‘Elite: Dangerous’: Deadly, Mostly AimlessFiled inside: Reviews
The journey has been an arduous one.
I’ve traveled hundreds of light years with eighty tons of cargo that is…less than legal in the eyes of the local governments. Bandits at several turns have attempted to avail themselves of the containers in the hold, trying to pull me out of my faster-than-light cruising on my way to refueling stations, but I’ve managed to foil them at most turns. A small crew did manage to get me down to impulse speeds, but I shut the vents and foiled their sensors, diverting all power away from the weapon systems and dumping into engine capacitors to outstrip them. Still, they managed to get through my shields and nearly knocked out my drives before Frame Shift kicked in.
My canopy is cracked, but life support is holding. Good thing, too—after the last bout of repairs I don’t think there’s enough in the accounts to cover my insurance premiums, hence taking the shadier work. It just needs to get to Ray Gateway in the Diaguandri system, and it’ll put my mind at ease. Just one more hyperspace jump.
Stories like this are common in Elite: Dangerous, a modern take on a famous old space commerce simulator. As a new commander in the Pilot’s Federation, you’ll do whatever you can manage to get by in a ruthless galaxy. The game comes from Frontier Developments. The game had a successful run through Early Access, dredging up a strong following before releasing in June. Since then, I’ve spent quite a few hours jumping around the galaxy and trying to make a name for myself. The takeaway is that the game is immediately engaging, and completely gorgeous, but feels like it lacks some of the staying power and player density to really enter the modern canon.
You’re given a stock ship with basic weaponry and set loose to make money through three primary means: bounty hunting, mining and trading, and exploration. Each is associated with a Pilot’s Federation rank, raising your rank will grant you access to more valuable missions from bulletin boards at various stations (which is funny, because by the time your rank is high enough, you’ll often have abandoned bulletin board missions entirely).
I’ve talked before about my great love for a good space epic. Some of my fondest gaming memories are of battling the Shivan menace is Descent Freespace. Similarly, I loved the nuance and pacing of EVE Online, and the ways you’re encouraged to forge your own path while also navigating the ever changing power struggle between player-controlled factions.
These sorts of comparisons are inevitable with Elite: Dangerous. The game is a hardcore gamer’s dream, striking an outstanding balance in terms of making sure the game is accessible to newcomers, regardless of input method, but also including many minute elements and details that make pulling off even some basic maneuvers satisfying, flight is responsive when it needs to be, and still follows in-atmosphere styled flight models (with the option to turn off flight assist if you’re truly skilled or, you know, insane and want flight to be more like it would be in space) to keep the game more easily playable.
Combat is probably the most massively appealing method with which to start making credits in Elite. Your ship’s hardpoints can be fitted with a number of different weapons that can drastically alter the ways in which you engage pirates or other hostile forces. Thermic pulse lasers or burst lasers provide a relatively simple and effective way to strip enemy shields without reliance on conventional arms and ammunition, or high-damage beam lasers for more intense and focused damage output (at the cost of more severe heat generation).
Or maybe you’ll settle for a more traditional combat form, sporting continuous damage multi-cannons or semi-automatic large-bore cannons, each of which are better for tearing into a ship’s hull or doing damage to it’s individual subsystems to maximize your effectiveness. Each of these weapons can be found in a variety of forms—fixed weapon mounts only fire straight forward, but have the lowest power requirements and do the most damage. Gimballed mounts allow for automatic target tracking and firing within a cone of effectiveness ahead of the ship, while turreted weapons are on special omnidirectional mounts that track and fire on targets without user input (but also do the least damage).
There are also some more specialized weapons that can serve as niche weapons or suit very particular dogfighting styles: railguns that fire very high-damage projectiles effective against both shields and armor, but are limited to fixed mounts and only fire after a short charge time. Fragment cannons that function as space shotguns, best suited for quick, maneuverable vessels employing hit-and-run tactics, or plasma accelerators that fire slow-moving balls of superheated plasma that deal damage over a larger area, useful for engaging larger, slower ships.
These can also be supplemented by more utilitarian pieces of equipment and can greatly vary your tactics based on the kind of ship you’re flying, and can be easily tailored at most major stations to fit your current needs. Planning on eradicating NPC pirates at resource extraction zones? Load up with more energy-based weapons for protracted engagements, throw on some shield boosters in case multiple pirates engage you at once, and some chaff launchers to fool their gimballed or turreted weapons.
Going to fight some other players? Throw on some fixed weapons to avoid firing through their chaff, dedicated shield cell banks for emergencies, high-grade thrusters for better turn radii, and if you’re feeling particularly tricky, you might try loading some heat sinks and closing your ship’s vents while powering down some unnecessary modules, reducing your thermal signature so enemy ships can’t target or track you at all.
When I say combat is the most massively appealing way to make money, I mean that it provides the most exciting way to access the game and make progress, and holds immediate and measurable risk as you size up opponents before engagement.
