- Space is big. Really big. You just won’t believe how vastly, hugely, mind-bogglingly big it is. I mean, you may think it’s a long way down the road to the chemist, but that’s just peanuts to space.
- Douglas Adams, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy
There are fewer quotes more fitting to Elite: Dangerous. If not for the humorous tone of the quote, I would say that it should be on the splash screen. Which is to say, when you start your journey in Elite: Dangerous, you have absolutely no idea just how insanely vast (and empty) the galaxy is. I like to refer to this game as the “Loneliness Simulator.” I’m only half joking.
As a bullet point, saying that Frontier have recreated the entire Milky Way galaxy in its space sim is rather impressive. There are literally billions of star systems to visit, and all based on “realistic scientific principles!” Frontier even boast unlimited freedom to do or be whatever you want! “Sign me up,” you exclaim, imagining yourself as a scruffy scoundrel, willing to do anything for a few thousand credits. You go buy your HOTAS system, and maybe even that Oculus Rift that needed a justification before purchasing. You strap in, load up your game, and maybe do those tutorials to prepare yourself. Then, suddenly, you find yourself sitting in a space station without even the slightest clue as to how you become the nerf herder you always wanted to be. You’re free venture out into the unknown, inhibited only by the capabilities of your ship…and the game’s current feature set. This, you will slowly realize, is this game’s greatest weakness.
With most games, you expect to be given a quest or mission, or set of quests, to introduce you to the game’s world and lore. Unless this has changed in subsequent patches (I’ve been playing on and off since release day), you are essentially just thrown into this world, or galaxy as it were, without any guidance whatsoever. You’re left to bounce up against the limitations of the game itself, instead of being guided to stay within bounds that you may not notice without going off the provided path. I’ve seen arguments for and against this approach, with some insisting that this is a game that requires imagination, and you have to essentially role play around the game to have a purpose. Which, quite honestly, borders on being tedious.
That’s not to say that there isn’t lore in the game. It’s just that you will, most likely, not notice or care that it exists. This is in part due to it all being buried in a very practical and functional menu system, but mostly because it’s like reading Unix man pages. Let’s put it like this: if you enjoyed discussions about trade disputes in the Star Wars prequels, you might be the target audience for Galnet and the Powerplay feature. There’s supposedly events that happen every so often as well, but all that really means is that you go to a specific system and do some kind of mission that you could do literally anywhere else to participate. It’s not exactly engaging.
So, with no story or lore to care about, what is there to do? Well, most obviously, there are missions. If you can dock with it, it’ll have missions for you. Originally, when the game launched, you could easily whittle down the types of missions into a handful of categories. There are also Signal Sources that only appear when you’re in Supercruise, and these also fell into a pretty narrow set of categories at launch. Over time though, Frontier has added a bit of variety, including chain missions, and larger signals for “Wings” to attack as a team, but this is essentially just polishing a turd. The mission system is, at best, functional. It’s dry, it’s boring, and ultimately just a bulletin board of busy work for you to do. For space missions, you can pretty much narrow them down to ones that involve checking random signals in Supercruise (to kill someone, or find something to recover), ones that require you to find a specific resource, and fetch missions. Ground based missions are equally limited.
With that said, missions aren’t the only thing to do in the game. You can explore the sort of charted, but I guess unmapped systems and sell that exploration data for cold, hard credits. Some people have dedicated their entire game-life to doing this, where some others have chosen to make the pilgrimage to the center of the Milky Way: Sagittarius A*. You could also be a bounty hunter. There are always bounties to be hunted, and it really highlights the best part of the game: combat. I’ll get into this a bit later, but this is where all the technical focus actually comes together to make something fun.
Alternatively, if you hate yourself, you could become a miner/trader. Out there roughnecking it in space! Yeah, you’ll get a big ol’ space truck and set out to collect resources! Well, about that. In order to mine, you simply purchase mining lasers, and hopefully a limpet control module, because it takes all of a few seconds to realize that capturing all of your precious space booty via cargo hatch is something that should only be used as ironic punishment in some strange circle of Hell. Anyway, so you get your mining laser, and you go out to a resource collection area. Then you…shoot space rocks with your lasers, collect your rocks, process them to some kind of material, and haul them back for sale.
