Elite: Dangerous – A Gaming Review

Author’s Note: Hey there, first post in a few months – I was busy with my final-year college project and didn’t have the time to write up anything else. Now that I’m free again, I’m planning initially to move back to a monthly update schedule at first and investigate the possibility of a fortnightly schedule in the future.

Until recently, the space combat simulator genre of video games seemed to be moribund. Following the genre’s golden age of the 1990s, where such games as the Frontier series, the Wing Commander and Privateer titles, the Descent: FreeSpace series and the variety of Star Wars space sim titles enjoyed commercial success, the genre had descended into a niche where a few games kept the genre on life support, most notably CCP Games’ space MMO, EVE Online and Egosoft’s X series. Over the last few years, though, it appears that there has been a renaissance of the genre, with several very high-profile games currently in development. This includes the return of two of the masters of the genre during its golden age: David Braben of Elite and Frontier fame and Chris Roberts, known for Wing Commander, Privateer and Freelancer. Braben’s company, Frontier Developments, has returned to the space sim market after almost twenty years with Elite: Dangerous, while Chris Roberts has established Cloud Imperium Games with the purpose of making Star Citizen.

Star Citizen, known for its phenomenally successful crowdfunding campaign, is still in alpha, with a full release scheduled for this year. On the other hand, David Braben’s Elite: Dangerous was released commercially in December 2014 and has recently received its first expansion pack, Horizons. (As I own, but have not yet played Horizons, this review will focus on the base game.)

Elite: Dangerous follows from the previous game in the Elite series, Frontier: First Encounters, set in the year 3300, in a Milky Way where three major factions, the Galactic Federation, the Empire of Achenar and the Alliance of Independent Systems, vie for control of the galaxy. In the midst of this, the player takes the role of a spaceship commander, who was recently, out of the blue, provided with a Sidewinder spaceship and 1,000 Galactic Credits with which to make one’s fortune by whatever means they desire.

The gameplay of Elite: Dangerous, as with its predecessors, revolves around three main aspects: Trading, combat and exploration. With trading and combat, it is possible to make money through both legal and illegal methods, with smuggling and piracy providing opportunities for those so inclined. One of the objectives of the game is to appropriately use your spaceship to make as much money as necessary to buy new spaceships or upgrade existing ones as to best deal with the challenges of the game and achieve success at trading, combat or exploration. The measure of one’s success is calculated by a number of ratings. The combat rating system, where a player starts off as Harmless and attempts to reach the exalted rank of Elite by defeating other spaceships in battle, returns from the previous games, while similar ranks for trading and exploration have been included in Elite: Dangerous.

Notably, the game focuses more heavily on exploration than its predecessors. In Frontier: Elite II and Frontier: First Encounters, the extent to which you could explore was limited by the possibility of critical components failing on one’s spacecraft, while the lack of incentive to exploration other than personal satisfaction meant that it was not explored as much as possible. In Elite: Dangerous, there has been a concerted effort, which appears as if it will continue into the future, to expand and give more purpose to exploration by providing financial incentives and a rank system based on the earnings from exploration, with a colossal game universe that expands on that presented by its predecessors.

Elite: Dangerous continues to use the same sort of first-person, cockpit-oriented perspective as with its predecessors, but updates it for the modern era. The game includes a wonderfully responsive diegetic interface, where holographic screens pop up around the cockpit as the player turns their head and a variety of options can quickly and relatively unintrusively be selected during the middle of travel and combat. Unlike the Frontier games, but like its earliest predecessor, Elite, the game steps away from Newtonian physics and uses a model more like a flight simulator, with a maximum velocity that can be achieved in normal flight and combat, but a Frame Shift Drive which allows for considerably higher velocities when travelling between different astronomical objects in the same system or between different star systems.

The game does, however, retain the model of thrust vectoring that existed in the Frontier games, allowing you to fire thrusters to the left or right for horizontal movement along with thrusters on the top or bottom for vertical movement. This provides a bit of unpredictability in combat, with an experienced pilot able to take advantage of these features to attack from unexpected angles, while also being necessary in order to successfully dock at the game’s space stations.

