You start the game in your piddling little Cobra Mrk III with a handful of credits and a dream, to be the biggest baddest space dude in the universe. No two games were alike, every game contained 8 galaxies with 256 planets to explore (due to technical limitations) but the composition of the star systems were random using procedural generation to create them. There wasn’t much of a plot or a story, your goal was to just get good at combat and make a ton of money buying goods in one station and going to others to sell them at a profit. Think of it like that Commodore Pet game Lemonade Stand, the goal was profit with a side order of ass kicking. It would be almost 10 years before we got a sequel Frontier: Elite II which added stellar physics and then Frontier: First Encounters two years later which added Newtonian physics, improved graphics and the addition of exploration as a driving motivator. The series was the pinnacle (and also perhaps the first) sand box game. No story beyond what you bring to it.
Now nineteen years since the release of Frontier: First Encounters we get a new title Elite: Dangerous released that is a technological improvement. First of all the game is absolutely stunning, this is almost a given since the game is almost twenty years since its predecessor but it’s impressively so. On a decent good PC you can run a smooth game with no frame rate drop off and makes your jaw hit the floor but it’s not only the graphics that have improved, the procedural technology has improved. This time we have a galaxy made up of 400,000,000,000 (if you think I made a typo no that’s four hundred billion with a b) star systems. These all contain at least one star and you can get to all of them. Basically you are getting the Milky Way in a bottle.
What is even more outstanding is the technology they created behind it, Frontier Developments created a system call Star Forge which uses known data (like the stellar composition of catalogued stars), the current laws of physics, behaviour of known exoplanets, and so on and then generates a star system based on that data. It has been fairly accurate creating exoplanets in the right places and only occasionally needs prodding when it comes up with a star system that isn’t quite right and this just improves the generation of further star systems. This technology is astounding!
This did come with some limitations though; despite during their fund raising saying the game would have an offline mode that was not to be. Mere weeks before its launch date of December 16th the developers at Frontier Development indicated the offline mode was removed as the calculations to keep the galaxy in line had to be done at a server level requiring an always on connection to the internet. There is a solo play mode for those who don’t want to worry about people messing up their sandbox but that does require a ping to the server to pull back the status of the galaxy which has upset many who demanded refunds especially when such a decision was easily something that was known for some time and should have been reported earlier in the development process.
Once again though, there is very little guidance in the game. You are given the entire Milky Way to play in but you know about it as much as anyone else. You are able to pick up trade and bounty missions from space stations or simply buy resources from one station and sell them at another. There are no cinematics, there is no dialogue but there is the Bulletin Board. Each space station has one and from here you can read daily updates about the goings on in the larger universe. This gives you an idea of the different factions vying for control. The developers recently revealed there is a larger story going on with parties vying for the throne of the Galactic Emperor. You can go to space they control and take missions based on your preference. This will shape the game for the rest of the players in the universe (even the Solo players who’s game will be impacted by the pings pulling down galaxy status information). That said, you aren’t “The One” you are just some guy or gal with a ship and out there doing a job for bigger powers. Maybe you’ll help them win some key battle, but probably you’re just going to help them get some ammunition from point A to point B.
That said, you can completely ignore that bigger story, there’s nothing MAKING you take part and you can just load up with cargo. Make some runs and figure out the “milk run” with the ideal goods to the ideal stations for the ideal money or you can start smuggling contraband, bringing illegal goods in to stations and selling Space Drugs or even take up the life of a pirate hunting down ships and stealing their contents (and in Open Play this includes the ships of your fellow players). If you don’t like people you still have even another option, after getting a long rang vessel you can cut your way out to the fringes of the known galaxy and discover systems that you can either share with others or keep to yourself and mine for precious resources (at least until some one else figures out where the place is and claims it). Once you discover these stars and planets you can return to known space and sell the cartographic data. Really the options here are endless!
Travel is broken in to three modes, the first is your regular flight mode, this is how you take part in combat, mining, salvage and landing your vessel. Actual control in this mode is fairly flexible and the game supports control pads, joysticks, keyboard and mouse and even complex flight stick systems. Sadly I don’t own a flight stick setup (yet) but I did try it on all three other modes. There is full control including vertical and horizontal thrust, forward and reverse thrust, pitch and yaw. The keyboard provides the most inputs but can take a bit of getting used to. The gamepad (in my case an Xbox One game pad hooked to my PC) is solid but dumbed down allowing for more limited control especially when you have to go to the keyboard for certain actions. The Logitech Extreme 3D Pro that I used (a cheap joystick that can be picked up for about 30 bucks at most stores) allowed for some solid control and I found the easiest in combat. There are default settings for all of these but they are also fully programmable so you can find the setup that works best for you.
Now what you pilot is pretty customizable with a variety of designs (all exceptionally practical looking which has been the cornerstone of the aesthetic for the series to date) all coming with varied hard points. On these you can attach different systems like scanners, cargo scoops, mining tools and weapons. Your ship is yours to do with as you please but if it blows up and you don’t have insurance you’re going to have to save up and start from scratch.
This is not a simulator for the weak of heart or the timid of spirit, there is a lot to experience here including a big story that can only be seen from the fringes. Focusing on the Exploration, Trade and Combat pillars of gameplay Frontier Development have indicated that in future modules they will add things like the ability to get out of your ship, take part in ground combat and even ship boarding and multiple ships. Where Star Citizen is taking the “everything at once” approach Elite: Dangerous is focusing on the core elements it feels comfortable with (so people can get their hands on it and enjoy it) and will introduce other elements as time goes on. I’ve only had five hours but I’ve enjoyed it, it may be a bit too “crunchy” for me but I’m certainly going to enjoy casually running missions from time to time and hopefully (when I get a sweet control setup) get a little more involved especially once the consumer Oculus Rift is released (since the game will support it). Anyone with suggestions on good hardware configurations for flight stick and peddle configurations let me know.
All in all check it out, watch some videos but this game is a lot of fun and may be what you need to scratch that space itch you didn’t know needed scratching.