Elite Dangerous06 Dec 2015
For once I can talk about something and say, “I’m not old enough”. That’s pretty rare, but when it comes to Elite - released in 1984 - I was nine years old and two years away from owning my first computer. Sure, I did play it eventually, on several formats - it even came mounted on a copy of Amstrad Action, way back when - but it wasn’t the space game that gave me the shock and awe feeling that some of my older chums reminisce about. I did stare wistfully at its screenshots, and have vivid memories of Your Sinclair’s monster Hackathon in issue 10, but it was the sequel, Frontier, that got me into the life of the Cobra pilot. Space grinding, gloriously rendered in chunk-o-vision-filled-3D on my A1200, sucked away hours of my life. Just the fantasy of piloting a spacecraft was enough back then, and I’d cruise my way through its galaxy watching re-runs of Lost in Space and Star Trek, as I dumped drugs and slaves at dodgy star ports. Frontier was one of the first games that made me think that digital universes could be massive. It was mind bogglingly cool. For a summer, at least.
Frontier was also one of the few games that was genuinely improved by jumping from the Amiga to PC - Syndicate, X-Com and Grand Prix being the others of note - and I remember falling back in love with it after warezing a copy at Uni. Another summer lost, re-exploring the galaxy. It was always a game where the stories were self-made, almost hard to share.
One of the admirable things about those two original games, at least to the developer side of my brain, is how little they provided, mechanically, for the player. Elite brought the first Open World, and Frontier, basically, expanded it. Sure, there was an economy, and sure, you had the feeling of exploration, but when you pull them apart, they really have very little meat on their gameplay bones. Perversely, that’s probably what got me hooked. For me, Frontier was almost a private thing. Despite knowing a few people that were also playing, we barely shared notes and rarely talked trade routes, there was just an acknowledgement that yeah, this was either something you were into, or something you hated. I didn’t need much meat, because it was the closest I’d ever get to living the life of an astronaut.
Frontier’s galaxy was as much in my imagination as it was in the code Braben and co. compiled. The planets I discovered were mine, no one else had seen them. There’s was just something cool, for a space nerd, about hopping into that cockpit with 100cr in your pocket and seeing what would happen. When I think about it Frontier has a lot in common with real life, really. Most of it’s in your head, there’s a lot of grind, and if you’re lucky you have a company and feel like a slave trader.
So yeah, when Frontier - the company - put up that Elite Dangerous logo on Kickstarter, I backed it without a seconds hesitation. There was a lot of scepticism but I knew that if they only delivered a version of Frontier - the game - on modern hardware, that’d be enough for me. I’d lose another summer to exploring the galaxy. That was 40 quid well spent as far as I was concerned. Obviously I knew that wouldn’t be what they’d aim for, and they didn’t. Eve Online - basically the Elite MMO that Frontier were unable to sell for 15 years - had carved such a path of what was possible that it would be irresistible for any team not to look at it and aim past it. I would. In that context a 3million kickstarter doesn’t look like much, but what I constantly find remarkable is how well Frontier are doing at delivering it. The pragmatism to engineer and deliver a much larger platform - a true MMO - in such a careful, stepwise fashion is difficult to maintain. For anyone.
Elite Dangerous, in its initially released form, was basically what I wanted: Frontier on modern hardware, but my god had the galaxy become a character this time around. The size of the game-world is still mind boggling, 30 years on, and everything I remember is there, only more refined, and a little bit more fun. As I say, that would have been enough for me for a month and I would have had my money’s worth, but Open Play - the MMOness - is the cherry on top. Having a galaxy populated by other players is simultaneously marvelous and awful, and I can’t shut them out. For every griefer, there’s someone to bump into and flash your lights at. Miners to protect. Groups to jump into combat with. Suddenly it’s not so private. It’s reassuring and scary. You’re never quite sure if you should stick around in a system when you’re carrying a cargo of rare goods, or to leg it as fast as possible out of there. My close calls with death may be saved at the last minute by someone jumping in for a bit of a ruck. I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve seen some laser fire and jumped in to save someone from a pirate. In part, this exposes the incomplete nature of the game: comms are limited and party play is still bare bones, but it’s coming along, step by step and it’s been fun along the way.
My time with Elite Dangerous has already been more varied than my life in Frontier. I’ve had a good career as a miner, racking up enough cash for my first fully outfitted Cobra MkIII. I’ve had an aborted run to Sagittarius A, clocking up 500 systems on my way before a cracked canopy forced a very slow and careful crawl back to civilisation. I’ve done the boring Rares routes. I’ve lost four ships. Right now I’m flitting from community event to community event, hopping into combat zones for a bit of bounty hunting as I go. Once Horizons comes out, it’ll be time to decide on the next career path. Should I kit out for exploration? Or pack another refinery so I can mine all those lovely asteroids and planets? Maybe I could just take screenshots and start a newspaper, or drive around a planet in the buggy?
In all honesty, Elite is still a mind numbingly grindy, almost boring game, at heart. The Galaxy is, well, fucking massive. Frameshift drives may shorten the distance, but there’s plenty of scope to watch a film as you fly about doing trade routes. Unless you get deep into PVP or a more manual profession (like mining) you could probably read a book whilst playing, and I can see why that puts people off. It should. Hell, it kinda puts me off. Even at the best of times I find undirected games - the whole ‘open world’/’sandbox’ thing - to be utterly, utterly shite, and I’ve worked on two of them. Elite saves itself by at least having enough variety, even in its initial forms, to let you chop and change as you see fit. Providing you have the Cr to do a robust generic outfit for your ship you can pretty much sample whatever each system offers. Your play style can change each night. It’s doubling down on that initial vision of Braben and Bell; space is your oyster.
All that being said, I’m not sure I would recommend Elite Dangerous to people that weren’t space nutty to start with, or hadn’t sampled one of the previous games. It’s easy to get lost out there. It can be hard to find the fun, just like every other Open World game. Other players can be cunts. The economy takes a while to work around. The scripted missions are very samey and you can sample them all in a couple of evenings play.
Regardless, I do want to doff my cap to all those guys at Frontier for the quality of their work and for how they’re going about making Elite Dangerous into a much more engaging idea than its predecessors ever were. It’s been nothing but stable for me. It looks and sounds lovely. It’s brought a slice of gameplay from my teens back, and I it turns out that I still enjoy wasting a couple of hours flying about for a million credits. And a couple of years down the road, it’ll have enough variety and options to be a truly compelling MMO for anyone with even a slight Sci-Fi bent.
Love it or hate it, I’m really fucking happy that a UK studio is not only succeeding in the MMO space, but is doing it with such aplomb. Frontier are really executing to a vision and I’m happy to be in the cockpit for the ride. Now give me my fucking space buggy.