Having been available to Kickstarter backers since May last year, and with a full release well over a month ago at the time of writing, there’s been ample time to get to grips with the immense universe of Elite: Dangerous. Yet even with all that, it can still feel like you’re only scratching the surface of what this fourth iteration of the ground-breaking space trading series has to offer. Elite: Dangerous is a game that promises daring space battles, breath-taking vistas and countless opportunities for emergent play yet asks you to sweat it out as an intergalactic bin man or a space faring Del Boy first.
Make no mistake, the first hours of Elite: Dangerous are a grind. In fact, the pre-hours before you even get started on the game itself are a grind. There are tutorials to wade through, where you’ll learn how to take-off, fly, dock, space-hop, trade, buy, sell and fight. Almost without fail these tutorials will lead you to YouTube videos, which will in turn lead to walkthrough sites and dedicated message boards. You’ll lurk around forums at first before getting lost in a world seemingly as sprawling as the game itself.
For a game all about immersion, this mode of learning seems counter-intuitive. With the first Elite game’s chunky instruction booklet, you could fantasise that it was your ships’ equivalent of a car manual, but when you’re regularly closing your game browser to check a forum on why you can’t seem to land properly, it can become wearying. Part of the problem is that Elite: Dangerous has been crowdfunded by people who have bought into the game even before its alpha release, players who have set up three-screen cockpits with HOTAS joysticks, people for whom Elite is almost a second life.
For the slightly-less invested, getting to grips with the game may prove to be a difficult hurdle and we’d wager that anyone casually checking things out will soon end up leaving their Cobra Mk.III ship gathering dust in the nearest spaceport. Which is a shame, because once you understand the basics of flight, of how to work your Hyperdrive and your Supercruise, when you’ve mastered taking-off and docking, and when trade routes and bounty jobs become second nature, Elite: Dangerous really begins to shine like few other games.
Perhaps the romanticism of space travel helps somewhat, where a mundane trip between spaceports for your in-game character is something altogether more alluring and adventurous for a player. Nailing Hyperdrive jumps and pulling out of Supercruise at the right moment to be greeted by a utilitarian, yet beautiful space station rotating in the cosmos can induce goosebumps even after dozens of such trips. The freedom to jet around as you see fit, exploiting trade routes or going on a slightly more dangerous but rewarding assassination mission, is a freedom sadly lacking from many other open-world games.
Granted, the game quickly shows its underlying systems, it is ostensibly a space-trading game after all, so travelling to stations pretty much boils down to looking at spreadsheets and bulletin boards before heading to your next destination. Such is the game to begin with, and indeed you can play it this way indefinitely, but more than likely you’ll want to upgrade your ship and your capabilities so you can take on the bigger boys. It’s a risk/reward scenario that’s balanced on a knife-edge; get embroiled in the ongoing intergalactic shenanagins too soon and you’ll find yourself floating in space, but judge it right and you’ll return home with a grin as wide as your spaceship.
These moments are all the sweeter because you’ve worked for them, with all those hours of trial and error, of studying trade routes and star charts eventually paying off, both financially in-game and with your own unfettered enjoyment. Add to that the persistent online world with countless other players saving the galaxy, rooting out pirates, intentionally getting in your face or simply schlepping out an honest crust, and the initially sterile, scientifically accurate universe is soon teeming with life.
Like life itself, finding your niche in Elite is a daunting yet exciting experience. Most players will likely carve out a path that’s fairly well prescribed, be it trader, smuggler, bounty hunter or what-not but the games’ systems certainly allow for far more fluid and unconventional roles should you feel adventurous enough. The real beauty of Elite: Dangerous is that you can be everything or nothing; the hero, the villain or just an average Joe and still have a rewarding experience. Still, most of us would rather be Luke Skywalker than Uncle Owen, and then again Han Solo rather than Luke, so expect domination skirmishes with your fellow space brethren along the way.
The initial hours are a slog then, but for a game that requires months, maybe even years of play to get the most out of, that graft will be pretty small potatoes in the long run. Had Elite: Dangerous been published along traditional routes, such a steep learning curve would have probably been avoided by an industry that all-too-often likes to play things safe. Thankfully the pioneering and unconventional spirit that guided the original game some 30 years ago remains intact. The technology that underpins the experience may have improved immeasurably since then, but like that 1984 original, Elite: Dangerous is a game that fires the imagination far beyond its weighty technological heft.