In recent years we have seen an uptick in space-based games, from 4X titles like Endless Space and Civilizations: Beyond Earth, to space simulators like Star Citizen and Elite: Dangerous, to titles like Kerbal Space Program and Space Engineers. Starting in the early 80’s and flourishing through the 90’s, video games based on/in/around space were numerous, providing players with all manner of entertainment and excitement. From the original Elite to games like Wing Commander, X-Wing vs. Tie Fighter, and Descent Freespace, up until the early 00’s, any fan of high technology could find something that would sate their thirst and then it all sort of disappeared.
Sure, there were some gems here and there, namely in 4X titles or other RTS hybrids like Sins of a Solar Empire, Endless Space and Homeworld, but beyond that, there was not much out there beyond the X franchise (one of my favorite franchises of all time). All of that changed over the last few years, likely because those of us that grew up playing these space-based epics were finally a part of the workforce that developed the games that got us interested in video games in the first place. Regardless, being the fan of space-based anything that I am, I am a happy camper. When I saw Elite: Dangerous for the first time, as it was trying to latch onto the success that Elite’s rival Star Citizen had with crowd funding, I was instantly hooked. Elite: Dangerous by Frontier Developments, is the first major space simulator to be released in what feels like decades; allowing you to be a bounty hunter, a trader, a humble miner or a simple taxi shuttle, Elite: Dangerous is a massive universe with untold adventures, but was it worth the wait?
Yes. Elite: Dangerous is absolutely massive with tons to do in it and is, in my opinion, one of the only true ‘sandbox’ games available to date. Before I get into what makes Elite so special, I would like to stop and thank Frontier Developments for putting their heart and soul into this masterpiece. It shows, and where it shows is in every single detail of your heads up display (HUD), the fine lines in your pilots high-tech space suit, the wear and tear on the interior of lovingly crafter spacecrafts, in the compact cargo trucks that bustle throwout the massive spacestations and orbital platforms, and in all of the little things that I cannot list here, as it would be far too long. Suffice to say, Elite: Dangerous is gorgeous in every aspect.
Stars, whether they are a white dwarf, which burns intensely or they are a brown dwarf, which looks sickly and pale, are so numerous it will be years before even a small percentage is discovered (after all, there are 400,000,000,000 stars in-game, yes, that is 400 BILLION) and so detailed at times you will wonder if you are simply looking at one of the massively high-resolution pictures that NASA sends out every month in their newsletter. Ship details are astounding, from the bolts in the armored hulls to the wear-and-tear on the cockpit, no detail was left unturned and it pays off, in a big way. While there is not much to ‘space’ there is a massive focus on making it both interesting and exciting, to the point that I will absolutely defend my stance that so far, Elite: Dangerous is one of the best looking games I have played. Ever.
To go with brilliant graphics and gorgeous spacecraft models, Frontier Developments spared no expense in the development of the audio. The music is something that could be interchanged with one of the best sci-fi movies of all time, 2001: A Space Odyssey. Little quirks, like having J. Strauss’ “An Der Schonen Blauen Donau” play in the background as you go to dock with a space station is an absolute riot while being perfect for the task. Maybe it is just my sense of humor but every time I go to dock my Eagle, Cobra Mk III, or Python, I positively giggle once this tune starts up. Adding to the stellar soundtrack of classical overtures are some of the most amazing sound effects I have heard in a game. Every little nuance is captured and fed back to the pilot, from the creaking and cracking of the hull as kinetic weapons tear into your ship after your shield have been worn down to the popping of rivets while you are in supercruise or hyperspace.
Hearing a thermal weapon scorch into your armor or as the pulse lasers pulverize your shields is both terrifying and, oddly enough, exhilarating. In more peaceful situations, such as being loaded into a hanger bay, you will hear external announcers speaking referring to little things here or there or reminding pilots to maintain order and to remember to fly slow and steady through the air locks. Every graphical aspect of Elite: Dangerous comes alive with equally impressive audio, even the UI and shipboard computer has meticulously detailed sounds. A small part of me kind of wishes that there would be a wee bit more realism in some things, such as explosions in space (which are gorgeous, by the way), since, you know, you would not be able to hear it, though, in fairness, playing Elite: Dangerous on mute, which is essentially the same thing as real life, sucks. The audio adds incredible depth to an already deep game and without some of the explosions or sounds, well, it would be terrible.
