Elite: Dangerous Review

What a wonderful woooorld...

  • Developer: Frontier Developments
  • Publisher: Frontier Developments
  • Release Date: 16 December 2014
  • Time played: 38 hours

I've read quite a bit of negative press and commentary amongst the common gaming folk about Elite: Dangerous prior to its release - which is a pity since to some the first experience they'll have with the Elite franchise is all this negativity. In order to talk about recent events though, we need to go back to the beginning of this game's development - when it was still a Kickstarter project.

In early 2013, Frontier Developments was able to successfully raise more than their target with £1.5 million being raised by Kickstarter backers. Originally the game planned to have an offline single-player mode (although if you read the FAQ carefully you can see they were originally not planning it but then updated the FAQ to indicate they would) but a few months before release, Frontier Developments stated they wouldn't be able to considering the way they designed the game. Many fans considered this an outrage and demanded they receive refunds although some have found it rather difficult to actually get any response from Frontier Developments. I'm personally of two minds for this. On one hand I can appreciate people becoming angry but then again, this was a Kickstarter project and a game development project at that. You can't always expect things to go to plan which is why whenever I donate (yes, I used the word "donate") to a project I consider myself to be a venture capitalist of sorts. Will I make a good return on my investment (i.e. a game I'll actually like to play)? Maybe. Maybe not, but if I'm backing a developer I think I can trust, then there's a good chance.

So was my trust in David Braben misplaced or did he manage to make a game that is a worthy successor to that game I played of his, more than a decade ago? Also, this year marks the 30th anniversary of the original 1984 Elite which is probably another reason why Elite: Dangerous was released this month. Some have speculated that the release was rushed but is that actually the case? Has the game's quality been compromised by the rush to finish the game this year (just under two years since the end of the Kickstarter funding campaign)?

Plot (4/5)
There is apparently a lot of fan fiction revolving around the Elite universe that is available but I've never personally read any of those books so all I've got to judge the plot by is what's actually in the game (and what I remember from Frontier: Elite II). So Elite: Dangerous takes place far off in the future in the 34th century. Humanity has colonised the stars like crazy and there are literally hundreds (maybe thousands) of worlds that are now colonised. There are three major factions that control known space, two of them returning from Frontier: Elite II: Firstly you have the democratic, yet corrupt Federation heavily influenced by megacorporations, the Empire which seems heavily modelled on the Roman Empire except in space (slavery is legal in Imperial space), and the equivalent of a Non-Aligned Movement called the Alliance which has many Independent star systems as its members who neither like the Federation or the Empire.

Thanks to the provision of daily GalNet News Reports in-game, this lets players keep in touch with what's happening around the Milky Way and since the game is based off actual star systems (or at least with some of them) it makes the game feel more realistic which helps immerse the player into the game. Sadly, since the game is more of a sandbox space sim than a game like Wing Commander or even Privateer or Freelancer, the game does lack that epic story where you save the universe - but that's totally fine if you're content to be one of the grunts fighting in one of the many power struggles across the galaxy.

Gameplay (4/5)
If you're no stranger to space trading sims then you'll already know what most of Elite: Dangerous is about. For those of you who don't, here's a quick rundown. Space trading sims allow you to fly spaceships around between star systems mainly in order to trade. Using the powerful forces of supply and demand, a savvy trader can make decent profits by knowing where to buy low and where to sell high. However, space trading sims usually have other pursuits such as piracy, where you can actually steal the goods from the traders and bounty hunters who hunt down criminals, for a price. Okay, so that's mostly all the stuff you'd normally expect in these kind of games, at least with games by Chris and Erin Roberts (e.g. Privateer and Freelancer). However there are a few new things namely: mining, exploration and realism.

Firstly let's talk about mining. Those who have played games like Eve Online are probably no strangers to mining but this was quite a novel concept for me who hasn't played a space sim since the early 2000s. There's not much to it of course: basically install a mining laser and refinery in your ship, fly to an asteroid field, shoot the asteroids and then scoop up the fragments so you can refine them into metals and minerals you can sell on the market. From my experience, the process is rather tedious although I've been told by other players that I probably just found the wrong asteroid field. Apparently it can be quite lucrative if you know where to look!