But Elite brands itself as a space trade simulator, and you’ll find plenty of work moving goods and providing courier services to parts of the galaxy that need them. It can be less glamorous, to be certain, but tends to be (with the right ship and internal components) a more lucrative field to get involved in.
There’s a surprising nuance involved in planning a good trade route. Looking ahead on the galaxy map can show you the type of system you might be visiting (agricultural sectors, large-scale refineries, high-tech, or military, for instance) so that you can make sure your current system produces items that your destination might require. From there, you’ll also want to make sure there’s another stop nearby that needs goods from that destination, until eventually most players settle into a comfortable loop that provides a fairly healthy profit per few hyperspace jumps without flooding markets.
Occasionally, things might get interesting if you find a rare trade good (only produced in specific sectors and that increase in value the further you travel from the source) or if you get really crazy (like I did for a while) and attempt to fly, say, a shieldless transport vessel that’s been gutted of any other useful components in favor of maximum cargo space. The thought that at any moment a bandit might be able to interdict you out of supercruise and you’ll have little or no way to defend yourself can make carrying a few hundred tons of valuable water purifiers or imperial slaves an oddly stressful experience.
If you don’t feel like just hauling tons of assorted goods from one place to another, you might try to provide the materials on your own—mining valuable metals and the like, collecting and refining them on the fly, and selling to nearby stations. Mining lasers take up precious hardpoint space, so don’t expect to easily be able to defend yourself should the need arise. Clever miners will go out of their way to find rich resource clusters that are far off the beaten path, drastically reducing the chances of an attack.
The “trade simulator” genre moniker, however, makes me feel as though trade in Elite is the area that has the most room to grow. I made the bulk of my fortunes using some planning and a little derring-do here and there, but never felt like I was doing anything meaningful as I moved superconducters and bioreducing lichens between stations for a few hours a night, and trying my hand at mining was like throwing darts blindfolded—it takes some serious effort to find unspoiled resource clusters within any kind of appreciable distance.
But beyond that, the game gives no opportunity to feel like you’ve become some kind of mogul or tycoon. You can’t corner a market in an area, not with any kind of real ease, anyway. You’d need a massive number of players in some kind of high-traffic space, scanning every player that comes through to make sure they’re not transport palladium, and taking it by force when they do. While you might move objects about, aside from mining metals and minerals, you’ll not be crafting or creating items to try to sell on the markets, you’re at the whim of basic supply and demand mechanics to determine the value of stuff sold to markets.
EVE Online shines in that regard: player-formed corporations can mine, produce, and sell goods to other actual players. You’ll not do any producing in Elite, nor any sales to specific players. Everything ends up running through NPC filters and behind-the-scenes algorithms and takes a lot of power out of the mercantile markets. It just feels like a half-formed idea as it stands, and it certainly not an engaging enough method of making money to merit so little feedback or other involvement. It’s literally relegated to entering a market, buying a full load of something with a high supply and finding a place with high demand to dock with and sell them to.
Only the boldest players, though, move through the last way to make money in Elite: Dangerous: exploration.
In its own way, exploration is simultaneously the most and least exciting way to play Elite. On the one hand, it’s a fairly simple endeavor without a lot of deviation or variety. Jump into a new system, fire off your discovery scanner to find new astronomical objects, target them, scan them, and move on.
But this also brings with it an unusually Zen way to enjoy the game. In occupied space, you become accustomed to certain methods of play: fly between stations, explore anomalous signals, buy and sell goods, dodge bandits or security forces (depending on your reputation), refuel when necessary, grab repairs, all that.
In deep space, you have to throw all that away. Don’t expect to see other ships on your sensors—ever. Truly intrepid explorers enjoy the benefit of having their name forever associated with an object (if they’re the first one to scan that object).
And it brings with it unique dangers that are much more insidious in nature. In combat, you’ve got a recognizable hunk of metal throwing lasers at your face. In trading, you’ll have sunk credits into a load of cargo that will be destroyed if a cunning bandit is able to catch you off guard. In exploration, the environment itself becomes your foe, as well as your own abilities as a pilot.
When you’re so far removed from populated space, you’ll find that missing even one step in the planning process can be disastrous. You’ll strip your ship of anything unnecessary, lighten loads to enhance your jump distance, but also prepare for moving through, say, a number of systems in a row that sport stars that you cannot harvest fuel from. If you jump into an unknown system that has several stars near each other, you risk overheating without a number of heatsinks, and should you start to take heat damage, you’ll be very limited in your ability to repair your hull.
You can jump thousands of light years away over the course of weeks—weeks—and have all your exploration data lost because you got caught in the gravity well of a neutron star and used too much fuel to make another jump. A harrowing jump might finally push your systems to their limits and knock out life support—leaving only fifteen minutes of oxygen in the ship to make it back (spoiler: you won’t make it).
