I first found out about Elite: Dangerous at a particularly painful moment in my life: I had recently accepted the hard truth that I will not go into space in my lifetime. I’ve been obsessed with the infinite expanse surrounding our tiny blue world since discovering Neil deGrasse Tyson’s podcast “Star Talk,” Cosmos, and articles about the mysteries of our galaxy. Elite: Dangerous grants me the chance to live the dream of interstellar exploration from the comfort of my home planet. The fourth game in the Elite series, it doesn’t matter that I don’t have experience with beloved British space trading simulator. What is most important to me is to witness the beauty of our galaxy and the unique wonders contained inside.
Armed with a loaner ship and a few credits to your name, Elite: Dangerous gives the player complete freedom with what they want to do. In a lot of ways, it is similar to EVE Online though it lacks the “spreadsheets in space” reputation and notorious playerbase. If EVE can be thought of as World of Warcraft in space, Elite: Dangerous’ closest cousin would be Skyrim. It is easy to get caught up EVE’s numbers game and spend weeks, even months, before you can participate with intrigue, corporate espionage, and the thrill of watching a battleship that took someone months of real time to build go up in flames. Elite wastes little time to get the player out of space dock and into the unknown to make their fortune. How that’s done is entirely up to you.
There are no rigid character classes or skill trees that force you onto a path towards a particular pilot type. Like Skyrim, you’re free to switch roles as often or as little as desired. You can mine asteroids and planets, pillage and plunder as a pirate, protect trade lanes, or set out into the vast unknown and explore Elite’s 400 billion star systems found within a reproduction of our Milky Way galaxy. As an explorer, my biggest moneymaker is the discovery of unknown star systems. Not only will I get money for bringing back data on unknown areas of the galaxy, I get the discovery rights and those who stumble upon the astronomical objects I found will see a “Discovered by: LibrarianGMR” credit. Data on these distant planets, stars, and anomalies serve the greater game as potential locations for new starports, mining operations, and combat zones.
With very few exceptions, there is nothing barring the player from going wherever they want. Travel across space is a simple process of plotting a route and following your ship’s compass while making a few course corrections along the way. Given the near 1:1 scale of the digital Milky Way, getting from A to B requires some speedy travel in order to cross the barely fathomable distances. All ships operate under normal thruster speeds when mining, docking, dogfighting, and scanning planets. Speedy travel within a system is accomplished by supercruise flight and the ship’s jump drive will get you moving from one entire system to another. Travel is always at the mercy of your fuel tank, which can be topped off at ports of call (bring gas money) or collected from massive stars via a fuel scoop. Fuel is life in Elite: Dangerous and without it, you’re dead in the water. There are no service ships that will haul thirsty ships to nearby ports.
Losing a ship in Elite isn’t the end of the world as an insurance system can get your ship back for a substantial fee. For those strapped for cash, you can get another loaner ship but without any previously purchased equipment, cargo, and system data.
Running out of fuel sucks, but the major cause of ship death can mostly be attributed to pirates and loyal followers of the Federation, Empire, and Alliance factions. There isn’t much of a story to tell in Elite: Dangerous apart from the oft used “uneasy peace” among the Federation and Empire and the effect the newly formed Alliance will have on these major players. The increasing conflict between these groups is merely a backdrop right now and only those who play missions to grind rep for either faction will be invested in the conflict from a mostly roleplaying perspective. Each faction controls a number of systems and can offer odd jobs from bulletin boards accessed inside outposts and starports. These handful of generic playable missions run the gamut of cargo transport, assassination, seek and destroy, and trade. While on these missions, it is possible that your errand will attract the attention of pirates, law enforcement, and interested third parties. Human players and NPCs can use an interdiction device to pull you out of supercruise in an attempt to steal cargo or stop you from completing a mission. You can escape an interdiction by pointing your craft towards a specified exit vector until you are free from the attack. Completing these assignments earns reputation with one faction at the expense of others as well as a nice chunk of change to spend on outfitting your current vessel or save up for a new one.
Any expectations of battling pirates, discovering Earth-like planets, and bringing glory to your selected faction need to be appropriately tempered. Moments such as these are sprinkled across play sessions that can be, in all honesty, quite dull. You’re not always going to be interdicted and none of your actions have much impact outside of reputation indicators. Communication is sparse and there is no way to talk your way out of any engagements. You can’t even communicate with other players unless they are targeted. The game’s collection of ships are not X-Wings and TIE Fighters, they are bound by Newtonian physics that require deliberate micromanagement. For explorers, discovering new systems comes with the tedium of scanning every inch of the area and hoping someone doesn’t beat you to the right of first discovery. Beyond astronomical objects, unidentified signal sources, and the occasional interdiction, there’s no sugar coating the notion that for many, Elite: Dangerous can be a boring game to play. If the aimless, non-linear gameplay of EVE Online and Minecraft hold no appeal, this won’t change your perspective. Furthermore, it’s worth pointing out that Elite: Dangerous requires an online connection. There is a “Solo” play option but because the in-game commodities market is reliant on the aggressive trading of other players, you will have to be connected at all times. However, in Solo mode you cannot take part in the game’s community events, like the construction of new space stations, or the numerous blockades set up by players on all sides of the simmering galactic conflict.
On the other hand, the game offers an unparalleled simulation of space flight that will likely only be matched by the upcoming Star Citizen. The game’s loneliness can be circumvented by a custom soundtrack (I recommend Guardians of the Galaxy, Firefly, and Cowboy Bebop) or indulge in a fan created radio station comprised of music, news, and advertisements. Flight can be tedious, but the opportunity to see virtual recreations of famous points in our galaxy, like Alpha Centauri, Betelgeuse, and the Horsehead Nebula, has never been done this well. Brave adventurers can even make the journey to our solar system and see how it fares in the year 3300. Additionally, the game is absolutely gorgeous. The ship designs are really cool and the lighting effects are spectacular and account for all kinds of variables. If you spend time orbiting a star for fuel, it’ll take some time for your virtual eyes to adjust to the decreased amount of light in your field of vision as you fly away. In combat, ships display real time battle damage. When a wanted pilot flew past my canopy, I could see the burn marks on their hull caused by my beam weapon.
Expect the game to change over time as Frontier has pledged expansions that will greatly increase the scope of the game and allow pilots to walk around in and out of their ship, land on planets, and explore space stations on foot. Currently, Frontier is working on the beta release of the first free expansion, “Wings,” that lets players to form up and work together as well as a host of tweaks and improvements.
Elite: Dangerous requires an investment of time, patience and regular visits to the game’s fan community. The tutorial covers the extreme basis of starship operation, combat, and docking procedures but everything else in between is up to the player to figure out. Get past these hurdles and you’ll find a space simulation experience like no other, filled with gorgeous galactic vistas and the opportunity for fortune and glory. More importantly, Elite: Dangerous lets me fulfill my dream of leaving our world behind and finding out what lies in the undiscovered country.
Note: While this review was being written, Microsoft announced that Elite: Dangerous will be coming to the Xbox One. The PC version of the game benefits from a keyboard and flight stick control scheme (and Oculus Rift or TrackIR for increased immersion), but the game does offer controller support.
Librarian by day, Darkstation review editor by night. I've been playing video games since the days of the Commodore 64 and I have no interest in stopping now that I've made it this far.