“Oh no,” you might think, “what if some unscrupulous ne’er do well player decides to forcefully relieve me of my sweet, sweet space rocks?!” To which I say, “enjoy the interaction, because you won’t be getting much of it.” There’s a reason why I’ve dubbed this game the “Loneliness Simulator.” Remember what I said about the galaxy being huge? My experience has been that you have higher odds of navigating an asteroid field (which, in reality…are actually pretty high odds) than seeing another player. More recently, I’ve noticed more players, but that means maybe 3-4 in the occasional system I find myself in. No, most likely, you’ll be dealing with annoying, repetitive, weirdly named NPCs. Unfortunately, the unspoken side effect of a massive galaxy is that players can be hundreds of lightyears apart in every direction.
Honestly, I’m not sure if the problem here is too much freedom entirely, or that you can’t actually do much with that freedom. You are essentially thrown into the galactic sandbox, with no guidance or end goal, and told that you can be or do whatever you want. That sounds great, but as an experienced gamer, you probably expect classes, or character progression, or any kind of character at all. Elite: Dangerous barely scratches the surface of any of these elements. Yes, there’s the ranking system, where you can rank up in combat, trading and exploration status, but all those actually seem to do so far is unlock higher paying missions with stronger enemies to take down. You can also, if you can find the missions, rank up in any or all of the big three’s military, which just allows you to buy shops specific to that faction. And yes, there is a plan, in the Horizons expansion, to allow you to design your Commander. This will, undoubtedly, come into play in some future expansion, where you’ll finally be able to leave your pilot/driver’s seat and walk around. So far though, you’re a faceless, leather-clad space pilot who, in the base game, cannot leave your ship under any circumstances. With the Horizon expansion, you’re able to get into a surface vehicle and drive around on planets, which is obviously an improvement, but brings us back to the elephant in the room.
The core problem that plagues this game is its utter lack of variety. I mean, who knew that the galaxy was so boring? The game utilizes procedural generation, which is great and super impressive on paper, but in this particular implementation generates a lot of blandness. I mean, there is only so much noticeable variety in the game. I appreciate that, in my months long absence, Frontier added a few more station and outpost models to the mix, because I was seriously getting tired of seeing the same few structures everywhere I went. Not to mention, all you can legitimately do with those structures is dock and go through menu systems. I mean yeah, you could get shot down by the station if you did the wrong thing, but it’s really just there to dock and navigate menus. The thing is, this is pretty much standard in space sims, to be bound to your ship, and it’s really never been much of an issue. Why? Because the space sims I enjoyed in the past were all story driven. These games also had a limited, manageable scale that allowed the creators to actually give a sense of character and uniqueness to the galaxy.
Not helping this matter is that, even as they’ve improved upon the game, Frontier has stuck to the absolute worst aspect: the programmatic nature. Adding variety feels like they’ve just expanded their array to have a few more elements, and there’s not a single mission that feels innovative or like it pushes any envelop. What this means is that the missions actually feel limited by the features of the game, made to fit within very specific parameters that don’t take very long to figure out. I would argue that the issue isn’t the fact that the missions fit within the confines of the game, but that it’s too transparent in what those confines are. For example, let’s look at the planetary landings. Your mind probably goes to vast alien oceans, desert planets with binary sunsets, or lush, verdant worlds, and I can’t blame you for that. Those kinds of planets actually exist in this galaxy! Here’s the reality though: having played this game for long enough, I knew that I wouldn’t be able to land on anything like that. At least, not immediately or any time soon, because that would require simulating an atmosphere, water effects and procedural generation at a level of detail this game doesn’t seem to be capable of. Instead, there’s a clearly visible set of parameters to determine which planets can be landed upon. First of all, they can’t have an atmosphere; second, they can’t have any form of vegetation or liquid water; third, they can’t be inhabited beyond a few outposts and settlements. So essentially, rocky/icy planets with completely clear skies. They may be full scale, but by and large, there’s no reason you’d want to explore them.
