Elite, when it was first created was (so I hear) ground-breaking. I wasn’t around then but I’ve been told many a time and been treated to emulation after emulation and even a few tries on the good old BBC Micro. Now, I’m someone who can’t stand to watch most old films and in fact generally dislikes old things but I have to say, it was, to give it its due, quite the hoot. I enjoyed it thoroughly regardless of the lack of colours and the appalling resolution. It was a genius use of technology and the game’s world that had been so carefully created by their meticulously crafted algorithm was something to behold. Frontier Developments, founded by David Braben (one half of the team behind the original Elite), decided though that 256 planets just wasn’t enough. After two sequels and almost a 20 year break Elite: Dangerous was born.
Space is just an empty void, for the most part anyway. I’d be ready to wager that over 99.999% of space is just that: space: devoid of life, matter and anything else interesting and/or useful to anyone or anything. What Frontier Developments have created here is probably the closest depiction of that vast open pointlessness anyone has ever seen. What they’ve done is taken a load of data from NASA about every star, planet, nebulae and whatever else in the galaxy that we know about and then made as accurate a prediction as they can, using that data and other science-y stuff, to fill in the gaps around it all in lovely shiny high definition emptiness. Wham, bam and out comes the Milky Way. Yes that’s right, the bloody Milky Way; our home galaxy, all nice and ready for you to explore from the comfort of your homes. So, from a measly 256 planets, each having its own individual star, in the first game, we jump to having 400 billion star systems. Some you stumble across may just be lone stars. Some will only have the occasional asteroid belt orbiting around them but in others you’ll find more significant astronomical curiosities and wonders. You’ll stumble across binary systems, hell, some even have three, four, five stars. You’ll find black holes and can even travel to Sagittarius A*; the one believed to be at the centre of the galaxy. You can go to uncharted bits of space that not only nobody in the game has seen but parts that astronomers and scientists haven’t even discovered yet. It’s the incomprehensible scope of it all that makes Elite: Dangerous so damn interesting.
In the big void that is the Milky Way there’s a handful of things to do. Traders run with big ships sporting loads of cargo room and a big jump ranges. Some ferry goods back and forth between two systems and others elect to go for wider, more expansive routes, often reaching hundreds of light-years in length. Explorers tend to strip down their vessels to the bare essentials in favour of further increasing their jump range. They wander from place to place discovering systems and scanning for astronomical data to sell as they slowly unravel the wonders of the galaxy. High intensity battles rushing round asteroid belts are a staple activity for the seasoned bounty hunter making their fortune. Miners utilise these same asteroid belts too, instead tearing them apart with their mining lasers in the search for precious metals and gems. If piracy is your thing, you can do that too. Simply shoot open a ship’s cargo doors to gain access to their booty. The choice really is yours. There’s no right way to do anything. You could even become a scavenger if you so wished, scouring the field of battle for lost goods or searching deep space for mysterious artifacts.
The best part about Elite: Dangerous here though, is that whilst all of this is incredibly fun playing alone; for the first time in Elite, you can also do it with others. I think this here is the game’s pièce de résistance. And if none of the above tickles your fancy, you can, if so inclined, play interstellar politics. Now, I like to bring a few other ‘politicians’ with me whenever I do. My trusty beam lasers and multi cannon normally manage to get my policies across to any party that stands against me but if not a few well-placed missiles really help go towards stopping any filibusters. The rule of space harks back to a simpler time similar to the rule of the west. Yours guns do the talking here and really, who could resist taking part in huge space battles to overthrow governments or to help them grow in power, especially when it’s against other people?
If everything I’ve said hasn’t managed it and you haven’t fully realised, the scope of this game is just baffling. It’s immense, just like our own world. It’s so gargantuanly big that it’s likely that nobody will ever see the whole of it. It’s so vast that to be honest, there’s no way you could even comprehend even half of it in its entirety, which unfortunately is part of its downfall. It makes everything you do largely meaningless. Whilst fighting battle after battle on a conquest for a particular power’s glory is great, most of the world won’t change a jot. There’s an overriding sense of futility to most of your actions. Where normal games tend to show off your rise in power and revel in it, Elite: Dangerous is happy to do nothing of the sort. Whilst you might have gone from a little fish to a shark, you’re still a little fish compared to the ocean and that’s all the more apparent from the galactic perspective. There is still beauty in it all though, in that you can still see your little ripples in the proverbial galactic pond.
One of the other things that’s common with games of similar complexity is that they seem to be shit at telling beginner’s what to do. It’s almost as if they don’t want new players. There is training that acts as a tutorial before jumping into the actual game. Starting with the basics – simple ship controls then navigating the galaxy, it then decides to throw you head first into combat scenarios that are poorly explained and unfairly balanced considering it’s for those who are still trying to learn. There is a small mercy in that when you jump into the game, things are actually a lot easier in the average bout however there’s still no instruction on how to proceed. I relied on tips from other players at the start and though they served me well, it’s not especially encouraging, particularly for the more casual player. It’s also not great for the longevity of the game and at the moment the only real goals worth actively pursuing are making money, getting new ships and exploring for exploring’s sake. Lastly, it’s often incredibly punishing when you don’t fully know what you’re doing. The first time your ship blows up with uncollected bounties on its computer you’ll understand. You lose them all. Hundreds of thousands or even millions flushed away just like that. Every last bit unless, apparently, you make the kill in front of system authorities but I’m yet to have that save any of them. The same goes for any exploration data you hope to sell so careful consideration is a must.
As the game grows and the developer adds more features, I have no doubt that Elite: Dangerous will rise to be a masterpiece just as its predecessors were. However until then, it can grow tiresome and on occasion frustrating. It really is quite something though and I’d really recommend it if you’ve got a bit of patience and are willing to try out something different. Those looking for a game worth playing on the Oculus Rift need look no further as support is integrated into the game as standard. As well if you’re a fan of the earlier games there is clear parity between them but there have been major improvements with more to come soon. And if you just like space and want to explore, then it’s a fantastic way to do so but alas, I’ve said enough and if you’ll excuse me…
… I have some politics to attend to.