After its highly publicised Kickstarter campaign, this updating of the 1984 space-trading classic has been one of the most publicised in-development titles of recent years. But what exactly is Elite Dangerous? The game talks of “blazing your own trail” in its persistent galaxy of over 400 billion star systems, but it’s not as clear cut as choosing your role from a character selection screen. Unlike other open world games, there’s no forcing you to choose what kind of player you want to be before you’ve even had a chance to get past the main menus. This is a far more freeform experience, without traditional class restrictions to adhere to. Elite Dangerous sets out to provide true interstellar freedom; whether it succeeds is dependent on how much time you’re willing to invest.
As a game comprised of many in-depth and firmly interconnected systems, Dangerous takes a while to get to grips with and far, far longer to master. The pillars of progression are combat, trading and exploration, and each of these has smaller leaves that stem off and provide further means to work your way towards the coveted Elite status.
The core focus is your attachment to your ship. Every player starts off in a Sidewinder; developer Frontier’s jack of all trades, master of none that rocks you gently into the game’s world. You’re loaned some basic starting equipment like a pair of pulse lasers; generous but they don’t pack much punch, as well as a small cargo container, a basic discovery scanner that allows you to map uncharted space, and trusty shields to keep you safe inside that glass canopy.
Learning to fly properly is key to success. Everything is built on a rock solid physics system that not only makes everything feel authentic but also creates challenge in the simplest of actions. Docking can be tricky even with flight assist on – turning it off makes things much, much tougher – and you always have to be aware of your surroundings. Nudge the throttle just a bit too hard and you’ll career into the solid metal of a space station; get stuck in the gravity well of a star and you’ll get flung out of supercruise – the game’s version of faster than light travel – and you’ll watch an ever-increasing heat gauge that’ll cook your ship if you don’t get the hell outta dodge.
Playing with a 360 pad is more than adequate to get the basic systems but you’ll feel limited with the amount of buttons on a pad. It’s time consuming to continually switch between your three main cockpit panels. If at all possible, pick up a flight stick that’ll provide enough knobs, buttons and flashing lights to control all of your ship’s main functions, while also getting you even closer to feeling like you’re a real pilot flying through the black vacuum of space.
Throughout beta, into gamma and now in final release, Frontier has made sure that the balance is as precise as possible, adding more interesting mission variants and keeping instances fun and exciting no matter what you decide to do. While trading and exploration are both solid, the balance is still not entirely perfect and they’re not a particularly viable source of income when you first start out. The first port of call for most players is to get out of that Sidewinder and into something a little more capable of holding its own; the Eagle is great if you’re going for straight combat, while the Hauler is perfect if you’re looking to get a good trading reputation. There’s also the Adder, which is the starter’s go-to for exploration as it packs a larger jump distance than most of its similarly priced cousins.
As you increase your bank balance you’re free to invest in better ships, or more advanced equipment for your current ship. This becomes a balancing act, as you keep close watch on your ship’s mass, how much power it’s drawing – draw too much and you’ll end up unable to steer or even breathe when you deploy particular weapons – and how far it can jump. There are a lot of ships to play with, and there’s always something to work for, which makes all that work feel worthwhile.
The introduction can be a slog, though, especially if you’re venturing into unknown space and getting beaten up by other players, but patience is key. As soon as you’re over that large first hurdle, you can start to really explore what the game has to offer. Bounty hunts provide a great way to test out your dog fighting skills while boosting your reputation as a hardened fighter.
These hunts can be thrilling once you get into the nitty-gritty. Fitting an interdictor to your ship allows you to pull AI and human players out of the safety of supercruise via a skill-based instance that requires you to keep your ship facing a particular direction as you get flung about at unimaginable speeds, and it’s then up to you whether you attack other players for bounties, steal cargo or just have a chat using the game’s voice comms system. If you do decide to charge headlong into combat you’ll discover that taking down enemy ships can be pretty tough, and it becomes even more exciting when a ship jumps to another star system. This starts a galactic game of cat and mouse as you scan the energy source left behind by a player when they jump to hyperspace to follow them to wherever they escaped.
Trading, exploration, mining are similarly deep once you have the tools to exploit the game’s intricate workings. There’s an ever-developing economy and the massive community has the power to shift certain system factions depending on who they side with, or what goods they decide to import and export. Jumping into unknown territory holds incredible wonders – players have already discovered black holes and vast nebula gas clouds, but this adventure can also be used as a means for profit. Scanning the locations of planets will give you data that you can sell to established factions, but once you’re able to afford more advanced scanners it’s possible to get much richer data from planets by scanning surfaces and selling this information for much greater profits. All of these activities further your goal of becoming Elite in each of the game’s three main pillars.
Elite Dangerous is almost unparalleled in its depiction of space. Everything here feels authentic, from the lighting effects bouncing off a gigantic orbital space station to the shudder of the afterburners as you boost through the blackness. It’s immersion on a massive scale and one of the few titles potentially worth splashing out on an early Oculus Rift for – or, better yet, a less cumbersome head-tracking solution like the TrackIR, which lets you look around the cockpit without the need to strap VR goggles on your face. Either way, the feeling of really being in the pilot’s seat as you navigate the shipping lanes from Lave to Leesti is worth experiencing first hand.
Whatever you choose to be, Elite will give you the means to do it, but it expects you to work for the right to call yourself a seasoned fighter, adventurer or trader. And there is still more to be added to the game, with Frontier promising ten more ships and further multiplayer features. In the farther future we’re looking at planetary landing and stations that you can walk around in. As of now, it’s arguably the best space simulator you could ever ask for. It’s vast, beautiful and unstructured but not unfocused. It is one of 2014’s finest games and a shining example of real ambition.