The one exception I’ve seen so far is a planet with a massive crater that had a mountain in it. Actually, there was a small amount of what looked like atmospheric effect in that crater, so that gives me a little hope.
Besides landing on actually interesting celestial bodies, what I some day hope to see are missions that are actually only possible within certain systems. Like “hey, I need you to risk your life by visiting this planet that has 6x Earth’s gravity and recover an insanely heavy material.” Or “the Federation has a space fortress that I need to you infiltrate and steal very specific data from.” I will admit that there are little tweaks that I’ve noticed to missions that are leading to the possibility of these sorts of creative adventures, but right now, it’s obvious that there are a set number of templates with variables that get randomly chosen within a set criteria.
Now, I feel like I’ve said a lot of negative things about Elite: Dangerous, but I don’t want that to be the only takeaway. I actually enjoy this game when I’m in them mood to just be a Commander, and as I said before, the combat is the diamond in the rough here. Short of docking at a station, it’s one of the few times you’ll actually feel in control of your ship. Flying through Supercruise, you’re mostly just aiming, slowing down, and looping back around when you barrel by that space station at 25c and barely avoid running straight into the planet it orbits.
Yes, combat is definitely the highlight of being a Commander. With “Flight Assist” on, your starfighter will fly much like an atmosphere-based fighter jet, but you know, with reactionary thrusters all over and the ability to reverse thrust completely. With “Flight Assist” off, you’re a spinning, careening space brick that fires bullets and lasers at random. Or, if you grew up in the 80’s, something like the Death Blossom. Really though, this gives you a lot of room to have a dynamic fight. I actually haven’t found NPCs to be noticeably bad at combat, and some of them will absolutely wreck your ship in seconds, if you’re not properly equipped. It’s also worth mentioning that the ships themselves are specialized and varied enough to actually matter in combat. This is why, if someone actually DOES decide to rob you, and let’s say they’re rolling up in an Anaconda, and you’re in a little Viper…yeah, you’re going to want to either run as fast as you can while charging your FSD, or hand over your lunch money.
On that note, the ship loadout is worth mentioning because it has some surprising depth. For example, every module takes individual damage, and there’s a decent variety of weapons with varying stats for each. There’s also important interplay between modules, like the cooling efficiency of your power generator and the weapons themselves. I found this out the hard way, when all of my weapons started taking heat damage in the middle of a dogfight.
One other aspect that I actually really, really like is the reputation system, and the various factions you can have different relationships with. You can be wanted (with a bounty on your head) in any and every system, by any number of factions local to each. This makes it a possibility (and reality in my case) to legitimately say that you’re wanted in twelve systems. In fact, the Empire (one of the big three factions) dislikes me so much that they will literally shoot me on sight. Even their police will pull me out of Supercruise and threaten to leave pieces of me in three different systems. When you’re an amoral, stateless mercenary like me, you tend to leave a reputation behind, which means I don’t really visit the Empire no more.
There’s also plenty of fun to be had within the confines I talked about, even if it means you take a break until they expand those confines to the next increment. With the Wings patch that was made sometime last year, you’re able to band together with up to three other players and take on harder (Strong) Signal Sources, and share the credits. This also helps for the harder bounties. You still can’t form a guild of any kind, as far as I’m aware, but it’s getting there.
As previously mentioned, it’s not very common to actually interact with other players, even if you see them, but it’s definitely something I enjoy. Just recently, someone interdicted me (pulled me out of Supercruise) and tried to rob me. Well, I wasn’t having any of that, so I flipped him the virtual finger by deploying my weapons and immediately shooting him. Let’s just say I barely escaped with my ship in one piece.
