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Review: Inspiring, Complex ‘Elite: Dangerous’ Sometimes Wobbles but Often Soars

Screenshot from Elite: Dangerous
Screenshot from Elite: Dangerous

It could be argued that one of the reasons video games were invented was so that people could pretend to fly spaceships. So it’s odd, and even a little troubling, that such games seem to be few and far between these days. Frontier Developments, the makers of the just-launched, Kickstarter-funded Elite: Dangerous, hope to get us back on track.

Elite: Dangerous is a direct descendant of the groundbreaking 1984 space simulation Elite, which geriatric folks who once owned a Commodore 64, an Atari 800, or (in the UK) a BBC Micro may fondly remember. Co-created by David Braben, Elite accomplished more than primitive wireframe graphics and 8-bit processors had any right to do, rendering a vast 3D galaxy in which to trade, pirate, and bounty-hunt your way to fame and glory. Elite not only took space gaming to a whole new level — it also arguably invented the open-world genre, a feat for which we named it one of the 10 most influential games of the 1980s.

That was then; this is now. The new Elite is a strange beast. It takes full advantage of modern game technology to create an enormous, explorable universe and vistas of stunning beauty, but is often hamstrung by atavistic approaches to documentation and tutorials, as well as a palpable feeling of being unfinished.

The most important thing to understand about Elite: Dangerous is that it’s a true space-flight simulation. Its core design mandate is to create the illusion that you are the owner of a spacecraft. You’re always in its cockpit, and you have total control over what to do with it. Not much is automated.

Want to travel to a space station to trade some goods or pick up a mission? You’ll have to fly to the station, approach it, contact it, request docking, wait for confirmation, and then carefully guide your craft onto the designated landing pad (making sure to have the correct orientation as you do so, or the dock won’t “take”). Miss any of these steps, and at best you’ll be stuck in space, locked out of the station; at worst, the station will open fire on you and blow you up.

If you play much Elite: Dangerous, you won’t go through this process five or 10 times. You’ll do it hundreds of times. (Eventually, you can buy a docking computer to automate some of these steps, but it’s not all that reliable, and you still have to watch everything happen in real time.)

Fortunately, there’s more to flying your ship than just docking. The galaxy offers ample ways to find trouble, and it’s not too hard to get into a scrap with other spacecraft. Dogfighting is one of the areas where the game really shines. If you use a joystick (and I highly recommend doing so), the flight model just feels right, and there’s great pleasure in pitching and rolling your way through a battle as you struggle to keep enemies in your crosshairs.

Innumerable little details — from the time-delay as your weapons deploy, to the shaky gimbal-targeting on your cannons, to the various hydraulic sound effects and insistent warning chimes — add to the immersion. In one battle, I had to cut and run, and then limp to the nearest space station with my cockpit shattered and less than a minute of oxygen remaining. It’s gripping stuff.

The meta-game that gives you a reason for all that flying and shooting is more of a mixed bag. There’s not a lot of story here, although Frontier Developments claims that story-based missions are beginning to be implemented. Mostly, you have to come up with your own purpose, usually by following the basic idea that you need to make more money so you can buy better stuff. That openness is not necessarily a flaw — to some, it’s even the game’s crowning glory — but it means you really have to make an effort to get interested in what’s going on.

And there’s an enormous amount going on. Elite: Dangerous contains 400 billion star systems derived from accurate astronomical data, all moving and orbiting realistically. But to many gamers, this detail will be almost invisible. Traversable planet surfaces are supposedly going to be added in the future, but they’re not here yet, so I can’t review them. For now, one space system looks rather like another; you really have to make an effort to appreciate what’s been put in front of you.

Speaking of effort, Elite: Dangerous has one of the steepest learning curves I’ve encountered in a long time, and I say that as someone who spent countless hours playing the original Elite on a Commodore 64. In what may be an unfortunate trend for Kickstarter-funded games, the documentation is largely crowdsourced, consisting of innumerable fan-made YouTube tutorials and various guides and FAQs scattered around the Web. In-game tutorials are fragmentary and extremely selective in what they teach you. There’s plenty of information out there, but finding the knowledge that’s relevant to your situation is not easy. I hate to say it, but I missed the 300-page manual that would typically come with a game of this nature. It may have been a doorstop, but at least it was all right there.

The game’s also quite buggy. Server connection errors are frequent, even if you play in the “Solo” mode where you won’t encounter other players. Minor annoyances — waiting outside a space station and getting a repeated “Docking request denied” message for no reason, for instance — are myriad. On one occasion I was inexplicably unable to turn in a mission I’d spent the previous hour trying to complete. On another, I bought a hardware upgrade and mysteriously wasn’t charged for it. (OK, that one was kind of nice.) Sometimes you’ll go into hyperspace and stay there forever, with escape possible only by activating your emergency Ctrl-Alt-Delete module.

Still, there are moments of absolute inspiration to be found here. You might be quietly mining asteroids in the vicinity of a massive roiling star and suddenly have your breath taken away by the sight of the space rocks slowly rotating in the cold, eerie silence. While docking at a space station for the hundredth time, you might peer around at the majestic structure while other ships cruise by, bound for parts unknown. At its best, Elite: Dangerous evokes a stately elegance reminiscent of Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey. If that’s your thing, and if you’ve got the patience for it, then climb on in. The vacuum’s fine.

three and a half stars
three and a half stars

What’s Hot: Gorgeous graphics; rock-solid combat system; sense of wonder

What’s Not: Lousy documentation; frequent bugs; punishing learning curve

You can email Gordon Cameron here.