Veteran gamers have waited a decade or two to see space sims make a glorious comeback, and we’re on the verge of that right now. Star Wars Battlefront debuts this month and fans are already clamoring for a true space-based starfighter mode in it just as Star Citizen – the most successfully crowdfunded project event – is in deep development from the guy who made Wing Commander and Starlancer.
It’s not too surprising given the popularity, success, and resurgence of entertainment brands such as Star Wars, Star Trek, and Guardians of the Galaxy. And while all of these IPs keep the cosmic buzz and hype alive, there’s one game already out there doing something special in the space sim genre: Elite: Dangerous.
The Elite trilogy of video games was a thing of the ’80s and early ’90s, the last entry of which (Frontier: First Encounters) debuted in 1995. Now, 20 years later, its sequel Elite: Dangerous is not only available on PC after releasing last December – selling over half a million copies by the spring – but developer Frontier Developments has also brought it to consoles via the Xbox One. Elite: Dangerous is an ambitious game, the first in the series to embrace MMO design and virtual reality (on PC it supports the Oculus Rift and will support SteamVR), and it’s the most in-depth sim you can find on a home console.
How to Play Elite: Dangerous
The biggest question of what you actually do while playing Elite: Dangerous is not easy one to answer and for some critics, that’s a major issue. There is no narrative and there are no characters to interact with. You’re always in a ship and you’re not really fighting for or against anyone unless you want to… or are forced to. The galaxy is instead shaped by player actions.
The goal is simple though: Make money. This is done through collecting bounties, completing random missions picked up at starports, trading commodities and rare goods, selling illegal loot on the black market or cartography info from exploring, and even being a space pirate.
By design, Elite: Dangerous delivers a space flight sim experience and a massive universe to explore but what you do is entirely up to you. This is actually a hurdle for the first hours of play since paths aren’t clearly defined, and things to do – the little things – aren’t presented in any meaningful way in-game. It’s tough to know what to do at first and there’s a learning curve steeper than most video games that not even the list of in-game tutorials can prepare you for, and that’s not inherently bad. It’s different and it’s what makes Elite: Dangerous so unique. You can’t get other games like this on the consoles.
Players start with a basic ship and a little money, and from there, they can do whatever they want. They can fly from one star system to the next, exploring them, refueling and scanning mysterious signals along the way, and as they survive encounters and earn more cash. They can buy and upgrade equipment for their vessel, even acquire larger and more advanced ships. It’s almost expected that you’ll feel lost when starting out. Perhaps that’s intentional given the vast emptiness of space. But once it clicks, once you earn a bit of money, complete a few missions, survive a skirmish, understand the system and galactic maps, and how Supercruise travel between planets works versus Hyperspace travel between systems, then you’ll be drawn in to the addictive nature of being a part of one of the largest games ever made.
A Real Galaxy To Explore
While playing Elite: Dangerous and plotting routes to get from point A to D on a mission to retrieve some wreckage by hyperspace traveling from one system to the next I decided to scroll around the galactic map to see how far out I could connect the dots should I desire to explore and see how big the galaxy in the game really was. It wouldn’t stop scrolling. There were sectors after sectors after sectors to explore. It was endless.
Elite: Dangerous is an online, persistent universe built as a 1:1 scale open-world galaxy based on the real Milky Way. It features 400 billion star systems, chock full of planets and moons that rotate and orbit in real-time, resulting in dynamic day/night cycles. Over 150,000 of these star systems are created from from real-world astronomical data, while models help procedurally generate the rest. Add in the countless starbases, and other random finds (comets!) and you’ll see why there’s nothing like Elite: Dangerous. You can play this game forever, although it’ll be boring as is.
Next Page: The Good and the Bad of Elite: Dangerous
It’s Hard Out There For a Space Pilot
There’s something admittedly special and exciting about little details of Elite: Dangerous gameplay. Travelling between planets, moons, stations, and even between stars in multi-star systems will usually result in interesting random encounters from detectable signals can reward players with random loot (escape pods, artifacts, military plans, etc.) or even skirmishes involving government ships battling wanted criminals who you can help eliminate for bounty cash. Occasionally, pirates or other players may use interdiction technology to rip you out of supercruise mode and ambush you. These moments can be amazing. Even the act of deploying weapons and cargo scoops to landing on a space station manually to look at the bulletin board, available commodities, or to repair and re-arm is immersive and cool, but it gets repetitive. And it’s very slow.
Boiling it down, the mission system is just a text-based list that can only be browsed when inside of bases, and the act of getting from one to the next is always the same. The mission objectives and descriptions are sometimes too vague but there’s a sense of wonder in doing these things, learning these things and seeing the universe unfold, even encountering other players flying around, but it does get old because it lacks variety. Elite: Dangerous offers a massive, oftentimes punishing universe to explore, but doesn’t flesh it out with things to do. There are factions to join in the current version of the game (this didn’t exist when the game launched on PC) and players can earn influence and rank up in these factions for access to more areas and vessels, but this system isn’t fleshed out enough quite yet.
Elite: Dangerous delivers a unique experience that succeeds in certain areas that it aims to. If you want to command your own vessel and explore the cosmos, Elite does that better than any other console game ever. If you have friends to play with, that takes it to a another level but it requires immense dedication. But if you want a story, fast-paced combat, and loads of ships and vehicle variety, this isn’t that although there is a close quarters combat (CQC) PvP mode that lets up to 12 players duke it out.
The gameplay nails the feeling of flying through space, within a system and through deep space. How it handles speed and distance is mindblowing. It offers a wonderful universe that will evolve and be fleshed out via content updates. And more is coming. The game began, funded with a Kickstarter campaign, but more ships and content are on the way as the game continues to evolve. There’s even a big expansion dubbed Horizons launching on PC before the year’s end that’ll include new content throughout 2016, including the ability to land on planets. It’ll eventually be on Xbox One as well.
Elite: Dangerous serves as a showcase of what vast, in-depth space sims can be on consoles, and what they will hopefully continue to be for a long time – especially with consumer VR tech on the way. It’s another shining example of the genre coming back in a big way, including to mainstream console gamers. The Xbox One controller works surprisingly great, and the Xbox Live friend lists and Gamercards are built-in to the main game in a smart way.
It’s a framework for something that will keep improving even if it’s not there quite yet. Elite: Dangerous has amazing and unique space sim elements but has a ways to go on filling it out with the fun stuff that’ll keep players playing.
Elite: Dangerous is available on PC and Xbox One.