Elite: Dangerous

The mesmerising space ship docking sequence in 2001: A Space Odyssey captures the wonder of the depth and breadth to which human progress has achieved by its enormous contrast between a scene of early man and its rapid cut to the display and majesty of technological and cultural achievements of spaceflight, music, and communication.  Everything from the subtle adjustments of the pilot to the classical score are an outward display of the unique ability of the human race to harness the power of its environment to exponential effect, and over such a short period of its history.  The wide-eyed wonder of it is also that this is only the beginning; the beginning of discovery, of exploration, and an understanding of the infinite beyond, the ocean of the unknown: space. But that scene also always reminds me of Elite. The entire Elite series takes a lot of inspiration from 2001 (apart from the obvious: it’s set in space…).  The two main references are the revolving space stations and the use of The Blue Danube (added in slightly later versions than the original).  The atmosphere of discovery and the feeling of plunging in to the unknown is a staple theme of both 2001 and the Elite series, and is something they both do very well.

Elite: Dangerous is technically the fourth game in the series (discounting the remakes and ports such as Elite Plus) and has been a long time coming.  It seems incredible it even got off the ground, never mind been successful.

But now, finally – due to crowd funding on Kickstarter – it’s a reality; and it’s pretty good.  It hasn’t done everything you would hope for in an Elite game, yet… and it currently doesn’t include features that were in some of the previous games (such as planetary landings), yet…  But apparently these are all to come and currently the developers have clearly opted for the much more sensible decision of implementing a smaller amount of features (for now), but honing and polishing those features to a high standard.

Arguably, the original Elite invented the open-world genre.  That was in 1984.  Yet it wasn’t really until 2001 when we started running over hookers for their money in GTA III that ‘open-world’ became massively popular.  Elite: Dangerous hasn’t changed any of that.  In fact in many ways the new Elite retains a very strong spirit of the original, while actually adding a lot more.  The ringed radar, front and centre, with its depiction of ships at varying altitudes as marks on stilts will be familiar.  But this is amplified by Elite’s use of a full 3D cockpit which, when scanning your head to the left or right of, will bring up holographic interface elements that flicker to life.  It’s all very slick, and not only is it brilliant intuitive interface design that doesn’t clutter the front screen, but it also just looks fucking cool.  Most of the old ships have returned, along with some new ones, and still retain the same shape (albeit with fancy 3D models now and glowing lights, obviously).  They’ve still kept their snake-like names too: the Cobra, Sidewinder, ASP and Anaconda are all back.  Probably the biggest improvement though since the original games (which was also its most noticeable feature) is the world itself.  The original Elite from 1984 was lauded for its procedurally generated universe that is made up of 8 galaxies, each one containing 256 planets.  Pretty impressive for 1984, especially considering the entire game fitted in to around 50Kb.  And if you’re wondering how big that is, well it takes up the same space as this picture of the original Elite…

Elite: Dangerous however, simulates the entire Milky Way galaxy.

What? Yes that’s right, the ENTIRE Milky Way.  The whole fucking thing.  Do you know how big that is?  Well I’ll tell you. The Milky Way is around 110 kly across, that’s 110,000 light years.  A light year is approximately 6 trillion miles (10 trillion kilometres).  And the whole thing holds between 200 – 400 billion stars, many of them with orbiting planets, just like our own solar system.  That’s… how big?  Too big to count on the fingers of a hand with 10³ digits, that’s how big.  These features just blew me away, but Elite: Dangerous’s simulation of the Milky Way is not just about scale though; every currently known planet has been mapped in to its database and accurately placed in its correct location; every known entity (mainly planets and stars) have been placed with their correct orbit and rotation etc.  Even the backdrop of stars you see outside of your ship, is not just a fancy skybox or a randomly generated image; every star you see out there, even the tiniest dot, is an ACTUAL STAR YOU CAN VISIT.

Despite these features giving Elite: Dangerous a certain verisimilitude to its world, it’s still not meant to be a simulation, and it’s better for it too.  Frontier: Elite II, suffered from a little too much realism.  Its Newtonian physics model for the game made getting to the right speed for dogfights frustrating at least and nigh-on impossible at worst.  Trying to slow down to shoot at a pirate – while travelling at many times the speed of light to hop between planets in systems – was like trying to shoot a charging wasp with a bow and arrow from a Ferrari.  Elite: Dangerous gets around this problem by separating flight in to three different modes.  Normal flight is for dogfighting, docking etc. (normal stuff basically); hyperspace jumps your ship between systems; and then there’s supercruise, a mode for travelling within systems between stations and planets.  Elite: Dangerous actually also still retains the Newtonian physics model by allowing pilots the option to turn ‘flight assist mode’ off in normal flight.  It’s really just for hardcore players though and offers a few advantages, but it’s not really necessary for most players.

