I love space games. Always have. While I spend a great deal of time with fantasy games, sci-fi captures and devours me in ways fantasy just can’t. When the hype hit for No Man’s Sky, I sat and salivated. Then came the crash of reality and my heart was broken. So was my trust in the promises of all other games remotely like it. I adopted a ‘fool me once’ attitude towards any game, no mater how long it had been out. But that all changed when then the Thargoids arrived.
I had grabed Elite Dangerous some time before all this happened and initially dismissed it as being an inferior replacement while I waited for No Man’s Sky to receive its official release. As a result, I never bothered climbing the steep mountain that was understanding the game play. It sat unloved on my Steam library for some time. Then early in 2017 videos started popping up on YouTube – absolutely amazing videos of players encountering some bizarre space ship. No one saw it coming, really. No data-mined information had been leaked before this. It was an earnest surprise to the player base, and to the internet at large. That alone was enough to make me reconsider my dismissal of Elite Dangerous.
The hallmark of a great space sandbox game for me is being able to play your own way. I want factions, pirates, planets, trade, space battles, mining and more. I want it all. So, determined to learn how to take off and land properly, I once again entered my old dusty ship and took to the stars of Elite Dangerous. And boy, was I in for a surprise.
Take to the Stars
Elite Dangerous is the fourth and latest game in the series, with the previous one (Frontier: First Encounters) published in 1995. The very first game, Elite, was published in 1984. Obviously, this game has a long pedigree.
Now, lets be clear. The learning curve to get in and start playing also quite high. While I’ve never played it that way, the game is VR compatable, and it shows. Flight is tricky to master for those unfamiliar with the more ‘realistic’ space flight games, as the game really tries to make you feel like you’re actually inhabiting the cockpit of your ship, where you are going to be spending most of your time.
Despite a more recent absence from the game, I have felt zero buyer’s remorse for the HOTAS (Hands On Throttle-And-Stick) controller I picked up. Trust me, if you plan on getting serious about this game, it is well worth the investment.
You are rewarded heavily from your fiscal and learning investments with a very well rounded space game. It delivers firmly on the concept that you can play how you want, with only a couple of demands. First, there is a multiplayer component to it, no matter what setting you are on. Second, you need to be online, there is no offline mode. Normally either of these things is a deal breaker for me, but Elite Dangerous is a rare exception for me – read on and you’ll understand why.
First off, I really wanted to get into a faction. There is the Empire, the Federation and the Alliance. Within each of these galactic powerhouses, there are smaller factions at work, seeking dominance for their own agenda, which will in turn guide the larger group. There are even several independent groups that function outside of the big three. The wide variety of groups and factions accommodates an equally wide variety of play styles. I could be a galactic space trucker, not looking to pick fights, and still contribute to the growth of my chosen Faction.
In searching for a faction to call my own, I discovered Aisling Duval. A lone abolitionist in an Empire built on the backs of slaves. Renowned for her ‘Social Media’ presence, I was skeptical when I read her supporters could increase her influence just by delivering propaganda. Further research revealed the various named groups involved in the power struggle in the universe.
A few jumps and ship upgrades, I was being given a regular weekly stipend for my contributions. Imperial ships would come to my aid when I was in danger, and I was starting to feel at home in the galaxy.
The multiplayer aspect deals with the factions as much as players want to be involved. When you begin playing you choose to play Solo, Multiplayer, or with an established Group of players. At any time you can change this, so you can play Solo for a while to get the hang of things before joining in with a curated group or going whole-hog for the massive multiplayer experience. Regardless of what you choose, all the background stuff, statistics for faction accomplishments, changes to the standing of various powers, and the allegiances of planets is the same. This is why an online component is needed for this game. It collects the achievements of all the players and spits them back out as galactic politics and game backdrop.
And honestly, I love it.
If you want to feel like you’re a part of a larger breathing MMO world, but don’t want to interact with people, risk being ganked by another player, or are just feel like playing with a few friends, Elite Dangerous provides.
Drop Your Cargo and You Can Go
This game isn’t armada building. It isn’t direct hands on planetary conquest. You are not going to be anyone really important. Maybe you will gain infamy or become a celebrated hero, and yes, your actions will impact the game. But you will not lead a faction. You will not claim territory for yourself. In the end, you will always be a pawn of someone else, or just an independent playing their own game, in a much larger sandbox.
Some digging reveals that the fine people at Frontier Developments have allowed player created factions to rise to power. But even then, an NPC is created to lead, and the amount of control players get over their faction is, ultimately, limited. This is also not an automated process, and although that allows a great level of quality control, it means that the work and time to have this happen is a heavy investment.
Honestly, the idea of getting a player made faction into a seat of power, then helping that faction flip planets would be the dream goal of this game for me. But the biggest concern I have is how tenable is this down the road? I am actually unsure of the viability in it. Frontier Developments has few games other than Elite Dangerous, so it is clear that most of their resources are devoted to it. But as a long-term project with years and years of life left in it, the current style of dev oversight of player factions may not be able to last. Ideally, should they grow tired of this and want to move on to more interesting or more profitable venues, they would open up the tools to players to make their own private servers, and allow the independent management of the things like factions.
A Bright Future
A note about pricing and future content: When I decided to rejoin the hustle and bustle of the galactic rush, Elite Dangerous: Horizons had been out for a bit. It was a DLC ‘Season Pass’. It outlined a list of things that would be implemented as the season went on, promising some big changes such as the addition of Engineers, Character Customization, and Multicrew ships (the last one really got my attention). Once all the listed goals were met, I assumed the season would be over, and they would likely put out another ‘DLC season pass’ with another list of goals.
You can play the game without it, and I wouldn’t say you’d be at a disadvantage, but you’re definitely missing out on opportunities, missions, and of course the upcoming multi-crewed ships. This is an interesting way to do a ‘subscription’ to be honest, and I’m not opposed to it. With only one nearing completion as of this writing, if I was an established player with limited funds, I’d be concerned about power creep.
However, the price is reasonable. The Expansion DLC comes with many features and is the cost of the base game. 40 dollars in my funny Canadian money. So if Frontier Developments wants to charge me 40 dollars a year, and keeps adding quality improvements like the ones in Horizons, sign me up. I’ll buy the pass.
In the end, I’ve taken a bit of a break from Elite Dangerous. Some of the friends I was playing with started to loose interest. And honestly, this is a game that is more entertaining with a group. For me, flying in fleet formation with your pals, running trade missions, and taking down bounties is so much more rewarding as a group. When the multicrewed ships get up and running (and any bugs are worked out), I’ll likely head back in and try to sign on with a group.
Final Score is a cautious 8/10
Review written by Old Man Mordaith
Edited by Jesse Roberts