Frontier Developments’ slow march towards the complete Elite: Dangerous package will take a huge step forward this year, with the arrival of Horizons, a “second season” of expansions for the gigantic space-exploration game.
The first of these expansions will be Planetary Landings, and allows players finally to touch down on the celestial bodies littering Elite’s universe. It’s a feature that has been craved by players – and the game’s creators – since Dangerous first launched back in late 2014.
While it might have seemed like this should have been a feature in the game from day one, the approach Frontier is adopting for the additional method of space exploration shows that just isn’t the case. Whereas, for example, in Frontier: Elite 2 every planet with a solid surface could be landed on – in a 20-plus year old game – they were lacking in detail, essentially giant green, grey or red orbs with little action on the surface.
In the Planetary Landings expansion, players will see a fair bit more than vast nothingness: as well as terrestrial bases and shipyards, there will be areas of interest to explore, loot to discover, mining to profit from and some overwhelmingly vast areas to explore. And as with the vanilla Elite: Dangerous release, it’s all going to be up to the player how they go about things.
You won’t be jumping out of your spaceship straight on to terra firma, however – instead using a surface landing vehicle to navigate the procedurally simulated worlds. The first revealed, the Scarab, is a nippy six-wheeler able to fit inside most ships as an optional add-on.
I wasn’t privy to seeing exactly what things are like on planetary surfaces – apparently everything is working as planned and explained, it just needs to be textured before it’s shown off to the public. But the description from series creator David Braben had everyone in the room beaming from ear to ear with excitement.
Each planet is modelled using a first principle system – what this means is their creation, their orbit, their tectonic plates, weather, geothermal activity and countless other elements are simulated to create every uninhabited planet (inhabited planets are still a no-go for the time being, but it’s coming).
Basing procedural generation on such rigid, scientific formula – I was told – results in planets that are as accurate to the real thing as they can be, with all manner of scientific minds working behind the scenes with real world(/universe) data to create planets. They’re not bespoke, but then there are many millions of them … this way saves time, let’s say.
All of the expansions for the Horizons season will be compatible across the board with all players, meaning you will still be able to form wings with other players to explore the universe together. Or to be a pirate, of course. But while owners of Planetary Landings will be able to travel into an orbital cruise and explore the surface, those without will just be left in outer orbit, twiddling their thumbs.
Back on the surface, though, Horizon owners will be able to land, fly around the surface, turn around and leave, remain in their wings (with other Horizon-owning players, of course) and generally play an incredible-sounding addition to an already impressive game.
I’ve used the word ‘owners’ a couple of times up there, and the reason is this: Horizons is not a free set of add-ons. It will cost £40 for those who do not own Elite: Dangerous, and £30 at the pre-order stage for those who do own the first release.
There has been uproar in online communities because of this pricing, with the simple fact being a fair few people believed the ability to land on planets would – and should – be a feature in the vanilla Elite: Dangerous.
But Braben is convinced this is the right approach for Horizons, offering it up as a premium selection of additions and expansions, not just one new feature. With the effort going into it and the huge introductions being made to the established formula, it’s hard to argue with him. Either way though, its release won’t stop anyone from playing together – at least not until they get into orbit.
There’s another little element being thrown in to sweeten the deal, too, with players owning both the original release and Horizons being able to purchase a Cobra Mk IV in-game (with in-game cash, that is). It’s not a huge feature, but it deserves mentioning as the first new Cobra ship in decades, something that gets us Elite fans all excited.
It’s easy to see why people are annoyed about Elite: Dangerous - Horizons’ price, and it will take a lot of work from Frontier to win back those who feel wronged by the move. But all signs so far are positive, and with the studio’s steady pace of releases and improvements for the game over the past year-plus, it’s safe to assume the team won’t be short-changing its fans.
The Horizons season of expansions will release towards the end of 2015, in the holiday season window. It will also arrive on Xbox One at some point, though there isn’t a set date for that just yet.
This article was written by Ian Dransfield, for theguardian.com on Friday 7th August 2015 12.13 Europe/Londonguardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010