You start the game in typical Elite fashion: you’re given a small ship, a measly amount of credits and thrown in to the big, bad world of space to make your fortune however you see fit.  Who shall you be today?  Bounty Hunter, Trader, Assassin, Explorer, Smuggler, Pirate..?  While your career options are obviously limited to those which you can perform in a spaceship (fashion designer and cat breeder are probably out) there are enough to tickle most people’s fancies.  The bulletin board in stations acts as a simple way to make a quick buck and is clearly Frontier’s way of easing you in to a relatively safe way of making money, as most of the missions are of the courier type.  Figuring out profitable routes to buy and sell to though is the most lucrative if you want to go down the trading route, but there isn’t a huge amount of information on how this is determined.  Assassination missions are similar, the location of targets are often described as just ‘somewhere’ in a star system, sometimes multiple star systems.  In both of these instances this has a two-fold effect.  On the one hand it’s extremely satisfying to find a profitable trade run that you’ve discovered all by yourself, or, within an assassination mission, to find your target through sheer deduction and adventurous exploration (within combat missions you also encounter NPCs that will give more information or new objectives).  The sense of agency in both of these cases is great and is refreshing from some of the hand-holding we’re used to in other games of this type.  But these situations can also lead to frustration and boredom when they become too unlucky for the player. Frontier will have to be very careful to balance this non-linearity with its ease of use in future updates.  Tutorials or hints on how these mechanics operate are also thin on the ground at the moment and it would certainly help for Frontier to supply them in-game in some form..

Trading can be fun for a while, looking for the best profits, buying low and selling high.  Are pesticides more profitable if bought from this system, or mineral oil?  Some systems actively advertised for certain commodities.  One of these was for a severe shortage in Tea stocks, probably for Yorkshire.  At the time of writing though, Elite’s trading system is not its particular strong point and feels a little lacklustre.  Especially when starting in your small Sidewinder ship with limited cargo space, it can take a while before you can make any kind of monetary progress.  This is compounded by the fact that travelling is a big part of trading which can become laborious for those who just want to make a quick buck.  However, if you’re the patient type who loves to travel and explore space the Elite: Dangerous will be a much better fit.  Ranking to ‘Elite’ status is now split in to three different avenues: combat, trading and now exploration.  Given the vast nature of the entire Milky Way galaxy, it would make sense for Frontier to find a way of encouraging you to explore that space.  By trekking in to the far, dark corners of space you can sell data on star systems you’ve discovered, back to other far away systems for a given amount based on the distance between the two.  This is one of Elite Dangerous’s latest and most interesting features; a way to reward players for exploration in a space the that accurately recreates the size of the Milky Way.

After some marginally successful trading I was itching to jump in to combat.  Not wanting to make too much of a mess with the authorities (and partly due to not yet understanding how they operated) I opted to try some bounty hunting.  This basically involves coasting around a star system, finding ships that are wanted with bounties on their heads and shooting them down before claiming your reward back at the local station.  Sounds risky, but the pilot’s combat ranking is displayed when you scan him, so you can pick and choose your fights wisely.  This also has the added effect of making that win against a deadly or elite pilot even more satisfying.

The combat itself though, really shines and is as dramatic as it is tactical.   Against a particularly difficult opponent, strategy and tactics are just as important as raw firepower.  These tactics are facilitated and expressed through the various systems and mechanics that drive your ship.  Power can be redistributed to shields, engines and weapons at various orders of magnitude; sub-systems of ships such as weapons systems and drives can be individually targeted (cargo bay doors can even be targeted to release a ship’s goods); and weapons systems can be swapped around to suit the situation.

