2017: A Space Odyssey
The other day my son came downstairs long after bedtime. He didn’t want a drink of water or another story; he heard me jumping into hyperspace and wanted to watch. At three he is already a space nut who can name every planet in our solar system including most of the moons. He is completely fixated on learning about our solar system, and when he watches TV, it’s usually documentaries on YouTube.
Elite Dangerous is a game for him and anyone else who grew up looking up the stars, watching Star Trek or some variation thereof with their parents, who dreamed of being an astronaut and who wanted a telescope instead of a baseball bat for their birthday. I fall squarely within that category; I grew up on games like Star Control 2, the Wing Commander series, and Sid Meier’s Alpha Centauri. I watched Star Trek: The Next Generation with my dad, and dreamed of what could be out there in the endless cosmos waiting to be discovered.
Elite Dangerous fulfills the fantasy of taking flight in a galaxy of seemingly endless discovery, with all the thrilling fun that comes along with staring at star maps, keeping an eye on fuel levels, and comparing the price of commodities from system to system. If any of that sounds dull to you, here’s the good news; you probably already have your answer concerning whether or not you should play Elite Dangerous. And if you have been waiting for the PlayStation 4 release but were concerned about how it would translate from the PC, this port will not disappoint you.
Elite Dangerous: Commander Deluxe Edition (PC, Xbox One, PS4 [reviewed])
Developer: Frontier Developments PLC
Publisher: Frontier Developments PLC
Released: June 27, 2017
Elite Dangerous knows its audience and doesn’t make much of an effort to cushion the blow of what it represents; a living fictional galactic economy and ecosystem where you play the role of an individual looking to “make it” in the universe. After going through a couple of dull but functional (and entirely critical) tutorials, you will start the game in a station with zero direction on what you should be doing next. From here on, you will quickly learn that a big part of playing Elite Dangerous is actively reading wiki pages, forums, and documentation.
And if any of that scares you off, I’m sorry to say that this is a basic requirement in enjoying Elite. Nothing is laid out on a silver platter and you are expected to comply and get into this flow of what can only be called study very early on in order to tackle the galaxy sized learning curve that awaits you. Elite is a game that thoroughly rewards your knowledge and understanding of its many systems and without paying close attention to the dichotomy at play here, you will not be doing much more than flying through space aimlessly.
The first order of business will be learning to control your ship. The Sidewinder is a functional slow moving beast that is fantastic to learn with. Until I started getting accustomed to other ships I didn’t appreciate the balance and suitability of this ship for new players. Once you find yourself in a Cobra or something better, you will grit your teeth in frustration should the time come when you are not watching your funds and your insurance is not enough to put you back in something better, forcing you to effectively start the game over in the Sidewinder.
While faction relationships and ranks are maintained, there is no leveling system here; effectively you are your ship and its equipment, and if that gets blown away, so does the bulk of your time and progress. It’s a rough start with the Sidewinder early on, but with a bit of time and modification you can build it into something decent and start making some decent credits doing cargo delivery or even tagging along with Federal ships in low security resource areas and picking off stray pirates with your meager loadout.
Apart from the basics of landing and taking off and learning the myriad controls of the ship which on its own will take hours, you will also need to learn about the Mission Board, Commodities, Factions, and Ship Outfitting among other things. This will take some time. Even basic navigation feels like a herculean task to undertake at the start, but my biggest advice is to jump right in and start doing. Curious what the value of Tobacco is a few systems over? Buy a couple of units and go out there, check your star map for delivery routes, see if you net a profit.
Early on it pays to stick within a cluster of star systems to be able to get your bearings and understand how your actions affect reputation, and grasp the general fundamentals of trade. Combat is another thing better suited for after you get a decent ship, but bringing your Sidewinder into a low intensity conflict zone or two will get you accustomed to the basics without much at stake to lose, assuming you don’t piss off any local officials and find yourself being hunted every time you enter that system until the bounty on your head wears off.
After you have spent a few hours getting to grips with the flow of game play you can get a little more ambitious and start taking on more dangerous missions. If you have a friend to play online with, this can be a lot of fun. On PC me and my pals would regularly get together for a time hunting down bounties, the better of us carrying the bottom feeders until they (well, I) could afford to get better equipment. On the PS4 the drop-in online modes are intact, though I found my time in open-play to be somewhat problematic on a technical level with delays in jumping, the occasional menu locking up, and other minor issues that were not present during my time in solo mode. Considering I am playing right at launch, It isn’t much of a surprise, and I’m sure any bugs or kinks will be worked out on Frontier’s end before long.
As a PC player, online was seamless, and true to the title of the game, bloody fucking dangerous. There is nothing more terrifying than getting a private message saying “You can either drop your cargo, or I can blow you away and take it” from a dude cruising around in an Anaconda who could wipe you out in a second. And even if you do decide to be gracious in granting his request, he might just decide do it anyways.
But oh, the sweet feeling of revenge should you be able to build yourself up and do it back to him later. Elite Dangerous feels like a persistent universe, and a part of this immersion is the mysterious way in which updates are doled out. The dreaded Thargoid, an insectoid alien race, were nowhere to be seen early on despite being a staple of the series. As updates were rolled out, people started finding “barnacles” on the surface of the odd planet, ancient Thargoid structures, and now as of the 2.4 Horizons update, Thargoid appear to have completely returned to the universe of Elite and are going to be a dangerous force to be reckoned with.
You can play the game blindly, enjoying the different loops of trading, combat, and exploration it has to offer, but it works best as an ongoing experience. I strongly consider at least reading the news updates in game and out, and checking out the forums and Reddit if you are going to participate; community is big here, and even if you play solo entirely and never meet another commander face to face, it will still feel like a more lively experience if you are on the up and up of what’s going on in the galaxy. This is your second life in space as much as it is a video game, and the level of engagement it offers can be addicting.
