Elite: Dangerous - Games Weekly

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Thursday, February 12, 2015

Elite: Dangerous

We’ve seen things you people wouldn’t believe. Anacondas on fire off the shoulder of Eranin. We’ve watched beam lasers glitter in the dark near Kremainn Three. And we’ve spent an inordinate amount of time repeatedly seeking docking permission at busy outpost stations. Time to try again.

While you’ll encounter plenty of spectacular sights as you travel around whichever cluster you gravitate towards in Frontier’s disorienting and remarkable 400-billion-system virtual Milky Way, most of your time in Elite: Dangerous will be spent engaged in rather more prosaic activities, not mirroring the nonstop action suggested by the game’s frenetic launch trailer.

Queuing is certainly high up on the list. Or rather, wishing that you could queue. Dangerous’s adherence to the imagined realities of galactic population density means that as you travel farther away from a civilised centre, whether that’s venturing beyond the Goldilocks zone of a solar system or leaving it entirely, space stations tend to be less common and smaller. If you head somewhere really remote, landing permission is unlikely to be a problem, but it’s fairly common to receive a terse, computerised “Docking permission denied” on busy trade routes and resource hotspots.


It’s one of the few times Dangerous oversteps the mark in its nods to reality. Floating in space just a few hundred metres from the only place that you can claim payment for your most recent mission, engines dimmed to a quiet hum, is a frustrating position to find yourself in especially given that stations are often clogged by NPC ships. But while moments such as this might intermittently frustrate, they are more than made up for when, for example, you jump into an unexplored system and find yourself skimming along the shimmering rings of a gas planet several times the size of Jupiter, or find yourself fighting for your life as cracks form in your ship’s canopy just as your shields fail under sustained fire. Heart-in-mouth moments are plentiful, but it’s Frontier’s willingness to embrace the less immediately rousing elements of travelling across distances measured in light years that will truly excite your inner space geek. Dangerous’s universe hasn’t been built simply to satisfy itchy trigger fingers (though the combat-hungry are catered for spectacularly), but as a place for those who want to indulge their fantasy of living a science-fiction life, dull bits and all.

There’s a perverse pleasure to finessing your velocity as you glide past planets and moons on the way to your destination, matching your speed to the remaining distance in order to safely drop out of hyperdrive. It’s rarely a quick process, especially not in the game’s larger systems LHS 3447, for instance, offers a particularly daunting heliocentric sprawl but ensures the game’s overwhelming scale is never undermined and reinforces that sensation of being a pilot just a canopy’s breadth from the vacuum beyond.
This universe hasn’t been built to satisfy itchy trigger fingers, though the combat-hungry are catered for spectacularly
Travel around Dangerous’s galaxy is undertaken in one of three tiers, the first and slowest of which is reserved for close manoeuvres, docking, mining and, should the need arise, dogfighting. You have access to a recharging boost, and can eke out a little more speed by redirecting your ship-core power to the thrusters (which will also have the effect of more quickly charging your boost). This is effective at short ranges, but try to tackle the gap between planets and your estimated journey time will be measured in days or years. Better, then, to engage your Frame Shift Drive (FSD), a basic version of which comes fitted as standard on all ships, even the battered Sidewinder with which you begin.

The FSD requires a short charge before it can be used, and for your weapons and any other external tools to be stowed, after which there’s a welcome kick as your ship accelerates to faster-than-light Supercruise speeds and the celestial bodies around you begin to move like an orrery. It’s at this speed that you’ll delicately guide your ship towards star ports, resource-extraction sites and anomalies that catch your eye, and much less delicately interdict other ships (here represented as flares of blue light) in order to claim juicy bounties. It’s the easiest way to explore a system, but it’s also easy to overshoot your target if you’re not concentrating. And just as you can pull others out of Supercruise, they can do likewise, which can be especially troublesome if you happen to be pulled over by a law enforcement ship and your craft’s belly is full of contraband.

