Elite: Dangerous (PC) Review

By Jordan Hurst 09.03.2015 4

Review for Elite: Dangerous on PC

The team behind Elite: Dangerous deserves the utmost respect. Its game is a technical masterpiece - a confluence of extensive procedural generation, scientific accuracy, and insanely detailed mechanical systems, creating a singularly absorbing and realistic space sim. Just because it deserves gamers' respect, however, does not mean it deserves their money. Actually purchasing Elite: Dangerous is not recommended; its content is stretched as thin as possible, it's as unwelcoming to new players as any game of its genre, and for all its grandiosity and complexity, it's extremely repetitive. With it, Frontier Developments has basically declared itself the game development equivalent of session musicians - remarkably talented people who have no business creating their own material.

Ultra-realistic simulation is one of the hardest game categories to explain the appeal of. Space trading simulators make a little more sense, though - they recreate an activity that will almost definitely not exist in the lifetime of anyone playing, but do so in such a way that they remain grounded and seemingly attainable. Realistic fantasy is all well and good, but the innumerable steps taken in Elite: Dangerous to keep the realism consistent are a reminder of why gameplay is so abstracted in more traditional games. "Time-consuming" is the best word to describe the game. Every single action that would have been glossed over anywhere else is instead fully depicted and required, no matter how mundane it is. Ports give players a ten minute timer to dock after requesting permission, and that's only a slightly liberal estimate of how long the procedure actually takes.

That comment about the game's content being stretched as thin as possible is completely literal - the game takes place in a 1:1 scale recreation of the Milky Way, brought to life via a combination of real-life astronomical data and extrapolative algorithms. This is the premier example of Elite: Dangerous including features for their own sake. It is humanly impossible to create something simultaneously large and interesting enough to justify recreating the entire galaxy in order to house it. Elite: Dangerous has the "large" aspect figured out, and that's about it. At 400 billion star systems, the game is the most complete empty space simulator the market has ever seen. Criticising a space flight simulator for being too empty feels like criticising a fantasy game for including swords, but it highlights the question the development team should have been asking itself: if a real-life activity is boring, why create a faithful simulation of it in an entertainment medium?

Screenshot for Elite: Dangerous on PC

Make no mistake, Elite Dangerous is as faithful to the (theoretical) real thing as possible. If all genre fans want is to feel like they are really piloting a starship, it's probably their best option. Of course, the learning curve for this is as abrupt as would be expected. The list of all possible key bindings is about ten pages long and probably contains more actions than are actually available on a standard keyboard. Watching the flight tutorial videos is an absolute must for new players, and even once they are finished, it still takes a few hours to figure out how the rest of the game works. Once it's all penetrated, the game is spectacularly immersive. There's something oddly compelling about navigating 3D sensor readouts, diverting power supplies, and collecting free-floating cargo using computer-assisted targeting, mostly because it all feels so real.

The game's atmosphere of playable space epic is perhaps its most powerful asset. Every action is accompanied by a wonderfully fitting orchestral score - new star systems are announced with triumphant but pensive fanfare, space station interiors exude an air of safety and progress, and approaching a destination is surprisingly tense, due almost entirely to the soundtrack. It's also a quietly beautiful game. With so few objects on screen at any given time, Frontier Developments was visibly allowed to pour as many resources as possible into their quality, creating some of the most awe-inspiring celestial bodies ever rendered in a videogame. The game also claims to not have any loading screens, and while that's not really true (hyperspace jumps between systems are pretty obviously hiding load times), they don't break the immersion as in most games. Even the interface, despite its complexity, adds to the atmosphere with its economical presentation.

Screenshot for Elite: Dangerous on PC

Unfortunately, the celestial bodies that make the game look so great are nothing more than landmarks in gameplay. Landing on planets and exploring them on foot is planned for an expansion but, for now, planets exist merely for other, more important things to orbit around. It's too bad, because on-foot exploration would have added some much-needed variety to the gameplay. The game's complexity and unnecessarily drawn-out gameplay attempt to hide its repetitiveness, but once the initial confusion is cleared, the game reveals itself as essentially an MMORPG with only minimal multiplayer elements. The manpower used to create the unfathomably large galaxy map showing all manner of trade routes and resource data feels especially wasted at this point. After all, anyone who's bought low and sold high at one space market has bought low and sold high at them all.

Combat is the only part of the gameplay that's actually enjoyable for its own merits, rather than because it leads to numbers becoming steadily larger and to-do list points being checked off. It's just as long, complex, and realistic as the rest of the game, but in the context of space dog-fighting, those all work in the game's favour. Each skirmish feels significant, unlike typical MMO combat, where players must grind through dozens of pathetic enemies just to leave the first area. Not that Elite: Dangerous doesn't also drag at the outset; the starting ship is so ill-equipped and inefficient that the point where players start to feel their power growing doesn't arrive for days, if not weeks of playing. On the plus side, the outcome of combat is entirely based on player skill and equipment, further distancing it from the taint of RNG-heavy MMO gameplay.

