Elite: Dangerous Hands-on Preview
Elite: Dangerous is a game that has a distinguished pedigree, its predecessors Elite (1984) and Elite II: Frontier (1993), set the benchmarks for space simulation games when they were released. Both allowed players to explore an entirely coherent and functioning galaxy (especially so in Elite II), which for many has yet to be bested. Developers Frontier are well aware of the quite literally galaxy-sized shoes that Elite: Dangerous has to fill and with the original games co-creator David Braben at the helm, and a massively successful Kickstarter campaign, you have the feeling that something amazing could be happening.
The first experience to be had in the Beta of Elite: Dangerous is the difficult task of docking at the nearest space station; just remember to ask for permission to dock first otherwise you might find yourself on the hot end of a laser turret before being blown into the cold vacuum of space. Life in the galaxy is brutal it seems. After respawning and getting myself a new ship it was time to try and dock again making sure that I was paying attention to my speed and of course to request permission to dock. Elite: Dangerous tries very hard to add little details that make you feel as though everything has a purpose and you are just an insignificant spec of matter in the never ending cosmos, and even at this early stage the game absolutely excels at it.
You see at its heart Elite: Dangerous is a space simulation with lofty ambitions to become an all in one galaxy simulation, allowing you to find your own way to earn a living in its fully realized universe. You could for example specialize in combat and upgrade your ship to take on lucrative contracts to hunt down pirates, or to help influence a conflict in one side’s favor. You could even accept a corporate contract to influence the economic benefits of said company in any particular solar system by mercilessly killing traders or federation ships. Maybe you would prefer to exploit a market via trading goods or perhaps the black market is more your style? It really is up to you on how you would like your experience to pan out.
With trading, it’s a case of working out how to manipulate a particular market for your own benefit, such as trading fish from one system to another to make yourself a tidy profit and possibly engaging in some hauling contracts along the way. In the beginning it can feel like a bit of a grind as the ship you start off with has limited cargo capacity and you obviously only have a limited amount of funds, also having a small ship severely limits the distance that you can travel from system to system, as many of the star systems within the beta are beyond the range of the starting spacecraft. This shouldn’t deter you from exploring the star systems within your immediate vicinity, as there are still plenty of things to see and do as you work towards acquiring the funds that will let you purchase a new ship with a larger fuel capacity, which in turn will enable you to explore further into the galaxy.
This game has a great sense of amazement and wonder, yet it feels totally grounded in a sense of reality. An example of this is that when you would like to warp to a star it’s actually a physical object in the sky that you can see, not just something that you select on a map and fast travel to. Also the game’s physics system lends great weight to the fact that you’re in a complete self-contained universe, approaching stars at super cruising speeds you will notice that suddenly you are pulled by a planet or stars gravitational field, forcing your ship’s speed to increase, effectively allowing you to slingshot around the planet if you wish.
The space stations, planets and stars in general are superbly detailed and have an authentic feel to them, something that all simulations – science fiction or otherwise – strive for. On more than one occasion I’ve actually said ‘wow’ at something that I’ve seen or something that I noticed. In particular, one breathtaking moment was the realization that the rings around a planet that I was carefully making my way towards were not just some static object with some nice graphical effects to make it sparkle, but it was actually a real asteroid belt made up of thousands of rocks that circled around the planet, trapped in its gravitational field. You could fly amongst them and manipulate them with your lasers and the whole experience added to the level of detail that will help to set Elite: Dangerous apart from those that have come before it.
There are a few issues with Elite: Dangerous in its current state, which hopefully Frontier will sort out before the game finally releases, and I have every confidence that they will do so. One of them is that it can be quite hard to find out what resources are being traded to a particular system as the map can be quite chaotic at times. Another is the transition to and from warp jumps and super cruising speed can feel a little disjointed. Sometimes it can take anywhere up to 20 seconds to transition, so this delay can really break the immersion as you sit there staring at essentially a frozen screen hoping and praying that the game won’t crash.
Travel can also feel a little dull after a while. This is probably going to be the biggest challenge that Frontier will face, how can they maintain the authenticity but at the same time make a game that is fun to play when traveling from one system to another? At the moment it usually involves the same routine of selecting the destination, jumping in warp speed, coming out of warp speed into super cruise speed, and then a long journey to the planet before finally arriving some 20 km away from your destination. This final leg of a trip can feel quite long and arduous after the super speed you have been going. Coming out of cruising speed a little closer to your final destination would help to alleviate the problem though. There are a couple of things that can break the monotony such as unknown heat signatures that you can go off and explore, usually these are generally just other craft making their way towards a destination, or sometimes they are hostile pirates, which if you don’t have the correct ship, you’ll be easy prey for.
Frontier has gigantic plans for Elite: Dangerous’ future, adding such things like planetary exploration alongside the current space exploration. The potential for Elite: Dangerous to be something incredibly amazing is already in place, a quick look at the map screen will show you the scope Frontier has in mind, just move the cursor around and zoom in to see the thousands upon thousands of star systems that will make it into the final game. It is truly mind boggling.
Elite: Dangerous may not be alone in this resurgence of the space simulation genre, of course there is the other massive Kickstarted project, Star citizen, but so far Elite: Dangerous seems to be a lot further along the way to completion. Yes there are a few things that need to be ironed out, and yes there is a wealth of content that is still to come, but much like the real universe that we live in Elite: Dangerous is already filled with wonder and excitement, and is something that everybody should keep an eye on.
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