But even Supercruise, reality-bending as it is, won’t allow you to hop light years at a time. Charge the drive again at these speeds (or simply while targeting another solar system), and you’ll be sucked into a strobing warp tunnel and spat out in alarming proximity to your destination system’s primary star. One sweat-beaded evasive manoeuvre later, you’ll be back in Supercruise, ready to explore, or stop off to buy fuel. This setup strikes a welcome balance between playability-focused convenience and convincing sci-fi functionality, ensuring that you never feel disconnected from other players, NPC traffic or your own place in the game’s universe. And Hyperdrive manages to avoid feeling like a cheap quick-travel option, instead presented as a dangerous endeavour at the very edge of your tech’s capabilities, and one that requires fastidious planning using the various maps and navigation tools available to you. Waiting for the drive to charge can be frustrating early on especially when you’re making a journey that involves multiple hops, or have stopped somewhere you didn’t intend to but better ships and components acquired later on can alleviate that problem.

The studio’s decision to focus on combat and the feel of piloting a ship during Dangerous’s alpha and the early stages of the beta, long before the series’ hallmark exploratory or trading elements were included, has paid off with nuanced, satisfying handling that sets a new standard for any cockpit based genre, let alone space games. And the clever embedding of a deep UI into the various ships’ attractive dashboards allows pilots to choose the level of engagement they want to have with the intricacies of their craft. Quite a lot of it fits on a gamepad, too, and we managed to spend most of our time in the game without touching a keyboard or mouse, and still capably zipping about space with no flight aids. Even tracking other ships during combat using freelook on the right stick, rather than wearing a Rift headset, presented no particular difficulties.

But not everything is so well grounded in Elite’s fiction. While Frontier has delivered on its promise of freedom to make your way up the ranks in any way you choose, whether that be bounty hunting or piracy, exploration or mining, or any combination of the available career paths, some activities are stymied by the game’s reliance on instanced mission objectives. A great many of the jobs found on starport bulletin boards require you to search something out perhaps rebel transmissions, a black box or a particularly notorious pilot. You’ll find these in unidentified signal sources (USS) that spawn around you, and must be travelled to in Supercruise. You might find what you need first time, or you might have to stop at several before what you need appears. As such, these USS enterprises are unpredictable, and the fact that signals can take a while to appear only underscores their contrivance in a galaxy that, for the most part, feels so organically alive.

You’ll have to rely heavily on these piecemeal jobs when you set out in your under-equipped first ship to grind out the credits for a heftier or more nimble craft, but USS events become less important as you become more capable. Once you’re in a well-armed, sizeable craft, it’s far more profitable to establish your own trade routes, patrol nav beacons and resource-extraction sites for pirates, or set about mapping unexplored systems and selling that data on to remote stations.

But travelling vast distances takes its own particular toll as the repetition of assets chips away a little at the believability of each new foreign port. There’s a pleasing amount of variety in the external construction of space stations and outposts, but bar a handful of exceptions, every single hangar space is identical. On the larger stations, which can have nearly 50 landing bays, space forklifts have taken the time to deposit cargo boxes and canisters in front of each bay’s control tower in exactly the same formation. With 400 billion systems to populate, it’s unfair to expect everything you encounter to be unique, but even a handful of variations would go a long way to staving off the creeping sense of déjà vu that manifests itself after a few hours spent with the game.

But this is a problem symptomatic of Dangerous’s unfinished state. It might be officially feature complete, but Frontier’s ambition reaches considerably beyond what’s in the current build. Planet landings, explorable space stations and ships, spacewalks and functioning ecosystems are all on the studio’s to-do list. It’s just what Dangerous needs: the depth and variety its exquisitely designed mechanics deserve.

PLAYERS OF GAMES
Although Dangerous can be played in a broadly solitary manner, every mission or trade run that you complete will cast its ripples throughout the galaxy’s economic and political infrastructure. But while flying in munitions or propaganda has some small influence, you can also engage in full-scale wars. Conflict Zones, which come in high- and low-intensity forms, plunge you into large-scale battles with dozens of ships and can result in the ousting of a controlling government. Frontier CEO David Braben promises that there’s even more to come. “They’ll be dramatic events in updates that people can choose to participate in,” he says. “You’ve already seen smaller ones, but there will be events where systems are changing in a way that you can benefit from or interact with in a way that’s really exciting.”

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