I just purchased my third copy of Elite Dangerous. Hopefully that gives you some insight into my hopeless obsession with this big, beautiful and unforgiving triumph of a game.
Maybe you’ve never heard of Frontier Development’s Elite Dangerous. Or maybe you’ve seen that badass PS4 launch trailer via social media and it’s piqued your interest. Kickstarted back in 2012, Elite Dangerous is the follow up to the highly successful Elite series off the 1980s and 90s. It’s never been a main stream title, but that isn’t for a lack of interest or ownership; after all it’s sold over a million copies. It’s the nature of the game that keeps it skulking under the surface. A hidden gem, a diamond in the rough. Whilst It’s a game that I’m utterly addicted to, its steep learning curve and lack of any obvious narrative or direction make it hard to recommend to Joe Gamer.
Elite Dangerous is available now on PS4 and if you’re interested, but on the fence about committing to that purchase, hopefully I can better equip you to make that decision. Elite Dangerous isn’t for everyone, but if you’re like me then you’ve had that Han Solo fantasy since you were 5 years old. With Elite Dangerous, you can finally get your Falcon.
A sprawling Space Sim set in a 1:1 scale recreation of the milky way galaxy, Elite Dangerous unceremoniously plonks you into the cockpit of a Sidewinder (The spacefaring equivalent of that second hand 1.1 Corsa your dad bought you when you were 17). Aside from a few brief training missions, Frontier do little to guide you in your journey. Everything from docking your ship at a space station to navigating the somewhat daunting commodities/stock market and mission system is insanely complex and more or less up to you to figure out. This however is what draws me to the game; it has just about the steepest learning curve I’ve ever experienced, but provides an equally paralleled sense of accomplishment and reward. It can be frustrating at first, but soon you will learn how to plot a course, pick up a mission, upgrade your ship, land on a planet (providing you purchase the Horizons expansion) etc… As you become more and more proficient with Elite’s systems and mechanics, greater is the sense of mastery. With some time, tears, trial and error you’ll be a competent commander in a vast open world shared Galaxy and well on your way to ‘Elite’ status.
I say shared because Elite Dangerous is essentially an MMORPG. Like our own galaxy, ED HAS billions of star systems, all of them can be traveled to, all can be explored. Outside of the inhabited bubble (the area of the galaxy occupied by humanity) the chances of bumping into someone are astronomically slim. However, within populated space it’s more likely that you’ll find someone that either wants to be a good Samaritan or has a burning desire to mercilessly murder you and steal your shit. It’s called “Elite Dangerous” for a reason after all.
“Within populated space it’s more likely that you’ll find someone that either wants to be a good Samaritan or has a burning desire to mercilessly murder you and steal your shit.”
There are heroes amongst the community though; we’re not all pirates and smugglers. ‘The Fuel Rats’ for example are a friendly bunch of folks who will come to your aid with fuel canisters, should you find yourself running on fumes and stranded in a star system with no station to fill up at. That’s just one example of how amazing Commanders can be. There are shared community goals, huge group exploratory expeditions and even an ongoing mass migration to a second inhabited bubble that’s popping up on the far side of the Galaxy. Elite Dangerous can be a solitary experience if you lone wolf it. Luckily there are plenty of folks to befriend or… be-enemy.
What a vertical slice of Elite Dangerous looks like is totally dependent on the player. The ‘core gameplay loop’ is up to you as the commander of your ship. Pick up and complete trading, scavenging missions from space stations. Claim bounties or become an assassin. Buy commodities low from one station and sell them high at another, transport passengers or take them on sightseeing adventures. You can mine asteroid fields and planetary ring systems for resources or side with one of the many warring factions and engage in all out war. If you’re feeling bold enough, you can even leave the relative safety of the inhabited bubble behind and venture out into the unknown to visit black holes and Nebulas then sell your exploration data. There are Many ways to earn credits and the more you earn, the more you can upgrade your ship. Or maybe your goal is to save up for a bigger and better ship (I’ll get my Anaconda one day). There are limitless ways to configure your vessel, which allows you to really specialise in what ever profession you choose. Cargo ship? Passenger transport ship? Space Tank? it’s totally up to you. It’s the American dream in space; start at the bottom and trade, pirate or bounty hunt your way to the top.
