REVIEW / Elite: Dangerous 1.0 (PC)

 

Elite: Dangerous, the latest sandbox space adventure game from Frontier Developments, has finally made its way into the hands of Elite fans everywhere. Creator David Braben has brought the series back from its 20 year-long hiatus, promising fans a modernized and more ambitious multiplayer version of the original Elite; the game which arguably pioneered the idea of the “sandbox” video-game. Although regular updates and expansions are still planned for the future, Frontier developments have set out to provide players with a core experience in version 1.0 that they hope will satisfy wannabe space pilots, and keep them busy until future expansions are added. With all of the alpha, beta, and gamma tests now over, it’s time to found out if ED has actually earned its place among the stars, and can justify its $60 price tag.

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ED is set in the year 3300 at a time when three factions are fighting for control over the known galaxy. Players take on the role of a freelance pilot who’s armed with just a basic spaceship and 1,000 credits. With the premise of the game put in place, players are left to set out their own path in the galaxy. Aside from a short series of gameplay tutorials, ED holds the players hand as little as possible. After clicking on either Open Play (interaction with online players enabled) or Solo Play (interaction with other players disabled), you are placed in the seat of a Sidewinder MkI, free to trade, mine, bounty-hunt, pirate, explore, and/or smuggle your way through the galaxy.

The game’s visuals are probably the first thing any player will appreciate. ED really does look pretty. First off, the aesthetic style is very appropriate for the setting and is well executed by the developers. Frontier have tried to create a very immersive visual style where players see everything from the first-person perspective, through the eyes of their pilot. Players can look around the 3d interior of their ship, and all HUD items are rendered as 3d holographic displays that pop up from your ship’s dashboard. Although you can never leave your Sidewinder, the game does a great job of making you feel like a pilot rather than a hunk of metal drifting through space.

 

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The game’s graphical fidelity is also pretty high overall, with textures that are pretty consistently detailed as well. The only complaint I’d have, in that regard, is that the planet textures stood out quite a bit (in a bad way). Some of them looked very dated when you came in for a closer look. Explosion effects were also held down by some pretty gnarly looking smoke effects. It is worth mentioning though, that the stars are absolutely gorgeous in this game, with solar flares that look like they came right out of the movie Interstellar.

Screenshot_0005Where ED really shines is through its sound design. Where on earth do I begin? Is it the Inception-esque sound of the Discovery Scanner? The ridiculous thump of the Frame-Shift Drive kicking in? The ambient sounds of reverbed radio chatter as you drift through the interior of a space station, or the muffled pop of the enemy’s ship as your hear it it explode across the thick canopy of your spaceship? The sounds are absolutely phenomenal in this game. Once again they reflect an aesthetic direction that focuses on immersing the player as much as possible; on making the player feel like a pilot who is actually sitting in a spaceship. Frontier pulls it off in a way that would give even the folks over at DICE a run for their money.

 

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So how does it play? It’s worth noting that I played ED with a mouse and keyboard; not the ideal setup for a space-flight and combat game. In spite of that however, flying my ship and getting into dogfights was a very enjoyable experience. It’s a real testament to how great the game’s flight mechanics are, and only leaves me wondering just how much more fun it would have been with a proper flight-sim setup.

The game’s training missions do an excellent job of introducing players to the game’s basic flight mechanics, while the myriad of online guides reveal just how deep the game’s combat can get. Players can outfit their ship to their liking with various modules and weapons, and can manage the distribution of power into their, shield, engine, and weapon systems, mid-flight. As a result, the games flight system feels very deep, and combat engagements feel like a matter of trying to outsmart your enemy with your chosen setup. Your ship feels like it has some weight, but I never found myself frustrated with trying to control it, as I often do when playing flight games with a keyboard and mouse.

 

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The game also includes two flight modes: Supercruise which is used to travel between distant objects in a star system, and a sub-supercruise flight mode which is used to fly towards nearby objects like a space station or cargo canister. The game integrates both flight modes pretty well. They feel very different from one another, with each having its own learning curve. At the same time though, they still feel like they are both bound by the same flight model and physics engine, as they should be. A third interstellar flight mode is used to travel to other star systems, but, aside from just picking a destination and hitting the FSD button, this flight mode isn’t really interactive.