But it feels oddly rewarding. Space is called the final frontier for a reason—and Elite: Dangerous is such a beautiful game through and through, being the one that finds a gorgeous new system and is able to provide system data to the rest of the population can provide a surprising sense of accomplishment, one that is (to me) inherently more rewarding than the rush of destroying a well-armed pirate or selling some rare tea for a massive product. Returning from a sojourn from the core with a cracked canopy and less than 10% hull integrity after ten days is an amazing feeling. Exploration is a fairly exclusive club—but one worth exploring if you think you have the stones for it.
And that’s part of the problem with Elite: it requires a massive and fairly special kind of dedication to really become engrossed in the space. The game is still growing, but like Destiny, the game feels like a lot of missed potential and empty promises that are being implemented in forms that don’t quite satisfy the players. The next round of major paid updates to the game have been announced, and in traditional Payday 2 fashion, the players have all but refused to acknowledge developer vision and instead complain that they’re not being listened to. Things like planetary landings and new ships and equipment, for example.
But as it stands, the game suffers from some systemic problems that cannot necessarily be controlled, but would provide much more density to the game and enhance its ability to retain a player’s attention—because as it stands the game is incredibly engaging, fun to discuss with other pilots, and gorgeous to look at, but after just a few weeks, I can’t spend more than a couple of hours every few days playing the game. The game just doesn’t quite feel like is responds to my presence enough to justify putting the time in in the first place, and being as open as it is, there’s not really an end goal—that’s for the player to determine—and as such, the game lacks staying power.
If I had any say in the matter, I would venture that the game either needs a serious boost in player base (which is out of the control of the developers), or a reduction in occupied space—a solution that cannot necessarily be implemented , since the game is part of a series and doing so might retcon details established in previous iterations.
There is an option to play “solo”, where you cannot encounter other human players while still allowing your actions to affect the universe, and have their actions affect you, which has raised some complaints among the more dedicated Dangerous fans— especially since a solo player can participate in “Powerplay”, a galaxy-wide political power struggle between eight major figures, but not have their actions directly countered by other players online.
But NPCs are predictable. I can, with a fair amount of ease, guess when I’ll be attacked by bandits, and I can, when my loadout is right, find a target worthy of my attention. It only takes a little effort to plot a trade route that will net a few million credits in a couple of hours. Forging your own path through uncharted space fulfills a powerful yearning to discover and conquer places unknown.
But the fact of the matter is that even when you’re playing online, you simply cannot expect to encounter the unpredictability that coincides with human occupation. To see the ways that a band of people, given sufficient wealth and drive, can take a space governed by a set of rules and turn those rules on their head. As it stands, there simply aren’t enough players for the macroeconomy to feel the effects of a concerted effort on the part of a significant percentage of the player base, which is a shame—the game truly needs more density to shine.
The other problem to which is that the more mandatory systems—station supply and the like—are not nearly as responsive as the Powerplay, which is purely optional and requires too much dedication to feel rewarding. The game would benefit gravely from more avenues of player input, item production and enhanced market influence chief among them.
These are solutions in player retention, to say the game needs help hooking players is certainly false: the premise is one that is less than average, and the universe itself is utterly massive and worthy of seeing. To have created a system in which those dedicated to their chosen craft are rewarded with not only measurable riches or influence, but with gorgeous (yet somehow calm and empty) solar vistas, claiming nebulae or spending a few seconds marveling at some high-density blue dwarves, before gravity starts to take hold and you’re forced to alter trajectory and flee.
Not only is the game a visual feast, but everything from control, UI, and even the sound design are top-tier pieces of art. A solid surround sound system can do absolute wonders to that end, as can a decent joystick setup (I’m rocking a Saitek X45 I picked up from a thrift store for $8). Engaging a well-armed Anaconda only to find yourself outgunned, disengaging pursuit, retracting hardpoints, redirecting power from the weapons to the engines, and boosting away as your shields go down, your ship’s voice informs you that your canopy is compromised, and escaping into the aptly named “Witch Space” (something which absolutely must be experienced with a nice headset) only moments before your ship might have exploded from a damaged power plant.
The game needs work. It’s a game that digs its hooks into you almost immediately upon launching, but will almost surely struggle to keep you playing after more than a week’s worth of evenings, especially if you’re an adult with other obligations. Some tweaks to the core forumula might allow for a longer-lasting grip on the players, and meet the kind of expectations players with an MMO mentality and dedication might need to truly invest in the space, which would consequently improve the experience for all the other players.
It is absolutely a game that merits your attention, and one that deserves not only your hard-earned money, but also your input in order to become the stronger game it truly deserves to be. Check it out on Steam, for PC or Mac, as well as an Xbox One version. I guarantee, even if you don’t necessarily enjoy your time, you’ll grow as a gamer from having invested in it.