Truckers in SPAAAAAACE
Elite Dangerous was released June 27, 2017 on the PlayStation 4 after enjoying a long run on the PC and Xbox One. Frontier has been working hard to keep providing updated contact for the massive, procedurally generated space trucking simulator with expansions adding planetary bases and exploration, transportation missions allowing players to play Crazy Taxi in space, user avatars, the horrifying and mysterious Thargoid alien presence, and a multi-crew ship mechanic encouraging multiplayer and co-operation in what is typically an extremely cut-throat online community.
I’ve been playing Elite Dangerous since before the Horizons expansion, and have put nearly a hundred hours into the game. I found out about it right around the time No Man’s Sky let me down, and while initially intimidating and perplexing, I eventually grew accustomed to the mechanics of the game and now find a kind of relaxed comfort in playing it. It’s the true definition of a role-playing game; you choose exactly what sort of pilot you are going to be and run with it, with a bevy of customisation options allowing you to cater your ship to meet specific mission requirements. I am not great at combat so I tend to haul resources or information from system to system, typically playing for around an hour at a time. Despite a massive grocery list of finicky controls and toggles, the game does a good job of adapting itself to a controller scheme on both console and PC, and I’d imagine it would translate pretty well to a big-screen TV and a nice comfy couch.
The Elite series has been around since 1984, the first title (simply called Elite) emerging on the European BBC Micro and Acorn Electron computers, and later ported to many other systems such as the ZX Spectrum, Commodore 64, Apple II, and even the Nintendo Entertainment System. It was a marvel of programming at the time, written entirely in machine language and assembly (not uncommon for those machines since higher-level languages such as BASIC were too slow to do just about anything but calculate the number of teets on a cow) by two friends, David Braben and Ian Bell. Braben would later go on to to co-found the Raspberry Pi Foundation in 2012 because he accurately predicted that the NES Classic was going to sell out and wanted everyone on Twitter to brag about how much better emulating games on a Pi was anyways. Or because he wanted to make a cheap computer for educational purposes – whichever. Braben would continue working on the Elite series over the years, releasing the sequel Frontier: Elite II (my own introduction the the series) in 1993, and eventually successfully crowdfunding Elite Dangerous on Kickstarter in 2012.
For its time, the original Elite was quite an achievement. Today many people are quick to throw Elite Dangerous under the bus for feeling massive and hopelessly empty. There have been various exploration titles to come out over the years but Elite was one of the pioneers, offering eight galaxies in game with 256 planets each using an algorithm for procedural generation. Players could trade, explore, and fight to their hearts’ content in this massive universe. Games like Starflight and Star Control 2 would later come that would offer a more distinct narrative and “lived in” feel, but the impressive wireframe 3D graphics offered a unique feeling of immersion at the time, even if the overall gameplay was a little shallow. There is a nifty little documentary about the making of the game and the men behind it if you are into that sort of thing.
The first time I played Frontier: Elite II, I was flabbergasted. This was a time when games like Civilization and Oregon Trail and Encarta (the original PC encyclopedia) comprised the basic software package of most PCs, so it was absolutely jaw-dropping to see the polygonal graphics and be able to lift a ship off the surface of a planet and fly out of the atmosphere and into the stars beyond. I was pretty young; it was mostly incomprehensible mechanically, but I had a lot of fun just jumping from star to star, familiarising myself with the basic controls and observing the general scenery.
Make no mistake: Elite Dangerous is a game for geeks. Part of the pleasure it brings to many people really is the overall sense of scale. The ability to find our own solar system for example and simply fly around and see all of its familiar landmarks is like a wet dream for space exploration nuts. Some players have even taken it upon themselves to reach and explore the outer edges of the known galaxy to see just how far they can make it. It offers a little something for everyone, but requires quite a bit of time and dedication to really grasp and understand its underlying systems. And the stakes are high; if you die in the game, you die in real life. Well not really, but you do lose your ship and your hard-earned equipment and have to make sure you have enough money to cover the insurance bill to get it all back, so it doesn’t pay to get too greedy in Elite and put yourself in a position where you can’t afford to lose your fancy-pants equipment.
If you’ve got a couple bucks to spare and are looking for a good, modern answer to the space exploration genre, give Elite Dangerous a try. It’s now available on every relevant platform, with talk of their being eventual support for PSVR in the future. Just expect to lose a lot of free time if you end up getting hooked on it.