Elite: Dangerous has millions of star systems to explore thanks to procedural generation

The second part of the game is exploration. Like Frontier: Elite II, Elite: Dangerous has millions of star systems to explore thanks to procedural generation (although 120,000 of these are apparently non-procedurally generated such as Sol, Achenar, Sirius, etc.). Since there are so many star systems out there, it's only natural that not all of them have been fully explored, even ones near the core worlds. Consequently you can use a Discovery Scanner to basically send out a ping for a certain number of Light Seconds around your ship to see if any astronomical objects can be found. If you do find some, targeting these objects from a certain distance will give your scanners the opportunity to analyse them and grab their astronomical data. Later on, if you happen to stop by a space station at least 20ly away from the system you explored, you can make money by selling your astronomical data - neat, huh? Apparently, if you save a lot of money you can purchase more detailed scanners that will reveal more information and also bring in more dough when you sell the data - but it's going to be awhile yet before I'm at that point.

Having a galaxy as massive in scale as the Milky Way Galaxy though comes at a price: it's awfully lonely out there. Okay, if you're visiting the core worlds (such as the Solar System) you're bound to find some human players flying around as well as a lot of NPC traffic. However, once you're out in the boondocks, it's actually quite rare to see any humans at all. So far, after playing the game for almost 40 hours, I've only encountered a human player twice. At first, I thought this was pretty crap but when I thought about it a bit more, it actually works well as a balancing mechanic; new players to the game would find it hard to compete with players who were around since the beginning as they would've accumulated a lot of wealth, and probably better ships and weapons. With a galaxy as large as the real Milky Way Galaxy though, this gives the opportunity for new players to find systems on the fringe that are less populated and give them some breathing room to learn the ropes, without fearing for their lives thanks to some human player armed to the teeth.

...you really have to pay attention to Newton's Third Law of Motion...

Finally, I'm going to make the audacious statement that Elite: Dangerous is probably the most realistic space sim I've played to date. Okay, I lie - that honour should be given to Frontier: Elite II but both that game and this one have Newtonian physics models. What that means is that you really have to pay attention to Newton's Third Law of Motion which is to every action there will be an opposite and equal reaction. In the game this translates to ensuring that before your ship changes direction, you have to apply enough counter-thrust to your original direction or you will overshoot your target. In Frontier: Elite II this led to combat which has been affectionately called "jousting" because both ships would basically try their best to line up for a strafing run only to spend even more time after manoeuvring into position for the next one. This meant there wasn't any sense of dogfighting in Frontier: Elite II and my memories of the game involved me still drifting on my original course, spinning around on the spot to take potshots at the enemy as they performed their strafing runs - I was such a bad pilot.

Elite: Dangerous is apparently no different but thanks to the new concept of Flight Assist being turned on by default (I guess this is the equivalent of Electronic Stability Control on cars?) combat is actually much easier now and dogfights are more feasible. The purists/masochists can always turn it off though. I found with Flight Assist on I still needed to manage thrust/counter-thrust properly but it wasn't as burdensome as it was in Frontier: Elite II. It still took me a long time to get comfortable with flying the ship though; I eventually ditched the mouse and keyboard for my old Logitech Extreme 3D Pro joystick, and thanks to a combination of talking to forum members, and trial and error, I'm finally semi-competent. Not an ideal situation though considering you only have one game save. So you have been warned! The game has a steep learning curve, despite the recent additions of a manual and video tutorials - although the game is probably that more rewarding once you've figured it out.

Another problem with realism is when you accurately model star systems on existing ones but thanks to an in-game limitation, it makes it nigh on impossible to visit any of the planets in them. Elite: Dangerous uses a system where you basically jump to the primary star for any star system with multiple stars (e.g. binary stars). It's fine for single star systems but it can be a bit of a problem when you're attempting to travel to a space station that doesn't orbit a planet around Alpha Centauri A or Alpha Centauri B but Proxima Centauri instead (for example) - and turns out to be 0.21ly away which probably takes a few hours real-time to travel there using supercruise! I'm hoping that Frontier Developments eventually introduces a system wherby you can choose which star in a star system to jump to. Or at least allow you to do hyperspace jumps between stars in a star system.

