Frontier Developments; PC; £40
Elite: Dangerous is quite big, in the same way that a black hole is a bit grabby.
It is a game built on top of a scientifically-modeled rendering of the Milky Way galaxy. That’s the entire Milky Way galaxy. If you want to fly to our own solar system, you can – although it’s the year 3300 so things have changed a little. Mars is now blue, for example.
You enter this vast expanse as a lowly starship commander with a cheap ship and little bit of money. There are several warring factions out there – the Alliance, the Federation and the Empire – all controlling different star systems, but there’s no real narrative push: what happens next is more or less entirely of your own making. You can be a trader, a mercenary, a miner, a pirate – any role you take is governed by your actions out there in space, not by any pre-game choices or class systems.
This is a massively multiplayer game, too, so you’re in a universe with a whole bunch of other people trying to do the same or opposing things (although there is a solo mode, that will ensure you’re only pitted against computer-controlled spacecraft). The galaxy is constantly evolving and the political landscape changes as players choose allegiances, fight battles and run errands for all sides.
Living in space
There are many things you can do with your time. Running trade missions or mining expeditions; throwing in the occasional opportunistic bounty quest here and there; perhaps trying your hand at piracy. Some missions require you to simply deliver an object, others to pick up a piece of cargo that’s either floating in space or stowed away on someone else’s ship. There are also assassination tasks, which are sometimes slightly illegal, putting you in conflict with the space police. Everything is picked up via in-game bulletin boards, and everything nets you cash to spend on weapons and ship upgrades.
In addition to missions, while you’re calling at different stations, there’s nothing stopping you from dropping in to the commodities market and grabbing some additional cargo to sell for a few extra credits as you ply your trade around the galaxy. This can be tricky until you learn what sells well and where. Agricultural worlds tend to export food and import technology and materials that support their economies. Conversely, extraction and refinery sites export metals and minerals and need food stocks shipped in. Use the built-in navigation tools to help work out routes and likely spots to pick up and sell off cargo.
If you’re lucky, you may find rare items that, when taken far enough from their source become incredibly valuable. I recently ran 11 cannisters of Leestian Evil Juice from Leesti to Llyr, a journey of 93 light years or so, and gained a very nice profit of 76,000 credits for the trouble. If you’re unlucky, you’ll pass into an anarchic system filled with pirates, whose ships lurk outside a space station’s no-fire zone, picking off traders as they warp into the area.
Being on the receiving end of a pirate attack can be either maddeningly frustrating or very entertaining, depending on your perspective.
It’s no fun when you’re hauling a bunch of valuable cargo and have been travelling for a while to your destination when, as the delivery deadline ticks down, that dreaded interdiction warning lights up on your holo displays. There usually follows a period of intense control wrangling as you try to keep the marked escape vector in your sights while your assailant does the same in their attempt to pull you out of hyperspace. If you’re successful and evade interdiction, all is well and you can continue on your way, but if the interdictor wins, they can grab your stuff, and you have to quickly decide what you’ll do as soon as you regain control.
Interdiction can be turned into a sport in its own right. If you’re in a well-armed and armoured ship, a sudden violent offensive assault can take a pirate by surprise and send them diving away to re-think. Just be careful before opening up on the other ship in case it’s a system authority vessel and you end up with a nice warm wanted status.
Flying and fighting
What Elite: Dangerous certainly isn’t, is a serious spaceflight simulator. Some of the awkward realities of zero-gravity physics are worked around in the interests of better gameplay. There is, however, an optional Newtonian flight model, which is pretty accurate. The best pilots make extensive use of this feature while the rest of us gingerly drop in and out when we need to get the upper hand in a dogfight.
It is possible to be quite creative when taking on an opponent, depending on your weapons load-out and flying skills. You are able to target specific sub-systems of their ship and choose whether you want to immobilise them, blind them or go all out for the kill. By targeting and destroying their shield generator for example, they’ll be much more vulnerable. Take on their frame shift drive to preventing them from escaping into hyperspace. Blow out their canopy in order to remove their targeting HUD, and force them on to emergency oxygen supplies, which generally only last a few minutes. But remember – you are also subject to the same methodical dismantling.
There are many ships available to buy and fly, each with different fresh-from-the-showroom characteristics and price tags. You’re given a Sidewinder to start with, kitted out with pretty basic armaments and capabilities. It is not a bad little ship by any means. Certainly enough to get you out and about, and with enough bite to defend yourself while learning the ropes. You may even manage to snag a low-level bounty or two with it. Each ship handles differently, and some such as the cargo transporters just aren’t cut out for combat maneuvers. You can buy upgrades to give you a little more tactical ability in some cases, and lots more in others.
One of the best features of Elite: Dangerous however, is the ability to refit any ship you purchase. You can replace pretty much everything from your cargo racks to your hull plating if you have enough galactic credits, which you won’t. At first. And maybe not for a while. You have to get out there into space and start earning. Then slowly but surely your ship becomes an expression of who you are as a player.
The beauty of the cosmos
Regardless of the gameplay systems, Elite is an astonishing place to just exist in. Every system has something beautiful to see, whether it’s the play of light through a planet’s atmosphere from the star it eclipses, or the sunlight streaming into the habitation ring of an orbital station, and casting hard shadows across the structure itself. It may even the stark shadow cast by your own ship as you approach an outpost in full sunlight. Sometimes you’ll just stop to take in the view of a planet’s ring system, or a moon or a binary star system, or just to look in towards the center of the galaxy and the billions upon billions of stars it contains. There is support for 4K monitors and Oculus Rift to make the experience even more astounding.
As you fly around, you’ll see tell-tale signs of other ships travelling against the star-speckled darkness of deep space. At first they’ll be nothing more than a pixel trailing a line of exhaust gases behind, but as you get closer you’ll begin to see visual clues as to what kind of ship it is and what it may be doing. The engines will flare and fade as the pilot adjusts the throttle. Thrusters burn in short bursts in response to changes in pitch, roll and yaw inputs. Ships flash into and out of hyperspace. And you can flash your headlights at each other if you’re so inclined.
There are a few glitches. Occasionally during docking landing pad lights don’t come on or turn off before you’ve actually landed, which can be confusing if you’ve lost sight of where the pad was. Also, I recently ran into a situation where I got stuck in the docking aperture of a coriolis station when my Anaconda just refused to go through, having made many several successful entrances and exits through the same opening in the same ship. Indeed, even when the docking system is working, the final stage of entry is not as intuitive as it really should be.
There have also been some criticisms of Elite’s initial learning curve for new players, and of the gameplay experience in the early hours of your adventure. You have to do a fair bit of grinding in your underdog starter ship before you can upgrade to bigger and better things. But then, hopping from place to place, buying and selling small quantities of goods for moderate profits can be a peaceful and relaxing way to spend a few hours here and there.
The need to invest sufficient time will be the separating factor between players who just want to jump in and shoot stuff, and those who are joining for the long haul, the complete experience. The former can do it their way, and I’ve tried, but it is always going to be frustrating and expensive when you’re on the receiving end of a bigger, better ship’s defences.
But without doubt, Elite: Dangerous is a purchase that will provide inestimable value, delivering many hours of gameplay opportunities and experiences. Furthermore, this is a developing universe, with many planned updates and new features due over the coming months. It seems likely that the depth and scale of the experience is only going in one direction: to the stars.
This article was written by Justin Pinner, for theguardian.com on Monday 5th January 2015 12.37 Europe/Londonguardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010