If I had to use one word to describe how it felt booting up Frontier development’s Elite Dangerous for the first time, that word would be ‘daunting’. The game takes place in the Milky Way, where Frontier have procedurally generated upwards of 400 billion star systems that players can travel to and through. The scale of it is astounding, open the galactic map and you’ll see an ocean of stars, each complete with its own set of planets, moons, orbital stations, and various other spacey stuff.
Once you get over the mind boggling scope of the galaxy you start to notice the insane amount of smaller (but no less significant) detail throughout this game. Frontier wanted Elite to be as realistic as possible so every ship is subject to Newtonian physics, which means adding those extra modules will result in your ship gaining in mass, and losing some manoeuvrability. Similarly, your ship will change how it handles and sounds if caught in an astronomical objects gravitational pull (or if you’ve left the landing gear on!) So yes, ‘daunting’ would be my word of choice, but unfortunately no one seems too enthused on my ‘one word reviews’ idea, so I guess I’ll have to flesh this out a bit.
So where do you go first? What do you do to earn your fortune and make your mark upon the universe? It’s entirely up to you. There’s no traditional story line to follow, and the game doesn’t hold your hand, so if, like me, you chose to forgo the half hour or so of tutorial videos (“I’ve played games all my life, how difficult could it possibly be?”) this will be the point when you let out a world weary sigh and reluctantly open up that YouTube page. This is where (if you didn’t already know) you will find out that there are five occupations to choose from- Trader, Miner, Pirate, Bounty Hunter and explorer. Every occupation requires some level of grinding, in varying degrees, as all missions essentially boil down to “get mission from point A, go to point B to complete task, return to point A to get paid” with slight deviations, such as adding a point C or not having to return to point A to get paid. This is where both the game’s biggest strengths and weaknesses lie, but I’ll get to those a bit later.
After educating yourself, you’re ready to traverse the Milky Way. Despite wanting the game to be as realistic as possible, Frontier decided that they wanted their players to still be alive when reaching their destination, so they created the Frame Shift Drive, or FSD for short. The FSD is capable of jumping ships between stars at incredible speeds and super cruising through those star systems at much lower, yet still incredible, speeds. This comprises a large chunk of gameplay as you will be pretty much constantly roaming around the galaxy, to and from objectives, for NPC quests, personal aims or otherwise. Because of this, creating the right feel for travelling through space in these sort of games is vitally important and deceptively difficult. It needs to take a reasonable amount of time to get places, as it shows how vast the distances being covered are, but it can’t hit the stage where it gets too boring. Elite nails this, it rarely feels too inconvenient to have to travel a few systems, but long journeys feel suitably epic.
I absolutely love piloting in this game. The weight and feel of the ships gives them personality, and there’s just about enough system micromanagement, whether in combat or just moving from place to place to, not only keep you occupied, but also make you feel like an actual space ship captain (Full power to shields!) I often find myself daydreaming about the immensely satisfying “WUB wub wub wub” noises that ships make; all these things combined with the subtle, yet atmospheric, soundtrack make getting around a joy in itself. The closest comparison I can think of is ‘Spiderman 2’ on original Xbox/ PS2 (bear with me here) the best part of that game was the mechanics for swinging around the city, I’ve forgotten pretty much everything else about ‘Spiderman 2’ the game, but what stuck with me was how cool it felt to just get around from place to place, and I have that feeling again with Elite. That said, I’ve yet to feel much attachment to any of my ships. Despite having personality they are sorely lacking a real sense of ownership, and I feel that this could come with the ability to get out of the seat and wander around which, for me, is the biggest example of the game suffering for what’s missing.
And there’s a lot missing, or rather, there’s a lot of little things missing, and this is where reviewing Elite gets difficult, It’s one of the increasing number of games that doesn’t direct you where to go, but rather lets you loose in the universe and gives you the tools to experience it. The problem is there’s not currently enough tools. Pretty much all games require a certain amount of repetition of a game mechanic before a pay-off, and Elite is certainly no exception, but the lack of certain features is currently hurting the immersion of the game. The grindy-ness of the quests wouldn’t be as noticeable if you weren’t constantly constrained to your ships seat and getting missions via text description from the bulletin boards. It makes it feel like you’re on the outside of the universe looking in. To have to physically find and interact with an NPC to get a quest, and having to pause a journey to float around your ship, making repairs, getting a sense of scale and exploring all the various nooks and crannies could give this game an incredible amount of depth. It’s stuff you would do if you actually owned a space ship. There’s ‘First person perspective exploration of ships and space stations’ update planned for some time this year, but currently its absence is one of the few things stopping me from becoming totally obsessed with this game.
