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Elite: Dangerous is as close as you’ll ever get to being Han Solo.

I’ve been waiting for this game for years. Well, at least a year. My last post pining for its release was published exactly one year before the game’s launch. Perhaps I have more power than I thought (I credit Frontier: Elite II’s map hanging in my living room).

I love the advertisements in front of stations

I actually bought the game during its beta phase in August to have someting to play on the Oculus Rift DK2. Even in the early days it was totally worth it. It’s one thing to see ships and stations and planets on your monitor, but being in virtual reality with them is unbelievable. Or, not unbelievable. The opposite: utterly credulous. There are grab bars to the upper left and right of the Sidewinder cockpit. Everyone who tries the Oculus Rift attempts to pull on them. Watching the menus pop up as you look at them gets a comment every time and feels like future tech, but it’s probably the simplest computation in the game.

if player_vision_angle > 30 && player_vision_angle < 40

Dogfights in the Rift are thrilling as you track the enemy ship just by moving your head. Jumping into a new system often causes players to yelp as the star bursts into the viewport. Even sitting in a station is entertaining, watching the ships dock and undock, a graceful ballet accompanied by a hydrogen sonata.

Some things are worse in VR. Any text smaller than 20 point might as well be invisible, so you find yourself remembering numbers rather than reading them. Until recently there were some bugs with cockpit focus, but it’s been smoothed out and menus are much more forgiving and versatile (thanks devs!). Scale for heavenly bodies is almost there. Stars in the experience Titans of Space feel bigger than they do in Elite, but given how jittery I get in Titans that might be for the best.

I’ve been having a long correspondence with my friend Kelesis about Elite. He kept asking what kind of game it is, and many of my comparisons have felt inadequate. It’s open world like GTA… but there isn’t a whiff of a story or character to be found. You can buy and sell in a universe like EVE Online… but there’s no crafting and margins are thin (plus you can directly fly the ships).

In the end I have to rely on two comparisons: Elite feels more akin to Minecraft crossed with a detailed racing simulation.

Wars in Elite are supposed to look like this. They don't. I think.

Like Minecraft, the game world is enormous and procedurally generated. The developers don’t have a story campaign for you to advance through, you’re just set loose to make your own fun. This requires setting your own goals: travel to the center of the galaxy, buy a big ship, earn the Elite rank in combat, gain entrance to special star systems, have a dogfight in an asteroid belt, become a pirate, whatever. Technically the quests you take can shift the balance of power in systems, but that never really comes to anything.

This dovetails with the racing simulation comparison. In Forza Motorsport you’re not there to become Racing Champion of the World and then retire, as though it’s a traditional end to a video game. You race to buy cars so you can race more. The pleasure is in the simulation of the car, of learning its strengths and weaknesses, of comparing yourself to others.

So it goes in Elite. You buy ships to fly around to buy more ships. They have individual detailed cockpits, though you’re welded to the chair and don’t have an external view. Strangely, some ships look “old” when they’re bought new, like the starter Sidewinder and the combat-focused Viper. Each one sounds distinctive. I bought a Hauler and quickly dumped it after listening to its engines whine. You can upgrade each component of the ship, from the power plant to the thrusters to the life support (hint: buy that one, it’s cheap and it’ll save your life). The feeling of investment is great, though I can’t think of something more clever than “she’ll make point five past light speed” when talking about my Eagle.

During Elite’s beta I was a happy trader. Combat worried me; I was okay at it, but it seemed hard to find a good rhythm and payout. But now I’m fully invested. I learned how to scan targets for warrants, camp out at resource extraction sites, and deal with interdictions (hint: submit immediately and then boost away). Combat is… easy? I guess? I’m only “Mostly Harmless” but I’m finding a lot of Sidewinders, Eagles, and Cobras being pirates without having their shields up. So I fly in with a gimballed minigun and go to town. I’ve only been killed once when the NPCs at a resource extraction site ganged up on me. That $20K bounty loss was humbling, but I’ve recovered and am saving up for a Cobra.

I’m not sure what my goal is past that. I’m slightly addicted to the discovery process, and with a fuel scoop my range is effectively limitless. I don’t have a nebula to visit nor does the center of the galaxy interest me. All the stars have boring names like “Central Quadrant System 134-A” so there’s not much romance out there. I do like the sense of ownership you get over the planets you scan, and how even something like two planets orbiting each other feels special. It’s great to find brown dwarf stars and ring systems, though I’m disappointed that asteroids belts are completely invisible.

Here's one where the concept art barely does it justice. Being inside Saturn's rings feels incredible.

Much has been made about the accuracy of Elite’s star generation. If that’s true, our solar system is a real anomaly. Planets are significantly spaced out from each other, making travel in Sol a chore. Granted that has some advantages, like how you can find missions to take cargo from Mercury to Saturn’s Titan. But there’s not a single unguarded station with a black market, so I stay away from Earth.

Maybe you fancy yourself a swashbuckling space pirate, a smuggler and bounty hunter who answers to no authority. Well, hate to break it to you, but so does everybody else. There are a few chaps grinding reputation to afford faction-specific ships, but the rest of us steal cargo and life from NPCs to feed our habits. That’s one thing to keep in mind if you’re eyeing Elite: once you’re over the joy of the game’s mechanics, legitimate sources of money are rare and boring. Trading is dull. Mining is dull. Missions are either dull or impossible. Exploring, however much I enjoy it, is dull. That leaves piracy, selling stolen goods (i.e. smuggling), and bounty hunting. Smuggling sounds cool, but it has all the lows, lower lows, and low mediums of trading. You’re just cruising around looking for goods that fell off someone’s space truck, scooping them up and taking them to your black market contact. It’s nice because there’s no initial outlay as in legitimate trading, but you shouldn’t expect the kind of crazy payday that comes from station missions asking about illicit materials.

Even though I have a huge ton of games in rotation (Grand Theft Auto V, Assassin’s Creed Unity, Dragon Age: Inquisition, Smash Bros. for Wii U, Halo: The Master Chief Collection), I keep coming back to Elite. I love its permanent world, like a thin soup of EVE Online cooked especially for me. I love the sound of mundane activities, from the discovery scanner to fuel scooping to the docking experience. I love flying into ring systems, exploring moons, ducking through capital ships, and finding binary stars. I love how the game’s constant development feels like I’m unlocking new features (route plotting is a huge help).

No Man’s Sky is vaguely on the horizon, and there’s still Star Citizen, but for a space game you can play today, Elite: Dangerous is the zenith.