Elite: Dangerous

When I purchased Elite: Dangerous on PC, it proved to be a personal dream come true. Games like Wing Commander, X-Wing Alliance, Freespace, and Colony Wars inspired a passion for space games that left me in the lurch when the genre seemingly died out. Elite: Dangerous gave me all sorts of freedoms I previously experienced in Evochron Mercenary but with enough polish and technical stability that my zeal of flying spaceships was renewed. I knew of Frontier Development’s plans to port the game  over to the Xbox One and honestly, I didn’t think it could be done. On the PC, I fly exclusively with my Saitek X52 and couldn’t fathom using an Xbox controller for the intricacies of interstellar flight. Not only did Frontier port the game well but they did it in less than a year! That’s an amazing feat! Granted, the game is running on a Windows platform, however I didn’t expect such a smooth transition from one platform to the other. Barring a few technical limitations, Elite: Dangerous on the Xbox One is a near 1:1 port of the original game.

There is very little story or setup to explain why the player has found themselves inside the cockpit of a junker spaceship. Story is unnecessary when the player is given immediate freedom to shape their own destiny. Elite: Dangerous is structured in such a way that you’re free to pursue the game’s gameplay tracks at your leisure, switching back and forth on the fly and with little consequence. It’s a big universe out there with ample opportunities to earn credits. Each space station in the game’s civilized (read: populated) systems have errands that need to be done, such as hauling freight, taking out a few undesirables, or secretly transporting shady contraband. You could also choose to ignore all of those and go straight for the time honored practice of piracy. Players can purchase interdiction equipment that pulls ships out of supercruise (in-system flight) and shake them down for cargo or blow them up for kicks. If running missions or engaging in PvP seem less appealing, there’s always the freedom of exploration. There’s a thrill in picking a random spot on the galaxy map and making the numerous jumps to reach a destination. Scan planets along the way and sell the data for epic paydays.

The different gameplay options, and seamless transition between them, sound exciting until reality sets in. Elite: Dangerous is not an arcade shooter. Far from it. It’s the most realistic simulator on the market. Well, close to realistic. Those hoping to do sweet barrell rolls and Han Solo-like maneuvers may be disappointed to find out that making your ship move is often a granular process. You’re given direct control of the ship’s major functions, from initiating hyperdrive and regulating power distribution to turning on ship’s light and dropping landing gear. Docking in space stations involve requesting permission and maintaining proper speeds lest you get fined for speeding. Dawdle too long in a sport port and you’ll get fined for obstructing traffic. Get caught bringing in black market goods and you’ll be fined or worse, shot at by the local security force. Even travel is a fairly in depth process. There are three major speeds of travel: regular flight, supercruise, and hyperspace. Regular flight is travel we humans are most familiar with, and is the slowest form of travel. The galaxy in Elite: Dangerous is presented with real scale so travel to different planets in-system during regular flight can take literal lightyears. Supercruise is a faster, more tolerable method of in-system flight. Planets months away can be reached in a manner of seconds making it the optimal speed to scan celestial bodies and monitor communications from NPCs. Finally, system to system travel is accomplished through hyperspace jumps.

The realities of Elite: Dangerous’ simulation extends to combat. Ship to ship battles don’t play out the same way they do in Star Wars. Instead, battles are often a circular dance as two pilots move in tandem in an attempt to get behind the other to engage a weapons lock. Careful management of speed and power distribution is key to victory, especially as ship’s weapons can be a finite resource in the field. Death in Elite is mitigated by insurance claims in that you can pay credits to get a ship back after it has been destroyed. The amount of money to be paid, however, is determined by what you’ve put into the ship. If it’s a top of the line Viper or Asp with high quality equipment, then the cost is going to be incredibly high. Should you be unable to pay the claim, you’re brought back to square one with a cheap Sidewinder loaner.

Personally, I have no interest in hunting down AI enemies or shake players down for credits. I want to explore and see what mysteries the galaxy has to offer. As an explorer, I don’t get to see much action. The career path puts you light years beyond civilized space and as such, it becomes very lonely and isolating work. Exploration has its own special charms and payout opportunities. However, it puts a spotlight on the tedious of Elite: Dangerous’ simulation bits. Moving across systems, whatever your end goal may be, is typically uneventful and dull. There is no in-flight entertainment to keep the isolation at bay. Round trip expeditions have been known to take players weeks to complete. To give you a better idea of how big the galaxy is, some players have mentioned that a trip to the center of the galaxy, where the supermassive black hole Sagittarius A* lies, has taken them months. And that’s real time. Months of jumping systems, scanning planets, scooping fuel, and making course corrections. And for what? Self satisfaction and a drive to explore the unknown. Oh, and First Discovery claims!

I mentioned earlier that my PC time with Elite made heavy use of a Saitek X52 stick and throttle system. Ships controlled like a dream with it and I was wary about how Frontier could duplicate the complex controls on a gamepad. It took some getting used to but flying ships with the Xbox One controller is surprisingly intuitive. It puts the major functions on the most important buttons and triggers with secondary functions brought up through simple button combinations. I’m really surprised with how quickly I adapted and while I’ll always choose to go with my flight stick, the controller is a damn fine substitution.

From a gameplay perspective, Elite: Dangerous is an almost flawless port. Not only is it the same game on the console, it also has all of the free add-ons and improvements Frontier has made to the game since its release. This means Xbox owners can take advantage of content updates. Wings made it easier for players to play together. CQC is an expanded PvP component and Power Play introduced factions that people can ally with and filfuill missions to advance their ranking among other groups. Furthermore, while cross-platform play is absent, both Xbox and PC players share the same universe. This means console players will see the Elite galaxy as it exists since December 2014, complete with newly built space stations and first discovery claims (head on over to Col 285 Sector PH-E B27-2 and see my corner of the galaxy!). When I say an “almost flawless port,” the area of the game that takes a noticeable hit are the graphics. It’s still a gorgeous game but there’s noticeable screen tearing when in free look mode and crowded space ports cause a small, but tolerable, dip in framerate. While textures for ship models, outposts and station look great (the larger stations bustle with activity), the texture work on planets, especially the more elaborately looking ones, are a little rough.

Elite: Dangerous goes against the grain of the Xbox One’s library of games. It’s not as frenetic and action packed as Call of Duty nor does it share The Witcher 3’s flair for engrossing narratives. Instead, Elite: Dangerous is a quest for the next big thing which, in this case, is a high quality ship outfitted with the best equipment that fits a chosen playstyle. Thrown into a galaxy comprised of over 400 billion star systems, the player is responsible for what they’ll get out of the game. Because the world of Elite is so big and the simulation fairly complex, I hope it finds an audience on the Xbox One. The game relies on its in-depth simulation and you’ll spend a great deal of time surrounded by the dark void of the universe, but there’ll come a time where your time and patience will be rewarded, be it enough credits to buy your dream ship, score a major victory for your faction, or jump into a system made entirely of Super Earths waiting to be colonized.

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.