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Overall, the flight mechanics in ED are excellent. With that said though, there is a glaring issue that really must be brought up, as it’s revealing of one of the more serious flaws of this game. Although docking with space stations was supposed to be a very smooth and easy process, I found myself unable to dock for the first hour or so playing this game. I’d extend my landing gear and carefully place my ship on the designated hangar, only to sit there for minutes on end waiting for the station menu to pop up, before giving up and flying back out in shame. It was only after a Google search that I found out I was supposed to be facing one specific side of the hangar as I landed my spacecraft. For some reason, ED just assumed I’d know that myself.

 

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ED is filled to the brim with moments like these. Moments where the developers decided to leave you scratching your head for a little bit and inevitably Alt-Tab out of the game to do a Google search or watch a YouTube tutorial video to resolve your issue. Picking up cargo, fuel management, purchasing trade data, using the communications panel, using the galaxy map, to name a few, are all so inadequately explained in-game (if explained at all) that I was starting to think that there was a bindable shortcut somewhere in the options menu to open up a Google search. The training missions restrict themselves to explaining just the game’s flight and combat system. After that, you’re pretty much on your own. Oddly enough, the docking training made no mention of which side of the landing pad I should be facing when I dock. The game’s quick-start guide actually suggests using Google to solve your problems for God’s sake! As awesome as the community and dev video guides are, it would have been so much more appropriate if the game’s most basic gameplay features were all explained within the game itself.
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If there’s one thing that hours of playing ED has taught me, it’s that space is a very lonely place. Oh so lonely. For a game that is, quite ironically, always online, I can count on my right hand the number of times I actually saw another player (after 10 hours of playing this game). I can also tell you that I only managed to sneak in two conversations with other players. Even more ironically, both of those conversations only took place because the other players were confused about the game’s docking and mission system, and desperately needed help.

 

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Although ED takes place in a large online world, it more often than not feels like a sandbox made just for you and no one else but you. The closest semblance there is to any form of life shines through the regularly updated news reports and mission descriptions which are posted on the station’s bulletin boards. Although they add some dynamism to the game world, they really do not make up for just how lifeless and lonely the game feels 90% of the time.

Unless you’re majorly into space-flight games and are more than satisfied just toying with the game’s core flight mechanics, ED will start to feel boring and repetitive quite fast. I found myself frustrated with the game’s mission system, as it didn’t take long for me to realize that the last mission I completed was pretty much identical to the one I completed 20 minutes ago, except with a slightly different description, slightly higher reward, and a different locale. Granted there are various career paths to follow which contrast greatly from one another in play-style. More specifically players can focus on combat through piracy and bounty hunting, or they can become smugglers, traders, miners, or explorers. No matter which avenue you choose to focus on however, the missions and overall play-style within those career paths will get a little too repetitive. Players will find themselves wanting for more, specifically when it comes to interacting with other players.

 

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There’s still something to be said about the game’s exploration system though. Although it also gets quite repetitive, and is grounded on some pretty rudimentary gameplay mechanics (it amounts to nothing more than scanning unexplored celestial bodies and selling data), there’s a genuinely unique feeling you experience when you find out you’ve discovered a star or planet that you know absolutely know one else in the game world has discovered yet. With a world as large as ED’s, you also have the added joy of knowing that it’s very possible those worlds would have gone undiscovered entirely during ED’s entire lifespan as a multiplayer title, were it not for you.

As empty and lonely as the galaxy feels most of the time, you can’t help but appreciate it for the accomplishment in game design that it is. A lot of potential lies in the game’s exploration system, especially when the possibility of landing on planets and exploring on foot (a possible future expansion) is considered.

 

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ED is not a bad game by any stretch of the imagination. It simply feels incomplete. A little too incomplete. Although the flight mechanics, sound, and visuals are top notch, the core gameplay features at the moment need to be fleshed out some more to keep the game from feeling so repetitive. A little hand-holding from Frontier also wouldn’t hurt anyone. Certain gameplay elements need to be explained in a way that is integrated into the game itself. Not everyone finds the idea of watching tutorial videos and reading guides outside the game very appealing. Frontier also need to figure out a way to make this online game a more interactive online game. Doing so would take away from so much of the lifelessness that plagues the game world, and would open up so many more possibilities for emergent unscripted storylines to pop up outside the pre-determined ones set by the dev team. With that said, any fan of flight-sims would find ED, in its current state, an enjoyable experience that will provide them with a at least several hours of entertainment. The current version provides a solid backbone for a game that will surely only get better with future updates.

Note: This review was written after playing version 1.03

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