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30 March 2015

Elite: Dangerous shows there’s a lot of fun to be had in being an interstellar delivery driver

It took 30 years, but the gorgeous Elite: Dangerous lives up to the game that so many players imagined the original space-trading classic to be, beyond its basic graphics.

By Phil Hartup

It is faintly embarrassing how long it took me to figure out that the guns on the starter ship didn’t work. They looked like they worked and they made the right noises – they were even able to get me fined for test firing them close to a space station – but past this, nothing. I searched around and sure enough it was a bug, with no known fix at the time. This was not the start to my Elite: Dangerous playing career that I had been hoping for.

Between this and earlier issues with the game’s multiplayer (until the March update you could play with friends, but not conveniently or very cooperatively) I began to suspect that this new modern version of Elite just might not be for me. My experiences with the beta had been positive but not gripping. I feared that now, in its released form, it would become one of those games I appreciate from outside but never properly enjoy as a player. I had felt the same as a child with the first Elite, playing the original version of the game on a venerable BBC computer back in the mid ‘80s.

Back then I had looked at the game with awe. The lines and geometric shapes that made up the ships, planets, stars and stations didn’t look like much but worked like words in a book for me, describing and symbolising their meaning to stir my imagination. In my mind’s eye I saw past the primitive geometric shapes into a universe of boundless possibilities and adventure. So it was with much of gaming back then, a kind of reverse Matrix effect. Instead of looking at the game world and seeing the patterns that govern it, you had to look at the patterns to see the world.

Elite was too hard for me to play, of course. I could barely manage to dock the starting ship – which in a game about trading between space stations was always going to be a deal breaker – and my adventures were more Flappy Bird than Millenium Falcon. I admired it, nonetheless, while watching my older brother play it. Travelling from planet to planet, selling goods for profit and occasionally blowing up a pirate ship seemed a world away from things like Repton. It grabbed my imagination, but pushed me away with a difficulty curve my underdeveloped skills could not hope to overcome. As such, my affection for the game would go largely unrequited for 30 years as I missed out on the sequels during my years of console-hopping. I wouldn’t return to the series until the present.

The present, where I found myself with a tiny Sidewinder class spaceship, docked at some backwater colony, with guns that wouldn’t fire and almost no money. I had managed to find myself a couple of steps below the start position. A look down at the status display which tells you your rank in the fields of combat, trading and exploration cheerfully advised me that I was judged to be Harmless, Penniless and Aimless. Felt about right. I decided to see what I could do about this and see if I gave the game a few hours, if it would welcome me in or shoo me away.

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With combat ruled out as an earner I looked at what actually could be done with a tiny, defenceless, short ranged bucket of a ship.

The first step was working as a courier. Transporting very small amounts of cargo or packages of data to order between bases in the small cluster of star systems where I found myself. At first this sort of mission felt like menial work, or simply padding, but it didn’t take long to appreciate it for what it was – a gentle introduction to flying ships, jumping between systems and getting to grips with the Frame Shift Drive (FSD), which is the key to interplanetary travel in the game. Past the nuts and bolts (and scraped paint) of learning to fly I also began to learn about the different factions in the system, about how to gain favour with them, what benefits this might yield.

Over these first few hours with the game my confidence with the ship grew, my irrational childhood fear of docking was overcome, and, before I knew it, I was throwing the little Sidewinder around, darting in and out of docking facilities as naturally as a bird at its nest.

With the money from these early jobs came the first upgrades – thicker shields, stronger engines and, of course, better weapons. This opened up the field of combat, or at least the field of shooting back in combat. I’d already learned a fair bit about running away, but now I could start to earn some credits.

The universe of Elite handles law enforcement in a very simple manner. If you target a ship and point at it for long enough you will first be told who is flying it, then you will be told their combat ranking, and lastly, after a few seconds, you’ll be told if they have a bounty on their head in the local system. If they have a bounty then just kill them and it’s yours to collect, as long as they don’t object too strongly and kill you first. This system expands and presents more options as you go along, but in those early stages I limited myself to collecting local bounties. There is little consideration of how the victims might have come to have had such bounties placed on their heads, but life is treated extremely cheaply in the game – it doesn’t feel like blowing up a spaceship actually really matters to anybody. This is perhaps a knock-on effect of the game’s now-online nature; death feels more common, more part of the rough and tumble of the universe, and less real. It is less of a fail state, more of an inconvenience.

So far, so good, and this was still relatively early into my time with the game. My few successful efforts to claim bounties paid for a small cargo ship of a type somewhat unimaginatively called a Hauler. This carried me through the establishment of my first trade routes, like an interstellar transit van. These began with inauspiciously transporting biowaste to agricultural colonies, though after a few runs the value of cargo would increase, greater profits followed, leading to more ship upgrades, more range and more capacity. The game took on a soothing quality, still requiring thought and attention, but became rewarding for simply doing a task well, as opposed to vanquishing an adversary or solving a puzzle.

This kind of play is something that is not so uncommon these days, and the nearest activity I can think of to it is fishing. You have to be aware and ready to react if necessary, and you will have to do things from time to time that require you to concentrate, but most of the time is spent in a relaxed, contemplative state. Except, of course, instead of sitting by the water listening to ducks and occasionally scaring the bejesus out of a harmless little fishy, you’re sat in front of a screen, pondering how long it’ll be before you’re happy to shell out for a VR headset.

