Elite Dangerous’ premise is as simple as it is unbelievable. This sequel to the classic 1980s space simulation gives you a small Sidewinder spacecraft, 100 credits in your pocket and a galaxy to explore and exploit as you like. That’s a 100-billion star system rendered at a scale of one-to-one. Approximately 150,000 of the stars are real systems, while the rest are procedurally generated and entirely unexplored.
It’s a number that’s almost impossible to comprehend. When you upload the galaxy map to plot the course of your first adventure, you zoom out, and out, and out, until those thousands of tiny dots representing stars coalesce into one gargantuan milky spiral. It’s utterly astounding, and not a little intimidating. Indeed, having played the beta on and off for the past sixth months, it’s difficult to fathom how new players starting on the release version will react. From your first flight to your first docking sequence to your first frameshift jump, Elite takes time and patience to learn, and there’s a good chance some people will give up.
We doubt the number of detractors will be high though. While Elite is as vast, complex and unforgiving as space, it also feels fantastic to play. Your entire gaming experience happens inside your ship’s cockpit. There’s no third-person view, no cutscenes, and as yet, no ability to step outside of your interstellar mobile home. However, the way Elite’s ships are designed means none of the above is needed.
Every aspect of your ship is tailored towards maximum immersion, from the way it judders like a turbulent plane as you accelerate through space, to the way menus are presented as in-flight computers. Best of all, though, is the simple fact that you can look freely around your cockpit, peering through the ship’s canopy as stars and planets zoom past, like a sightseer on a galactic tour bus. Elite’s sense of scale might be what makes it interesting, but it’s the ships that make it a constant thrill to play, which is particularly highlighted by the combat.
Generally, Elite is far more like Star Trek than Star Wars, but battles are the one area where the situation is reversed. Successful dogfighting involves learning how to latch onto the tail of your enemy, and how to manage power distribution between engines, shields and weapons.
It’s the area where skill plays the most vital role. It’s also enormous fun to partake in combat, or simply to watch from a distance as the stars are momentarily connected by laser-fire, while ship-shields flash blue against the black background, and metal hulls explode into fragments with a satisfying ‘whump’ sound. If you’re on the receiving end of laser fire, your cockpit will spit fire and sparks, and there’s a chance your canopy will shatter, leaving you exposed to the void with only a few minutes of emergency oxygen to get you to a space station.
Conflict-averse players need not fret. Like the original Elite, Dangerous has plentiful ways to enjoy the galaxy. There’s a vast simulated economy, complete with varying prices and specific trade routes, for players looking to make a profit. If you prefer a more directed experience, the bulletin board at every station randomly generates missions ranging from simple delivery runs to smuggling operations and multi-staged pirate hunts. If you gain a sufficient reputation in a specific area of space, whether it’s with the Federation, Empire or Alliance, you’ll be offered special missions as an opportunity to climb their ranks and gain greater influence over the galaxy’s future.
Yet Elite’s most interesting feature is how it encourages exploration. Much of the galaxy is unmapped, and all ships come with a basic discovery scanner for charting systems. This data can then be sold at space stations for credits. In function, this system is fairly straightforward; you scan a system for astronomical bodies, and then move closer so your ship’s computers can gather more specific data. But it’s the exploration where that sense of reveals itself.
There’s something innately thrilling about discovering a new planet, flying in for a closer look, watching with glee as this tiny speck of light in space grows into a coloured disc, and then a vast sphere that encompasses your entire canopy window. Often these planets are cold, barren rocks, but there are moments when you stumble upon a beautiful ringed gas giant, or a molten ball of fire and lava, or best of all, an idyllic Earth-like world, which Universal Cartographics pays top dollar for discovering.
Whichever role you choose, there are plenty of surprises. The galaxy is littered with Unidentified Signal Sources; investigating any of these will trigger a random event. It could be a wedding barge cruising through the system or pirates waiting in ambush. In addition, wherever you go, there lurks the threat of Interdiction, where a bandit, either player or AI, might attempt to yank you out of Frameshift, and steal your cargo or simply destroy you.
Interdiction is a controversial topic amid Elite players, and Frontier is still perfecting the balance of its occurrence. It isn’t the only area where Dangerous demonstrates flaws. Any object you salvage from space, even if it’s from the wreckage of an ancient ship, is considered stolen goods, meaning you’ll receive a fine if authorities catch you with it. Furthermore, if you’re playing as a bounty hunter, you’ll only receive a bounty if you land the final shot that destroys a pirate ship. If it’s another player, or the AI security services, you get nothing, even if you did most of the work.
There are also times when Elite can feel like a grind, especially if you focus on a single activity such as hauling space cargo. It has a narrative and story, but they’re in the background, and it may be some time before you start to see the bigger events occurring in the galaxy. In this way, Dangerous harks back to the original Elite; it’s about what you want to do rather than what the game wants you to do. But Dangerous is overly traditional in this respect – a more prominent narrative, even a brief one, could help to show new players how the game works.
A cynic might look at Elite Dangerous and say it’s just a graphical update on a 30-year-old concept, but that’s like saying Star Wars is just a Flash Gordon omic with pictures that move. Elite Dangerous isn’t about what space looks like, it’s about what it feels like. The idea is as good now as it was three decades ago, but Dangerous enhances it superbly. What’s most enjoyable about it, though, is how it brings that most fundamental of human drives to the fore, the desire to see what’s out there. At that point, Elite Dangerous ceases to feel like a game, elevating into a celebration of the pioneering spirit. In that respect, it’s truly stellar.