Elite’s difficulty stems from its sheer depth and sense of realism. Ships don’t fly aerodynamically and it might feel like trying to steer an out of control bus on ice instead of flying an X-Wing in your opening hours of play, but with practice, the ships’ none ballistic behaviour allow for far greater control and maneuverability. You control ships with a number of different thrust vectors. This makes combat more of a chess game than a shoot em up. Equipping the biggest stick and playing chicken isn’t always the surest way to victory, Instead its about maneuvering around and out turning your enemy. With abilities like deplorable chaf and shield boosters there is a huge focus on defense as well as attack. Power management is also a vital part of handling your vessel. The power plant in your ship has limited output, and if you’re not smart about prioritising certain ship systems and modules, your life support will cut out which is bad news if you have an affinity for being not dead.
“Power management is also a vital part of handling your vessel. if you’re not smart about prioritising certain ship systems and modules, your life support will cut out which is bad news if you have an affinity for being not dead.
Combined with a fixed first person perspective this complexity creates an unparalleled sense of immersion. In fact Some of my most intense gaming moments were spawned from the unforgiving nature of Elite Dangerous. Fly too close to a star and get emergency dropped out of super cruise where you’ll find yourself melting under intense heat. Approach a high gravity world too fast and you’ll smash into it like a bug on a windscreen. On occasion your glass canopy breaks and there’s nothing in between you and the cold dark emptiness of the void. HUD-less you must stagger back to a station before your reserve oxygen depletes. Elite is fun even when it’s kicking your ass and you’ll definitely want to pack a change of space pants.
This sense of immersion extends beyond instances of extreme realism. It’s an entirely seamless experience. I will never not be amazed at the fact that I can be doing donuts in my SRV buggy, load into my ship, take off, jump through hyperspace to a neighbouring star and dock in an orbiting space station, all with out cut-scenes or loading screens. All of your menus appear in game as a holographic projected HUD in your cockpit which means that you’re never taken away from the pilot seat. The ability to look around the cockpit also gives you a greater spacial awareness and is essential for tracking enemies during combat. A benefit to playing on the PS4 is that this head look can now be mapped to the Duel Shock 4’s motion sensors which frees up the right stick for thruster control. Frontier work damned hard to keep you in the experience and Elite Dangerous excels as a result.
Perhaps one of the most exciting features is that the game is not finished yet. Incremental updates are regularly released with Frontier bringing new features and improvements with every iteration. Patch 2.3 ‘ The Commanders’ saw the inclusion of a very capable camera suite allowing you to view the beautifully modelled ships and cockpits from different perspectives, the ability to create an in game avatar as well as the option to join friends and strangers on the bridge of their ship with Multicrew. Prior to 2.3, Frontier included the ability to launch smaller, nimbler fighters from your mothership that can be piloted by players or A.I NPCs. 2.4 ‘The
Return’ will see an invasion of Aliens called the Thargoids who come bearing gifts of terror and death . Elite Dangerous is jam packed with things to do and there’s always more to look forward to.
Lets talk about the Bantha in the room, I know it’s very popular to rag on the video game marmite that is No Man’s Sky and admittedly it’s difficult not to compare the two. Whilst I am a self professed fan and defender of NMS, I will admit that Elite Dangerous succeeds in areas that it didn’t, and that maybe there is a chance ED is closer to what you were expecting NMS to be. Elite Dangerous is the experience I’ve been after since I was a kid, one that gives me a ship, a galaxy and absolute freedom. It’s a grind, it’s brutal and difficult, and it requires a huge time investment. It’s not all peril in space though. Whether you’re landing on a rocky moon with an enormous gas giant hanging in the sky, or dropping out of hyperspace into a system with a spinning Neutron star, Elite Dangerous often rewards players with moments of absolute awe and visual splendor. Its combat is tough to master but slick as hell when you do. The sense of scale and depth is frankly astounding if perhaps even a little overwhelming.
Hopefully I helped clear things up, or maybe I threw a few hydro spanners into the works. Now available on PC, Mac OS, Xbox One and PS4, Elite Dangerous is a nuanced experience that wont appeal to everyone but should be a genuinely breath taking experience for those on the hunt for a space fantasy. This is a game that rewards investment. If you’re looking for a strong, linear narrative or a short, polished AAA campaign then I’m afraid you wont find it here. But if you’re looking for a big, bold adventure in space, then you may just have found it.