More specific to the Horizons expansion, planetary landings can be cool, but mostly just on a technical level. Gravity varies on different planets/moons and actually affects the way you fly and drive. Try making a quick change of direction on a planet with 1.6x Earth’s gravity. I dare you. I had trouble even aiming due to my ship constantly correcting itself. Then there’s the SRV, or the buggy you can use to drive around planets. It can mine for resources that can be used to boost modules on your ship, but that’s just barely better than mining in space. Once you learn how to control the damn thing, zipping around and doing sick drifts can be fun, but obviously not the kind of fun that keeps you coming back. I foresee a planetary racing challenge.
As I said before though, the Horizons expansion really gets you back to the initial problem the base game had: limited variation of ground stations, missions and accessible planets. However, I will say that the surface missions that involve destroying a generator or connecting to a terminal add a lot to the game. See, these surface bases have a perimeter defense system of turrets and flying drones. Depending on the security level, they may not appreciate you trying to fly too close or drive into that perimeter.
What that means is that, for the high security bases, you’ll either need to get good at making bombing runs on the turrets, or work as a team to infiltrate it, because they can and will shoot you out of the sky. At one “High Security” settlement, I had my brother in his ship, making strafing runs to take out turrets, while I drove my SRV in to locate and destroy a power generator. It’s one of the few activities in the game that requires any kind of strategy or gives a sense of excitement. I’ll admit that I’ve been thrilled at the difficulty of smuggling illicit goods past the police and into a space station, but short of taking down an Anaconda or other large ship, there aren’t many opportunities to use strategy or have to think your way out of a situation.
On the other hand, in Horizons, the other handful of mission types are just new versions of the same things you can do in space. “Go collect an escape pod or resource” basically just involves you driving around, trying to figure out how the hell the scanner in your SRV works, until you find a crash site that will only generate if you’re in the SRV. So no, you can’t find these things with your ship. You can, on the other hand, destroy generators at settlements from your ship, if you can stay out of the range of the turrets.
Ultimately, I have to maintain some faith in Elite: Dangerous. There are signs that it’s going in the right direction, however slowly that may be. Seeing their goals for future features is both encouraging and disheartening, because Frontier appear to be focused on the wrong aspects. Their focus seems to be on making it a technically impressive game, but not a fun one. At one point, the weapon/module damage was actually a goal, and it took precedence over making more involved, unique missions or giving players the option of joining some sort larger group.
What I’d ideally like to see is more connection to the supposedly user-influenced galaxy. Let me join a military force and go to war, where I’m bound to one of the big three factions and travel with their capital ship or something. You know, give me the option to have a purpose for some amount of time, and please, please, please make stations/outposts more than just a docking bay. Make the politicians give verbal speeches or something. Just make it an actually interesting galaxy to inhabit and not the shell of a simulation.
On a final note, there’s been a lot of bellyaching about the cost of the Horizons expansion. The leading complaint seems to be that Horizons doesn’t add enough to justify its cost. By the way, Horizons turns out to not just be an expansion, but the full game with the Horizons expansion. So any newbies to the game only have to pay for Horizons itself, and they’re set for the rest of the year. At any rate, the counter to the claims of “not enough” is essentially to point out that Horizons is actually a season pass, and it sets you up for the next year of updates. This actually appears to be the business model, which means you can expect to be paying $45 or so every year, if you want to eventually see the vision that was promised from the beginning. Quite honestly, unless Frontier figures out how to expand the game into something more interactive, as opposed to immersive on the most basic level, I won’t be on board for much longer.
Which is to say, the game is, as limited as its current incarnation can be, actually very immersive. You feel like the captain of your own little ship, even if you can’t stand, walk, or have an actual face. It’s immersive in the most technical sense, because yes, you can look around your cockpit, and yes your faceless leather daddy of a pilot will mimic your hand motions on the joystick. Though I suspect that it’s truly immersive on an existential level.
Well, as the old saying goes: in space, no one can tell you apart from an NPC.
Elite: Dangerous and Elite: Dangerous Horizons are available for PC and XBox One.