Combat in Elite: Dangerous is also unlike its immediate predecessors in that the spaceships are a lot more resilient to damage than in the Frontier games, resulting in generally more tactical battles which take longer to resolve. Combined with the flight sim-esque flight model (although this can be deactivated to some extent by choice), combat feels more like a traditional dogfight rather than the jousts that often occurred in Frontier: Elite II or Frontier: First Encounters, along with being more friendly towards newer players as they aren’t sitting ducks until they significantly upgrade their spaceship. As well as this, losing a combat is not punished as harshly as in the previous games, as there is an insurance policy implemented that allows one to buy back a spacecraft of the same specifications as the one they had for a fee of a few percent of the total cost of the spacecraft, or to buy a basic Sidewinder with the same specifications as they started the game with.

Elite: Dangerous takes the first steps in the series towards multiplayer, with an MMO structure and a persistent universe populated by a mixture of AI NPCs and human player characters. It is possible to play the game in a single-player mode or a private multiplayer group, but as various elements of the game will still be dictated by the actions of other players, the game requires an internet connection along with a persistent connection to the game’s servers. That said, because of the size of the game universe, along with the low player count compared to most MMORPGs, it is usually not that detrimental to jump into the multiplayer aspect of the game.

There’s also a mode of the game for those who prefer to get up close and personal in combat rather than exploring the universe. The CQC Championship mode is structured more like a traditional first-person shooter in terms of multiplayer, with a maximum of eight players engaging in Team Deathmatch, Deathmatch or Capture the Flag with a variety of spaceships and equipment that gets unlocked as you gain experience and ranks. The ranking system in this game mode is separate to the combat ranking in the main game, which means those who prefer not to engage in that sort of game mode are not unnecessarily disadvantaged.

As with its predecessors, Elite: Dangerous has a lot to do, between the multitude of activities and the massive universe. Most of those activities are also quite well-polished, with things working quite well together. However, a common criticism of Elite: Dangerous is that these activities are not especially deep and that the game is “wide as an ocean, but shallow as a puddle”. Indeed, in some respects, the game has less depth than the Frontier games, with planetary landing only available (and quite limited at present) in the Horizons expansion pack and a lack of gritty military missions like the photography missions of the Frontier games. There are plans to expand the game much further with expansion packs over the next few years – and perhaps up to ten years – but at an additional cost compared to the base game and with no guarantee that interest in the game will last that long. If Frontier Developments manage to achieve their expansive goals – bearing in mind that Frontier: Elite II took five and a half years to complete in the 1990s and the goals of the developers seem to be set out well – it will lead to an incredible game. At present, though, the game has a lot more potential for development than features currently implemented.

Speaking about polish, something that Elite: Dangerous does get very right is its aesthetic elements. I’ve already mentioned the diegetic cockpit interface, with its context-sensitive menu screens. This is beautifully laid out, but also functional and easy to navigate. The graphical polish here extends to the rest of the game, with beautifully glowing stars, elaborate space stations that look fit for purpose and a range of spacecraft designs which pay tribute to the previous Elite games by being somewhat blocky, but each achieving their own distinctive aesthetic based on their purpose. The game also manages to achieve fairly good performance despite the outstanding graphics; on my AMD R9 290, I manage to achieve 100 or more frames per second during nearly all aspects of the game at 1080p and maximum settings, although there is an issue on AMD cards which can drop performance drastically during supercruise between different planets in the same system.

Another place in which the game excels is its sound design, enough so that I think it’s one of the few places where sound in space is justified despite its lack of realism. The Frontier developers claim that the sound heard by the player is based on what is being picked up by sensors and scanners around the ship and include various pulsing sounds from the ship’s engines, whooshing sounds as the ship prepares for supercruise or hyperdrive, or when scooping fuel from a star and even muffled radio chatter when close to a space station. The sounds that are in the game are exquisite and are backed by a great, yet subtle soundtrack that plays in the background based on various events, including supercruise travel and combat events.

As it is, then, Elite: Dangerous is a solid and beautifully presented title that achieves the goals of being a space simulator in the vein of its predecessors. However, the game has a huge amount of untapped potential, especially with a universe as large as it has. It remains to be seen whether the game can live up to that potential with future development – and whether, with Star Citizen and No Man’s Sky, for instance, in development, interest can last for long enough for Elite: Dangerous to be given a chance to live up to what it can achieve.

Bottom Line: Elite: Dangerous is a solid and enormously broad space simulator which brings the Elite formula into the 21st century, but lacks depth and has a huge amount of untapped potential with expansion packs necessary to fill the gaps.

Recommendation: Despite previously giving my unreserved recommendation for Frontier: Elite II, a game that is more than 20 years older, I would recommend waiting for a sale if you’re interested in Elite: Dangerous, as you will require a $60/€54/£40 expansion to get the full potential of the game at present.