I was flying the Hauler when I had my first realisation that Elite: Dangerous might be something special. I was pulling in to land at a space station, and I couldn’t find my designated landing pad. When you ask for docking permission, you get assigned a pad to land on in the cavernous interior of the station and it could be anywhere around you, zero gravity being what it is. As I looked around I suddenly understood – this is a spectacularly beautiful game.

This sounds like a superficial appraisal and something of a statement of the obvious, but visuals matter – not merely in the sense of who can boast the most polygons, or the highest-resolution textures, but rather it is the ability to create the world of the game and give it a sense of reality. Elite: Dangerous delivers this sense of a coherent visual world more than almost any other game I have played, and certainly on a far greater scale.

I hadn’t really seen it at first because for everything Elite: Dangerous has in terms of graphical clout it plays things very low key in its design. There are plenty of pictures and videos of Elite: Dangerous looking pretty on the Internet, but when you play it those moments are rare. The universe of the game is displayed in a naturalistic style and there is little embellishment of the wonders of the cosmos, it doesn’t bombard you with lens flare or cinematic flourishes. The spacecraft are mostly brutish and functional and your point of view is by default limited to the first person view in a usually austere cockpit. As such you can play Elite: Dangerous for quite some time before you see something that really causes your jaw to drop. You can get used to the way everything looks and start taking it for granted but then suddenly everything lines up just right and pow.

For me, it was seeing this bustling cylindrical space dock – the little trucks whizzing around on the roads between pads, the different ships lifting off and settling down, the landing lights and holographic projections indicating who should park where – while I was peering through of the windows of the Hauler cockpit, surrounded by it all. It was everything I’d imagined such a place to look like when I was a child, and more. I would have been more moved but I still couldn’t find my damn parking spot. I swear they change them around.

The hustle and bustle of the ports speaks to the nature of the Elite: Dangerous universe. You are a ship captain, but that’s all you are in the big wide universe, and there are many like you. Of course you get to be the hero in your own personal adventure, and being a spaceship captain is a great thing to be, but it remains an adventure played out across a staggeringly huge backdrop – a backdrop so huge that there is precious little you can really do to affect it. The game doesn’t build you up. It just cuts you loose, just one of many leaves on the wind.

Progress in Elite: Dangerous is a curious beast, but is generally financial in nature. The game has an unsophisticated economy – there’s money, or Credits, and this currency is good everywhere. There is no inflation, and while prices vary from system to system (and even station to station) there is a sense that they don’t vary too much. The economy of the universe is rock solid, even if whatever mystical force that pays all the bounties and mission rewards must be printing money hand over fist.

Money is the universal reward in the game on a systemic level, dwarfing the significance of things like ranks, or relations with assorted authorities. Money travels, money will put you in a nice warm spaceship and money cannot be taken from you by force. But the pursuit of money for its own sake wears out quite fast. Seeking out the optimal way to make your fortune, and then doing that over and over again until you get bored, is a sure way to kill any sense of enjoyment you might get from the game. In a game about adventure you’re kind of missing the point if you just settle down with the science fiction equivalent of a day job (unless that is what you want to do of course, there are plenty of worse things to be than an interstellar delivery boy.

As such the internet is full of frustrated Elite players who tore into the game, made tonnes of cash by the fastest route and expected some sort of glorious milk and honey endgame, only to quit in frustration when it didn’t happen. This perhaps illustrates the old school nature of Elite: Dangerous when compared to modern games with their greater emphasis on a structured narrative. There is no win condition here; there is no beating the game. The enjoyment that Elite: Dangerous has to offer has to be sought out – even created – by the player for themselves. It won’t come bounding over to you like a labradoodle.

But what is there to do when the quest for money via the same old routes becomes tiresome? For myself, I looked to find new ways to make money. I dabbled in smuggling illegal cargo. I bought a ship called an Adder – a larger, sleeker and longer ranged upgrade to the Hauler – and I tried my hand at trading in rare goods. Along the way I saw strange things. Stars glowing white that overheated my ship almost as soon as I dropped out of hyperspace, mining bases tucked out back in the dark recesses of systems, tens of thousands of light seconds away from the stars at their centres. I saw twinned planets and brown dwarfs. I saw a funeral convoy. I sat amid a battle in a civil war, unwilling to pick a side but enjoying the show. I’m pretty sure I saw C-Beams glitter in the dark, near the Tanhauser Gate. I saw all this and didn’t have to travel more than a couple of hundred light years from home to find it.

All this was many, many hours in game and an array of new ships ago of course. The Adder made way for a Lakon 6 cargo transport, the Sidewinder for a Viper, then later a Cobra. There are ships far, far above these in expense and capability, but I am in no rush. The game is still entertaining – I feel I’ve cracked the monetary side of things to a satisfactory degree, but I still have a lot to learn and a lot more to see. I had a look at the centre of the galaxy on the map, and it looks like a ball pit, millions of stars all jammed in together. I’d like to see that up close. Then there are nebulas – no idea what they’re all about, I should check those out. And Earth, I should get around to going there one day. Also the edge of the universe, I wonder what that’s like? What does it look like to reach that furthest star? I’m going to need a bigger Frame Shift Drive.

Of course, I accept that the universe of Elite: Dangerous, with its billions of stars and many thousands of populated systems, will doubtless see a lot of repetition. There’s only so much to see and do and not everything will be unique. Eventually it will get old. Games get old, they play out. But I’m not there yet, and with planned expansions – to include planetary landings and the return of the mysterious aliens called Thargoids – even when I hit the doldrums with this game. I expect I’ll return one day. It took 30 years to get the Elite game I always wanted, and I’m not disappointed.

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