If you doubt the veracity of one of Tom Petty’s most well-known lyrics all you need to do is go and get yourself a copy of Elite: Dangerous and play it. Or rather wait to play it. Wait and wait and wait and wait and wait.
There is some amazing stuff going on in Elite, not the least of which is the fulfillment of a lifelong dream of piloting a private space craft in to the uncharted reaches of space and having weird sex with other sentient species you’re probably not even genetically compatible with. I mean, not that second part, of course. Elite: Dangerous contains absolutely no interspecies coitus of any kind which is probably for the best because its incessant need to have any payoff preceded by an equivalent waiting period would end up ballooning your neglected sex organs up to something resembling an overripe plum.
You’re initially given a tiny, low-end star fighter called a Sidewinder; fully kitted out with some weapons and subsystems gifted to you by no one in particular; a thousand credits, some links to a few videos that will give you some pointers on how to fly and dogfight, and nothing else, fuck you, get out there and figure it all out.
I normally hate this kind of thing. Getting thrown in to a set of complex controls and systems without some sort of guidance as to how I actually get anything done is something I’ve always considered to be a hallmark of lazy design. But interestingly enough the first few hours I spent remapping my personal control scheme and blundering around the space station I spawned at, figuring out how to chart routes to neighboring systems and take off and land quickly and efficiently, was probably the most fun I had in Elite. The UI and menus give you just enough information to work everything out on your own if you’re already familiar with the language of game design. Of course if you’re unfamiliar or unwilling to spend time searching forums for the answers to the many, many questions you’ll have, then you’re going to have a very, very bad time. So, yeah, Elite‘s refusal to explain itself is still tremendously lazy, I just didn’t seem to mind it for some reason and you may not either.
Whether or not you mind will probably come down to just how caught up in Elite‘s visual presentation and world design you become. Frontier Developments has generated an entire galaxy the size of the Milky Way to explore, with all its stars and planets and asteroid belts and other stellar phenomenon. The sense of scale is unparalleled by anything on the market as the distances you’re dealing with can literally be measured in light years. Were you to attempt to travel between star systems using your standard impulse engines you would literally spend years of your actual life in flight.
Good thing, then, that Frontier has included their own relativity breaking version of every Sci-Fi nerd’s favorite technology: the warp drive. Here they call it “frame shifting” and while I have no idea what the fictional basis of it is (I wasn’t kidding. Elite refuses to explain anything) I assume it’s akin to the idea of the mass effect in Bioware’s tragically flawed series of the same name. Long story short, your FSD will allow you to enter a sub-light warp called “super cruise” that will alow you to jump between distant systems and travel to planets within those systems in a matter of minutes instead of the days, weeks, or years it should actually take. It’s really quite exhilarating the first time you spool up your FSD and align yourself with a charted course then watch as a 2001-style Technicolor light show drops you right in front of a titanic, blazing star. It’s so satisfying, easy to do, and downright awesome I have no idea why Frontier didn’t make this system their model for everything you do in Elite. Instead, there’s the waiting. Always with the waiting.
Once you’ve actually made it to the system you intended you still have to navigate in super cruise to a starport or satellite and this is where Elite: Dangerous starts to drag. Super cruise, while incredibly fast compared to the time your impulse drives would take, can still leave you traveling between destinations for upwards of 10 minutes depending on how far you were dropped from your terminus. Your speed in super cruise can also be effected by stellar masses, so if you fly too close to a star or planet your speed will be adversely effected, making some of the trips absolutely interminable. I assume the idea is to give NPC pirates, law enforcement, and other players a chance to interdict you, pulling you from super cruise and forcing you in to a low-speed confrontation.
That’s right, other players. Really, what you’re getting with Elite: Dangerous is a kind of persistent, space-faring MMO where you share a procedurally generated universe with other players however you choose. Whether you decide to play solo, with a group of friends, or in an open instance, you’ll always be connected to a server and your progress and effect on the world is logged and reflected everywhere. Explore a distant star system where no one else has gone and your pilot’s name will be recorded as the first to discover it. Rack up a high enough bounty and other players will be able to scan you and yank you out of super cruise to try to collect. There’s even a persistent guild system that was included in an update earlier this year called “Powerplay” which allows you to pledge yourself to one of 10 powers whose influence you can view on the galactic map and run specific preparation, expansion, or fortification missions to increase their influence and push your power to the top of the leader board. Sounds awesome, right? It’s not, at all. That’s primarily because of Elite: Dangerous‘ other huge flaw: there’s not much to do.