Where Elite: Dangerous really shines is in the fact that it allows you to just “be.” There are small stories and lore to follow up and read through if you are looking for more meaning than loading your Lakon with mining lasers and refineries, and they are excellent. There are essentially three primary factions; the Federation, the Empire, and the Alliance, (each with their own sub-factions) and you can pick and choose which missions you take in order to build rep with one faction or the other. The only real problem I found was that space is big. Really, really big, and in being so huge it is easy to get stuck in a pile of systems that are governed by one faction or the other. Given that I started at the Founders World, I only had to make a dozen jumps or so before landing firmly in Empire-controlled space though, so it was not too bad.
The sheer openness, and size, of Elite: Dangerous can be daunting at first but once you get the hang of it, and you will, the possibilities are endless and it is easy to simply get lost in the combat, the trade runs, or in the resource gathering. I personally am a bounty hunter raising reputation for the Empire as I desperately want an Imperial Clipper; a large, almost executive-class luxury spacecraft designed to fly fast, far, and in style. Working my way up the ranks is both fun and challenging and I found that the AI opponents are often as good, if not better than real players (whom I have smote a number of times in my Eagle as they underestimate a good pilot in a nimble machine) which will certainly landing you in some frustrating and hilarious dogfights. Outside of working for the different factions you can work your way through and make millions upon millions of credits as a pirate, a smuggler, a trader, or a miner, on top of being a bounty hunter. There is literally a ton to do.
I am fortunate in two ways, one, I have been able to try out nearly every ship and combination of weapons available, and two, I have the Thrustmaster HOTAS Warthog. When it comes to being a simulator, Elite: Dangerous perfectly blends the ultra-realistic aspects of any flight simulator out there. You will need to manage things like hardpoints (aka weapons), the landing gear, cargo scoops, scanning, and all manner of important details for any craft, space, air, or water-born. You will also need to manage things like your power output, regularly alternating between your Systems, which control the shields, the Engines, which control the amount of energy that go to your engines; the more energy, the faster you will be. Finally, there are your weapons. The weapons for me, are the most important aspects, as I use a mix between thermal weapons, or rather, lasers, and cannons/multi-cannons, i.e. kinetic weapons (they shoot bullets …). It is a fairly standard setup for most bounty hunters, the thermal weapons to quickly wear down shields then the kinetic weapons to do massive damage to the hulls.
Now, on the flip side you can add varying types of armor to your craft; I personally have a higher-output shield (sacrificing thrusters) and have put on armor that is designed to protect against kinetic weaponry. With this type of setup on my Eagle (a starting ship that has high maneuverability but low power/low armor. I sacrifice quite a bit, actually, when it comes to the durability of my aircraft but invested a pretty penny in an excellent power plant, power distributor, and top of the line weaponry to make something of a screaming death machine. It is common the have battles turn into circle fights, with the more nimble ships with tighter turn radii coming out on top, since they can maintain a bead on the enemy better than the less agile craft out there. I personally love my Eagle and it is the mainstay of my arsenal. Some situations, though, call for significantly more firepower, and really, my Eagle can take on two maybe three skilled opponents at one time before I start to sweat a little.
There are plenty of systems, like the Sorbago system, where infighting is intense and some large battles can appear with opposing factions squaring off with not only each other, but with pirates/criminals at the same time. The first time I took my Eagle into a hotbed of madness I regretted it quickly and ended up dying. Dying, by the way, is not as forgiving in Elite: Dangerous as it is in other titles where you will simply respawn in a station or at a checkpoint. Instead, if you die in your ship you are given two options; start over with a base model of your ship, meaning you lose all upgrades to the ship, or if you have the funds, you can purchase the insurance for your ship, which will then replace the busted ship for a percentage of the overall cost (my Eagle now is upwards of 100,000 credits to have replaced … three times the cost of the base ship, since I have some ultra-expensive gear on the ship).