Elite’s combat strategy also relies a lot on positioning and, therefore, the speed and agility of your ship.   There’s a sweet spot on the throttle, about halfway up, which allows for maximum manoeuvrability; not too slow, not too fast.  Master this and, in a small ship, you can keep out of sight of the weapons of a much more powerful one while you wear away at it with your pea shooters for guns.  Combat success then, is not necessarily relegated to who has the biggest ship (although it certainly helps) but Elite: Dangerous does a good job of providing opportunities for pilots in ships that pack less of a punch and tip the scales in their favour in a balanced and fair way.  This freedom of agency and the satisfaction that comes from scoring a risky kill when you’re out gunned and outclassed is euphoric.

This is all enhanced by the attention to detail the artists and sound designers gave to the world.  The sound in Elite: Dangerous is particularly engaging and immersive; the roar of engines as a ship skims across your bow, missing you by inches; the low boom as your ship exits hyperspace and the thunder of your afterburners kicking in.  As in most space games, the lack of ‘clutter’ and detail in open space – that normally require high polygon counts in Earth-like environments – has allowed the artists to do some really nice things with everything else.  The stars that are viewed close up when exiting hyperspace are particularly stunning.  Hot, azure trails emanate from ships’ engines and the cockpit interior itself is simple and elegant, yet rich in atmosphere.  Looking around your cockpit is a joy as you inspect the glowing panels around you and even see yourself sat down, grasping at the controls.  To be honest, you’re sat down the whole time, the cramp must be awful and I’m surprised the your character’s not the size of a baby elephant given the lack of exercise they get in there.

Orbiting stations are magnificently large, and will be recognisable to fans of the Elite series.  This time around though we get to see the full majesty of the interior and entering them for the first time is awe-inspiring.  The cavernous spaces are completely cylindrical and composed of docking bays dotted around, interspersed with structures and moving traffic that would defy normal gravity.   These revolving stations, as mentioned earlier, are a nod to 2001: A Space Odyssey.  Yet with this iteration of Elite, it seems the designers and artists have taken their references one step further.  Landing in docking bays initiates a guidance target on your interface and an audible proximity sensor, another nod to 2001’s moon docking sequences.  However it’s the stations’ interiors that caught my eye.  2001’s seminal science-fiction author and co-screenwriter, Arthur C Clarke, describes similar environments in his book Rendezvous with Rama.  It features an alien ship, huge and cylindrical, rotating to produce an artificial gravity through centrifugal force; and around its walls, buildings, rivers and roads are lined. If the reference is really lifted from the book, then it’s a nice touch.

One cannot talk about Elite: Dangerous without mentioning the elephant in the room that is Oculus Rift and the VR future of course.  While I haven’t played it with the Oculus Rift I do know that Braben and his team at Frontier are making sure that the future of VR is fully supported and I’ve read and seen enough of their use with Elite: Dangerous to know that it is one of the most popular games to use with the Rift.  I have, however played the game extensively using trackIR, the head tracking system used often for simulations such as Arma III and DCS World; it works great and is a viable alternative until the VR heavyweights release the consumer versions of their hardware.  I also currently use a Saitek X52 Pro joystick, which Elite Dangerous seems to have almost been designed to use from the start.  The in-game rendering of the joystick even matches the look of the X52.  Using third party software such as Voice Attack is also a great way to further immerse yourself in the game and is something I use almost every time I play.  The separate Elite: Dangerous voice pack adds a wealth of responses including detailed descriptions of space-based elements and phenomena and even (for a small charge) customised responses for your own name.

Elite: Dangerous then is more than a worthy successor to its roots.  It has managed to implement the simple, yet satisfying concepts of the original and meld them with the more realistic and ambitious aspects of later games in the series with surprising success.  If you’re a fan of the original, you’re almost certain to enjoy it.  If you’re not, then you may find your patience wearing thin somewhat initially in travel and trade.  If you stick with it though you’ll find it to be very rewarding.  It doesn’t feel quite finished but Frontier seem set on implementing those features in the future which we have always yearned for in space games; walk-in spaceships and stations, and planetary landings.  We’ll see then, if they’re able to deliver.  Despite these niggles though, its merits vastly outweigh its flaws.  The huge space to explore, modelled on our own Milky Way galaxy is almost merit enough to consider it.  The thrill and tactical nature of dramatic combat with its use of systems that offer a simple, yet not-overly complex, cerebral element also have to be included.  Its exquisite interface that is as much a joy to look at as it is to use; the magnificent and beautifully rendered stations, stars and planets; and last – but by far not least – its fantastic use of sound that makes the experience all the more immersive.

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