Elite: Dangerous Hands On Preview
A galaxy-sized MMORPG of danger and infamy. In space!
There are flight sims, there are space sims, and then there is Elite: Dangerous, an ambitious MMORPG Kickstarted from across the pond in the UK.
This is no cheeky little British game; this game is huge: there are supposedly all 400 billion of our galaxy’s star systems included, somehow, through procedurally-generated algorithms. Some of these are being held back so that they can be populated later on with alien species and other NPCs, but it still appears to be an enormous undertaking for both the developer and the player.
It all begins with a basic ship and a few space credits and then you’re off to the final frontier to fight, go bounty hunting, deliver or trade goods, eliminate pirates (or become one), or explore at your own pace. These activities are rewarded with more space credits to upgrade your ship with a larger cargo bay, or better weapons and greater maneuverability, or a computer that can perform starport landings automatically, or the purchase of hundreds of other ships. I didn’t know Kickstarter could birth projects with such an epic scope, but here it is.
There is a sense that the galaxy of Elite: Dangerous is a dynamic, living place. A pirate can set a trap by shutting off engines and completely hide from radar. Building up a powerful ship and going on a rampage or taking up a career in the field of piracy will attract the ire of the police—or the attention of bounty hunters. Blockades between star systems, famines, territory annexations, and other conflicts can play out, depending on players’ affinity for the main three factions (Federation, Empire, and Independent Alliance). The main goal of developing a reputation in these respective factions, gaining Elite status, and upgrading to the best possible ship could take quite some time.
Though it’s a dynamic place, the 400 billion star systems could get a little lonely. It is strictly an online-only game, and yet there’s no feature for players to gather and interact. Some will complain about having to use online forums to band together for quests, but it will probably be fixed in future updates.
Unlike other enlightened utopian sci-fi series, there are rules for just about everything, even the otherwise mundane. Anyone planning on buying this will have to watch some tutorials and browse the 43-page manual for a good long while if they want to stay out of trouble. For example, docking must be requested before an approach, or you could face a fine or ship destruction. Docking must be performed in an allocated time, or it must be re-requested. And loitering too long in an airlock is a criminal offense! Space hooligans, beware.
A similar degree of finesse is required for general flight. There are three basic modes of travel: normal flight for small distances, combat, and mining; Super Cruise (within a star system); and Hyper Space Jump (to other star systems). The latter two, of course, require one to first retract equipment, gain a clear line of sight, and set full throttle before initiation. If you expect to jump in and do a lot of pew-pew-pewing, you’re in the wrong game.
I got to try out a little bit of the combat in a demo. I followed and blasted a ship through an asteroid field. Standard stuff, but made even sweeter when paired with a hive of monitors and Saitek’s new X52 Pro flight stick at Newegg’s Blizz Con after-party. The graphics are sublime—no HD sheen, blue-bloom, or the “serious” muddy gray/brown textures that are popular these days. The ships, starports, and asteroids share an appropriately huge difference in size, and, paired with an advanced HUD system able to keep tabs on the tiniest box of derelict space cargo, it all makes for a very rewarding vision of the future. Oh, and best of all, no nerdy fantasy characters to spoil the mood; it appears that interactions with other ships and mission selections are all handled in menus.
It was not difficult at all to track and follow the enemy ship in the brief combat demo, but the realism added some interesting challenges. The vastness of space is felt at all times; objects in the distance can often be farther than they seem. This will require the in-flight patience that is needed for any realistic sim, as well as an aptitude for interpreting a 2D radar map in 3D space. Additionally, the controls felt a little heavier than I was expecting. The ship I piloted felt (sorry if you are Star Wars-weary) closer to the Falcon than an X-Wing, but most closely resembled the shape and small size of a B-Wing. Even that description is a little too simplistic; I’ve seen videos where a ship can flip 180-degrees and start shooting in the other direction. Plus, there are other things to stay on top of, like diverting power to the shields, weapons, or engine.
UK developer Frontier Developments has taken on an enormous project that is far from a finished product. Sometime in the next year (or two), players will be able to land on planets, which will require a carefully plotted entry through the atmosphere. Alien species, such as the terrifying Thargoids seen in the original Elite, will be added to the mix. The ability to get out of the spacecraft and walk around the huge space stations to talk to NPCs will be implemented sometime in the future as well. As it is, if you’ve got a nice PC (Mac users will have to wait a few months) and want a full-scale galaxy to explore and exploit, this seems like one of the most ambitious yet.