Speaking of game play loops, missions are the core of what Elite is really about. In order to make any reasonably good money early on apart from loading up on some commodity that has a high yield in another system, you really will need to take on missions from the various factions and make sure your ship is equipped to continuously handle those with higher risk and requirements. While there are better ways to make a quick buck, these are typically safer options when getting started. While you may be attacked by pirates while doing a data delivery or cargo delivery mission, it usually isn’t too tough to escape to safety as long as you have a basic concept of how to properly pilot your ship. And by sticking around in a factions territory and completing multiple missions for them, better ones that pay out more will gradually become available.
And you can move between loops as well. There is no class locking you into a particular style. The majority of ships have quite a bit of wiggle room to allow for extensive customization and you can store unused modules for later if you want to make room for new ones, or trade them back for a bit of a discount if you want to jump right from being a trucker to a combat specialist. So any time you are getting board with hauling explosives ten systems away, you can switch it up and do something else which is good because to be frank, if I have a complaint with Elite, it’s in the sameness of the mission structure.
Apart from the odd random encounter and mission critical message which will pop in to change things or offer you a secondary objective, there is really not much difference between one boom data delivery or assassination mission and the next. If you are looking for a consistent narrative or a cinematic experience of any kind in Elite, you aren’t going to find it in the traditional sense. You may find yourself talking about the time you crashed into a Federal ship by mistake and had to book it out of a system, or the time you narrowly escaped plasma death from a roving pirate, but these are your stories. You are going to create them as you play, and if you find the idea of the game play loops available here boring, that may be a very short amount of time indeed.
In addition to the main mode of play there is also a CQC Arena option which throws you into a multiplayer arena in a halfway decent ship in Deathmatch, Team Deathmatch, and Capture the Flag. Like most multiplayer modes these days you will gain experience and grow in rank the more you play and will unlock new ships, loadouts, and modules to mess about with. It took me by surprise how fun this was; I never tried Arena over on the PC but gave it a shot during my time with Elite on PS4 and had a blast. It took awhile to find a match since the main bread and butter of Elite Dangerous is certainly not Arena, but it was a seamless, lag free experience.
The thrill of racing through a space packed with obstacles and dog fighting has an intensity here that is seen far more seldom in the main gameplay. It’s definitely a side show but due to the mechanics of Elite Dangerous’ combat and flying mechanics being so tight, it’s a lovely little distraction overall.
Technically the PS4 release of Elite Dangerous does an adequate job of preserving the quality of the PC version. On launch it suffered screen tearing issues which have since been patched. Otherwise the port is fairly consistent and looks great, all things considered. Having played with HOTAS joystick on PC, I was especially nervous how the controls were going to translate over. I had heard mixed things about both the PC and Xbox One versions regarding their controller setup, but I am pleased to say I found it to be quite comfortable and enjoyed myself just as much using a joystick.
The face buttons all bring up a larger menu, the motion control of the PS4 controller is used to good effect allowing you to free look when a toggle is pressed, and yaw and left and right thrusters can be toggled with a simple press of R3. Anything not tied to a button can be accessed from the comms menu, but I didn’t feel any pressing need to remap anything. f you don’t have a PC, or if you just want to explore the galaxy from the comfort of a couch, you are not fundamentally missing out on much by opting for the console port over the PC version.
A lot of my time in Elite Dangerous is spent just cruising around the galaxy. I love seeing new planets, stars, and just generally enjoying the ride. And that’s the beauty of it for me. I can take a break from the credit grind anytime and focus explicitly on exploration and still have some incentive from a progression standpoint to do so. The game rewards you for playing it however you choose to, and has an interesting enough algorithm for procedural generation with such a focus on realism that it all just clicks without much suspension of disbelief required to get lost in the immersion of it all.
The future of Elite Dangerous is exciting. This is a complete game; you can buy it right now and have a full experience without feeling like anything is missing. This was not entirely true until the Horizons expansion, which added several game play elements including planetary landing which is absolutely critical to completing the Elite experience. I can’t stress enough the importance of opting in for the expansions as they become available, but the meat is there, even if what they are promising seems hopelessly lofty (Walking around on populated planets with inhabited cities and hunting wild game? I’ll believe it when I see it – and I’m not sure it’s really necessary.) The model of smaller updates combined with major expansions to add continual layers to Elite works despite criticisms of a fairly demanding pricing model.
Elite Dangerous is an investment if you buy into it and enjoy what it offers, which is an experience that is really like no other. Star Citizen has made big promises, but until there is an official release of some sort on the direct horizon, Elite Dangerous is the current reigning champion of the space trucker simulation for better or worse, even if it will only ever attract a small yet fierce following of enthusiastic commanders.
I am one of them, certainly. But I’d never recommend Elite; not directly. If you have looked at it and said “it seems boring”, “it’s a spreadsheet simulator” or “I just don’t get what is appealing about it”, you will probably never be won over by the game in its current state. But if you read up on the planets for fun, enjoy movies like 2001: A Space Odyssey, Interstellar, Star Trek: The Motion Picture, or Moon, or find the idea of hauling cargo from system to system and maybe getting in the odd fight along the way appealing, there is very little else out there like Elite Dangerous. I’m highly recommending it despite the tedium in its game play and the long periods of time you will spend just looking at stars/reading stuff on a screen. It is a beautiful, one of a kind experience that I cherish, one of my favourite games in the last few years, and the PlayStation 4 release is no exception.
I might even prefer it over PC because I can slump on my couch with a beer and chips and no pants on – the typical uniform of any good space trucker.
[This review is based on a retail version of the game provided by the publisher]