did.
Elite: Dangerous is out now on PC.
guardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010