When you finally arrive at a starport and take one to two minutes to dock (a procedure that is fun at first but eventually grates on your nerves) you have the option to access a bulletin board to accept any assignments that might have been posted in the sector. These missions are your best chance for making money and they boil down to two flavors: transport something or kill something. Yes there is a bit of variation on those two themes but really that’s all you do, even in the Balance of Power missions. Now, “transport something” can be very lucrative and does see a bit of variation when you get in to the mining and cargo retrieval missions that have you using a scoop to manually return salvage, but these missions still become repetitive and dull in a hurry. Elite’s one saving grace can be found in its “kill something” missions as they give you an excuse to dogfight. And, holy crap, the dogfighting in this game. The dogfighting! You’d think they brought Michael Vick on board to consult!
Alright, here’s the deal: you’re in outer space so you don’t just worry about that forwards, backwards, left, and right shit anymore. Your movement is now governed by no less than three independent axis, a throttle, and lateral thrusters that can make you travel in either a parallel or perpendicular fashion to any target. That means you can do some absolutely psychotic shit like boosting yourself out of a hail of enemy weapon fire only to crank your throttle in reverse and pitch yourself 180 degrees to return fire while travelling backwards then throttling back up and tracking your target as it takes off to avoid your superior firepower. How does all that work? Here’s my setup.
The joystick is in control of my pitch and roll while the Nostromo speed pad on the left hand side is mapped for my lateral thrusters and yaw control. My throttle is also mapped to the mouse wheel on the Nostromo with fine adjustments taking place on the joystick. I have some of my most used functions mapped to the buttons on the joystick with everything else taking place on the keyboard. This isn’t an ideal setup but it’s the sort of thing that Elite‘s very complex control scheme was built for and I would recommend investing in a good flight stick if you’re interested at all. The T-Flight HOTAS can be had for about £35/$40 on Amazon and I would consider it absolutely essential to truly enjoy this game. I’ll probably be upgrading myself as it has better throttle and rudder control than my current setup affords me.
Of course you may not need any of that depending on how you decide to kit out your ship. All of your systems and subsystems are upgradeable at star ports allowing better fuel economy in frame shift, increasing the range of your scanners, strengthening your shields, improving your power output and control, or any number of other little improvements that will give you more survivability out there in the black. Weapons themselves are mounted to hard points and come in three main targeting variants: fixed, gimballed, or turreted. Fixed weapons work exactly the way they sound: point and shoot. Gimballed weapons work on a light swivel and include tracking software that will automatically follow and lead targets as long as you keep them in your field of fire. Turreted weapons can fire in a near 360 degree arc and will automatically track designated targets depending on how you program them. As I was saying before, if you’re planning on playing Elite: Dangerous with a mouse/keyboard or gamepad you may want to consider gimballed and turreted weapons exclusively as they are easier to control and require far less precision. Do keep in mind, though, that their targeting systems can easily be countered by a ship releasing chaff in to your path that throws them off.
It’s all incredibly complicated. Byzantine, really. Some might call it impenetrable. I would probably be one of those people. I haven’t even gotten in to the multi-paneled, interior UI of your space craft or the almost indecipherable galactic map you use to chart your course through the Milky Way and, frankly, I don’t think I will. If I were to attempt to explain everything to you in this review would quickly become a novelette and half the fun of the game is the sense of discovery you have as you work out everything for yourself. Make no mistake, Elite: Dangerous is a learning experience above all else. Every time you fail you hit your self-destruct or make a new captain and start over from scratch, a little wiser for your failure.
Unfortunately, once you’re comfortable enough to start forging your own path, make a few credits, upgrade to a new ship and finally start looking for something to drive you forward you start to realise that, just like the charted regions of our own universe, Elite is really just a tremendous waste of space. It’s beautifully modelled, filled with colour, has incredible sound design, the sense of flight is exhilarating, and from time to time a challenging battle presents itself that gets your heart pumping as you barely skirt by with your ship intact and your enemy huffing CO2 in the vacuum of space. But there’s no story, no goal that you don’t set for yourself, and the majority of your time will be spent on a boring, interstellar road trip nowhere of any signifigance. It’s clear with the updates they’ve been doing that Frontier Developments has some big plans for Elite: Dangerous in the future, they just haven’t delivered much more than the foundation at this point and that’s disappointing.
For some of you obsessive accountancy types out there this will be a dream come true as there’s plenty of busy work like optimising trade routes and maximising your mining yields. For the rest of us, Elite: Dangerous will let you finally become The Last Starfighter for a few hours before you fail a cargo mission on approach to a space station after 20 minutes of tedious mucking about in hyperspace, toss your joystick aside in frustration, and never pick it up again.
Elite: Dangerous is available on PC and Xbox One. We reviewed the PC version of the game.