When I supercruised into the Sorbago sector on a mission there was a massive battle and I was almost immediately pounced upon and exploded. When I respawned I switched over to my fully kitted-out Python (which will cost upwards of 150 million credits …) and flew back in sector. Honestly it was almost laughable, no turning, I just flew in a straight line at a slow speed and my turrets and point defense system did the rest. Now the Python is essentially a small destroyer-class ship that is bristling with weapons; it can take a punishment and is downright lethal to even the biggest, most powerful ship, the Anaconda (which starting cost is 146 million credits). Given how many hardpoints there are on the python I loaded up all but the two forward most hardpoints with Turreted weapons (more on that in a moment) and just let them go to work as I concentrated on managing my power distribution.
I mentioned turreted weapons a moment ago and want to kind of clarify what I mean by that. There are a series of weapon sub-types in Elite: Dangerous. I previously mentioned that there are thermal and kinetic weapons, but when you drill down each of the weapon types have different “connections” if you will. There are Fixed weapons that shoot were you point, similar to how a rifle works in a first person shooter. There are Gimbaled weapons, which do minimal tracking, then there are Turreted weapons which are completely independent and require no user input. The Gimbaled weapons still require you to “pull the trigger” so to speak to activate the firing, just as the fixed weapons do.
Turreted weapons though, will just blast away as long as they have energy (or ammunition). You can even go farther down, to things like dumbfire missiles and heat-seeking missiles (which can be foiled by electronic countermeasures, chaff, and the like), though they can be extremely expensive and I have yet to find a reason to justify the 15,000 credit per torpedo for the torpedo launcher (to be fair, the torpedo can one-hit an unshielded Cobra Mk III). There are tens of hundreds of ways to go through and outfit your ship to fit your playstyle and the only downside is that if you are anything like me, you will pour hours into the game just viewing the comparison between this particular gimbaled and that particular fixed weapon. That is okay though, since it is absolutely worth it. I would recommend that those of you out there that are looking to get into Elite: Dangerous that you do not assign Gimbaled and Fixed weapons to the same fire groups, you will just be wasting ammo (i.e. money).
If you are smart, though, you will be playing Elite with a flight stick (I am really lucky, as I have the HOTAS Warthog, which is awesome) which will give you quick access to all of the right controls, though you can play with a Gamepad if you so wish (just note that you will be going between the gamepad and the keyboard often, since the gamepad simply does not have enough buttons). I find that even after playing Elite for the last few months I was still going through and changing a particular keybinding. That was, however, until I discovered an application called VoiceAttack, which is voice recognition software that works with games. Though I use it primarily for Elite, you can bind all sorts of things, like saying “Reload” will press your Reload key in a first person shooter. Now, it may sound silly, talking to the computer, but with as many options as there are in Elite, it is nearly a necessity. I will have a review of it in the coming days, so look out for it, but know this, it will make your time floating through space absolutely 100% easier.
I could go on for days about how excellent Elite: Dangerous is; the sheer number of options for open-universe gameplay is astounding and absolutely crazy. Beginners will be able to pick it up and get along fine, but know this, Elite: Dangerous does not follow the same paths as most of your games do these days. Rather than giving you a linear path, or the choice of numerous linear paths, you can pretty much do anything you want. That level of freedom is daunting and can be intimidating to newcomers to the game/franchise/genre but once you get a hang of it, you will absolutely love it. With Frontier Developments going through and planning massive updates as things progress, there is no end of joy in Elite: Dangerous. In my preview I stated that Elite: Dangerous, at that time, was nearly perfect; the same holds true today. With a little more work, after all, I would love to see more weapons, weapon types, ships (though, some 25 or 30 player ships are planned, only 15 are currently available), and station types out there, Elite: Dangerous will be absolutely perfect, as it stands it is a wonderful title that I have literally waited two decades for…
Review by Robert