The business model Frontier Development have in place for Elite Dangerous is unusual. Starting life as a successful ‘Kick Starter’ crowd funding project, Frontier knew going in that the sheer mass of content they wanted wouldn’t be possible in a conventional development cycle. So instead Elite will get yearly expansion packs, which in turn will get four big updates throughout the year, one every quarter. This decision has come under fire from the community as many feel it’s dishonest to make the established player base pay every year, when new players can just pick up the latest expansion and get everything that came before essentially for free. I, personally, think it’s a good plan that will live or die by Frontiers execution of it, people can gripe all they want but if Frontier tried to develop all of their ideas in one development cycle it’d take a stupidly long time for the first iteration of the game to be released, only for lengthy alpha and beta testing periods to further fray the nerves of the paying public. If we make the comparison to most yearly released franchises (Fifa, CoD, Assassins Creed etc) Most, with few exceptions, are essentially slight graphical and physics engine improvements being reskinned and sold at £50 a pop; then Elite should be a revelation. Provided, of course that they deliver, and I believe they will.
This isn’t blind faith, mind, Frontier have been making space games for over twenty years, giving them an impressive pedigree. They are undoubtedly amongst some of the more experienced developers around, this is demonstrated in some of their various development videos where, when they talk about up and coming features, they also talk about how a great deal of the early groundwork for these features is already in the game, making it easier to add them later on. For example, every ship is already modelled in the same high detail inside and out, even though the player can’t currently move from the pilot seat. This is so Frontier can, much more easily, add the ability for players to move around ships and space stations, opening up a whole new world of gameplay opportunities and immersion. Compare this to the catastrophic failings of Star Citizen, where the ‘FPS module’ was built later and tacked on to the main game engine, only for there to be too many problems leading to it being scrapped, possibly for future release but that combined with the disjointed release of the now separate Squadron 42 makes me glad I didn’t back that particular space horse. While it’s difficult to take encouragement from a totally different teams failings, it does show that at least Frontier are at least thinking ahead and preparing, which can only be a good thing.
The first of the yearly expansion pack, ‘Horizons’ has already been released and so far adds planetary landings, player controlled vehicles (for said landings) as well as a host of smaller changes and the promise of juicier ones to come. I won’t be delving too deeply into these as I’ve already mentioned some up and coming features, and this review isn’t really about ‘Horizons’ but suffice to say that, as well as the game changingly huge addition of actually being able to leave your pilot seat, there are some other cool features in the works. Players have started discovering alien structures on certain worlds, alluding to the ‘Thargoids’, the hostile alien species from previous Elite games, and there’s a robust sounding crafting system on the way to give variation and personality to ship system modules, whilst giving resources more tangible worth than the default monetary value. When and in what order these features will be added is anyone’s guess though as Frontier haven’t released any sort of roadmap. They aren’t against releasing information about up and coming features, but for some reason, choose instead to spread it out amongst various videos and interviews. Luckily there are some dedicated members of the community that have put in the leg work for you, it’s worth taking a look.
So… should you buy Elite Dangerous? If you enjoy space simulators with incredibly satisfying flight and combat mechanics, then yes, definitely. But be warned, It does feel a bit like an early access game in many respects so if you’re looking for the complete experience then you’re probably better off keeping an eye on development, and waiting for a feature that really grabs you. To me it’s currently a satisfying and incredibly impressive game- building block on the road to greater things. It could be a long road, but in this case that’s not such a bad thing.
Edit: Some more information has been released by Frontier since I did my pre-review research regarding the ‘Horizons’ expansion pack. Three of the four updates have been given names, some confirmed features and hints of others. Whilst the fourth is only named ‘???’ with features only to be speculated upon.
The first ‘The Engineers’ is set for a spring release and will include a revamped mission system as well as the crafting system for modules. ‘Guardians’ will follow in summer and its big talking point will be the introduction of ship-launched fighters. fall will bring ‘The Commanders’ which adds character customisation and the ability to have another player as your co-pilot. ‘???’ doesn’t have a set release date, but I’d say winter was a pretty safe bet.
The other big change is to how ‘Horizons’ and all future expansions will be priced. Frontier have taken ‘Horizons’ off of the market and reclassified it as DLC which you can purchase as a season pass. The season passes are priced at £25 and you will have to own a base copy of Elite Dangerous to play them. It’s an interesting move but could alienate future potential players who want the complete experience and have to pay through the nose to get all available DLC at once.