Hobbling back to the starport by the skin of my teeth

Sound (4/5)
Audio in the game is awesome - even though technically there shouldn't be any sound in space. The roaring of the spaceship's engines, the loud crack as you jump into hyperspace, the cracking sound you hear just before your canopy is blown off into the void, all help in building that atmosphere. Unfortunately, I do occasionally hear the audio stuttering especially while entering or exiting hyperspace but I'm not sure if this is an actual audio problem or something wrong related to server lag.

Music (5/5)
As I've already mentioned, I'm disappointed that Elite: Dangerous didn't incorporate some of the music from Frontier: Elite II such as David Lowe's excellent main theme for the game as well as classical pieces such as the "Blue Danube", "Baba Yaga" and the "The Great Gate of Kiev". However, the composer for the most recent iteration of Elite, Erasmus Talbot (what an awesome name) is no slouch and has done a splendid job in bringing an epic space opera feel to the game's score.

EDIT (28/12/2014): Twitter user @jiss9240 (Boris) corrected me by letting me know that the "Blue Danube" does actually play in the game, but only if you manage to purchase and use a standard docking computer for docking at space stations. So thanks Boris!

Graphics (5/5)
The game has impressive graphics and it all runs fine on a modest system. Everything is drawn on a 1:1 scale which means there'll be plenty of opportunities to take some beautiful screenshots of the star systems you visit. There's also great attention to detail with respect to the ships - dogfights are especially tense since the more damage you take, the more cracks you'll see on the canopy - meaning you're that close to being ejected into the cold vacuum of space. In fact I actually managed to do that once accidentally while flying too fast into a space station. Managed to get into the airlock just in time before the emergency oxygen ran out...

Replay (4/5)
I've played the game over thirty times now since the Gamma build was released on 22 November which is just over a month ago now which is quite frequent. The game seems to have an addictive quality about it especially if you're working towards gaining influence with factions in each of the star systems (and there are a lot of star systems as you already know). You also have the freedom to either get involved in combat or perform cargo runs - sure it helps when you've got an all-rounder ship like I do at the moment (the Cobra Mk III) but as a consequence I can always change my gameplay style to cater for my mood. Feeling a need to blow some pirates to space dust? I'll take that bounty hunter mission and hang around a local nav point. Feeling the need to just relax and play a game akin to Euro Truck Simulator in space? Well you can do that too with trading runs. Provided Frontier Developments don't commit any major stuff-ups in the months to come, I suspect I'll continue to play this game quite frequently.

Polish (3/5)
I played the game through the Gamma, as you know, and it's good to see that many bugs were fixed in the few weeks leading to the release of version 1.0. Consequently, the game wasn't released with any truly game-breaking bugs although there's still some room for improvements. Occasional lag spikes, bugs with reputation quests and an unintuitive NPC communications system are just a few things that could be fixed. The game also has many extra features they've promised for later that are yet to be implemented such as landing on planets.

Score – 8/10

Elite: Dangerous is I believe a worthy successor to Frontier: Elite II; the gameplay is similar but the graphics and audio have been improved for modern audiences - even the combat is more fun. Also, thanks to the game being online (which has proven to be a controversial move by some), this also means your character lives in a persistent universe where your actions directly influence the numerous factions vying for power. Unfortunately, there's still no landing on planets but that will apparently be implemented in the near future. So would I recommend this game to an Elite fan? Yes. Would I recommend this game to a fan of space sims? Yes, on the condition that you don't need an epic personalised story that involves you becoming Hero of the Galaxy. Also a good deal of patience learning the ins-and-outs of the game will help too.

Elite: Dangerous is available from these retailers:

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[ LINK: Official Elite: Dangerous website ]