Screenshot for Elite: Dangerous on PC

The previous games in the Elite series were all essentially single-player MMOs, so turning Dangerous into a full-fledged multiplayer title seems like the logical evolution of the franchise. How a game the size of the Milky Way would support multiplayer was one of the big questions hanging over the game's development. Frontier's answer was pretty much baffling to anyone without a programming background (and even many with), but suffice it to say that the system works well, grouping players together at major locations while spreading them out far enough that individual users still feel like unique entities. It does require a constant Internet connection, but at least that makes sense in this case, unlike…pretty much every previous attempt at always-online dependence.

A constant online connection is required from every player in order to maintain the game's persistent universe, including its economy and faction conflicts, a large percentage of which is player-driven. It's an agreeable middle ground between the rigid, computer-controlled structure of previous games, and the lawless, abusive wasteland of EVE Online. In fact, if making a more accessible, less hostile version of EVE one of the development goals, then mission accomplished. Not that that's a particularly difficult accomplishment; a game could be sealed in a bank vault made of mithril and it would still be easier to get into than EVE. This kind of persistence and player involvement also allows for some interesting dynamic storytelling, with factions fluctuating in strength as players complete missions. It is, by necessity, rather diluted, but it helps to distract from the aimless gameplay nonetheless.

Screenshot for Elite: Dangerous on PC

Cubed3 Rating

5/10
Rated 5 out of 10

Average

Come to think of it, "aimless" would also make for an excellent one-word description of Elite: Dangerous. Frontier Developments has crafted a first-rate simulation and supported it with meticulously-detailed systems, but then failed to do anything with it, except drop it into the widest, emptiest sandbox imaginable. Perhaps that's all that hardcore space sim fans want, but hardcore fans have likely already bought the game and exhausted most of its content. Anyone else is better off hoping the developer finds work somewhere else, where its incredible talent can be put towards a game that is actually worth playing.

Developer

Frontier Developments

Publisher

Frontier Developments

Genre

Simulation

Players

1

C3 Score

Rated $score out of 10  5/10

Reader Score

Rated $score out of 10  0 (0 Votes)

European release date Out now   North America release date Out now   Japan release date None   Australian release date Out now   

Comments

£1,578,316 of Kickstarter funding well spent then? Smilie

Perhaps LostWinds 3 would have been better...

( Edited 10.03.2015 00:07 by Adam Riley )

Adam Riley [ Operations Director :: Senior Editor :: Cubed3 Limited ]
Word of Adam | Voice123 Profile | AdamC3 on Twitter

I forgot they also made LostWinds. And I forgot LostWinds had a sequel. I should really check that out.

Darkflame (guest) 10.03.2015#3

As a backer I am pretty satisfied with Elite, and frankly for 1.5 million its an absolute bargin in development terms (honestly, the engine alone is worth that...)

That said, it certainly needs more content, especially on the non-combat side.
Frontier seems focusing far too much at the moment on delivering more ships the player can buy, rather then more things to do.

The highlights of the game, by far, for me are the Unidentified Signal Sources you come across in space as you cruise about.
These could be one of a few things - a battles between NCP factions, a trader offering you a different option for a mission ("I'll pay you NOT to deliver those goods",) or something that is "pointless" but great for atmosphere. I came across a Wedding Convoy once. (was a little disappointed there wasn't canisters being dragged behind the ship)

Another highlight is the ongoing story in the newsfeeds. It seems well written, albit it delivered in snippets. It certainly adds Lore and worldbuilding which is BADLY missing everyone else.

Imho Frontier should expand these;

1. Add more random events to encounter. Make them more complex. Procedural storytelling methods if possible.

2. Lore. Lore. Everywhere Lore.  Lets have a metroid-style encyclopedia which fills as you scan stuff. Lets have stations have info on their history (99.9% procedural of course, but significant systems written by hand).

3. Pilots log we can write in (come on! should have been there Day 1.

4. More stuff for explorers to find.  Collectable artifacts maybe? 

5. Long term missions. Give us stuff that takes weeks. Long term goals are really missing in the game.

6. Wormholes.  The real scope of space is fantastic, but getting back to civilization to take part in events is currently mutely exclusive with being an explorer.....which is silly. The wormholes can be pretty rare and require unlocking, so exploring isnt made "easy" but getting back always is.

Finally, while all the critisms are legit  (save the docking time, its more like 2-3 minutes after a bit of practice), remember Frontier said they are going for a "Minecraft" approach to development.
So hopefully the game will be a lot more fleshed out this time next year.


Stuff found in Unidentified Signal Sources could be neat, but the way they're implemented is pretty dumb. You basically fly to a star system and wait for a USS to appear in a random spot. If a mission requires multiple ones to appear, you wait around doing nothing until the game decides you've wasted enough time.

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