Space. It’s big and full of possibilities. Should I point my ship in any direction and go off exploring? Can I become an interstellar merchant and earn wealth through trading? Or will I become a dangerous bounty hunter, chasing down pirate scumbags?
These are questions I’ve asked myself several times before, over the course of decades. The original 1980s Elite, which featured mostly wireframe space stations and geometric shapes representing ships, captured my imagination and seared the MIDI version of The Blue Danube waltz into my brain every time my ship docked at a Coriolis station.
Fast forward to the 1990s and the sequel, Frontier: Elite II, is where I really started enjoying space travel, with full colour 3D polygons as ships and Newtonian physics. I remember trading goods between space stations, landing on planets and a catchy cinematic intro sequence and theme tune.
Present day. Thanks to a Steam sale at Christmas, I picked up the current iteration of the Elite game series – Elite Dangerous. Here we go again!
Looking in from the outside
Elite Dangerous has been out in the wild since its official release in December 2014. Until now I’ve passively observed its ongoing development and expansion updates through following other blogs such as TenTentacles.com, and watching Twitch streamers playing it.
I put it on my Steam wish list and didn’t think much about it for years, as I was occupied with several other games including Eve Online which was filling my need for a space themed game at the time.
The game sounded kind of barebones to me when I first heard about it. They’d recreated the Elite game experience of its prequels, but updated for the current gaming generation with a massively multiplayer online one-to-one scale simulation of the entire Milky Way galaxy. But was there anything to do other than space trading goods and sightseeing stellar phenomena?
That’s a problem I have with open-ended gameplay sandboxes. I’m too used to games which feed me with directed content these days. I need games to tell me what the goals are, provide me with quests and keep releasing story content updates for me to consume. I was barely finding things to keep me occupied in Eve Online, and that’s a game with over a decade of development.
Since then, Elite Dangerous has kept on growing, with the addition of Powerplay providing a politically driven territory control metagame; customisable player avatars and the possibility of co-op multicrew play with friends; new mission types and engineers to further customise ships; and the Horizons expansion providing planetary landings and ground vehicles.
So during a recent Steam Winter Sale and seeing the game get a large discount, it seemed like the time was finally right to grab it and give it a hands-on try for myself.
The first struggle when starting up a new game is creating an avatar to represent yourself.
The character customisation screen presents you with a selection of presets which you can then tweak slightly until you have something you’re pleased with. I’ve played games where the options are extremely limited and ugly looking, but the selection here was okay and you get further options through microtransations via an online store.
I was pretty pleased with the final result. I managed to make a handsome looking guy that looked quite realistic. I appreciate how far game graphics have improved over the decades and when developers spend time creating detailed art assets like realistic looking hairstyles and beard options.
The hardest part was coming up with a unique name. As Elite Dangerous allows players to interact through a shared online persistent galaxy, the names need to be unique. Almost everything I could think of was already taken. I didn’t want to just settle for anything left over – whenever I create a new character in any game, I need to be comfortable with what I’m going to be called for years to come and it needs to “fit” that particular character’s looks and backstory.
I brainstormed a bunch of name prefixes and suffixes, with various meanings and gravitated towards the word “ether-” meaning “space or sky” and “-win” either meaning “friend” or just literally winning. That combo was actually not taken already, so from that moment on, Commander Etherwin was born.
Learning to fly
For some reason, Frontier, the game developers seem to like dropping you into their games with minimal support in the form of teaching you how to play. I had a similar experience when I played their other game, Planet Coaster, where I had to figure out how to play mostly through trial and error.
At least here in Elite Dangerous, there are a few tutorial instances where you get to fly around as a tutorial commander in a ship with no consequences if you blow up and die. They also rely on non-interactive YouTube videos which describe the basic controls.
The controls were similar enough to other space flight sims I’ve played to figure out relatively quickly. After spending some time playing around and figuring out which buttons to press, I was ready to start the game for real.
Exploring, trading and bounty hunting
With the Horizons expansion, you can start off in a basic Sidewinder class ship docked at Baker’s Prospect, a planetary base. That’s where I found myself and decided to do what I did in classic Elite and browse the missions board for contracts, and check the commodities market for potential trading opportunities.
It didn’t take that long to earn enough credits to trade up to a larger ship, and in my case I jumped straight into a Cobra Mk III, a classic design of the Elite series. I like how the ships in Elite Dangerous have updated and more modern designs, but still have shapes reminiscent of their prequel counterparts.
So far, I’ve settled into doing mostly trading, with a bit of bounty hunting and very limited exploration. These are all legal activities, where the non-playable security forces in the game won’t attack you for breaking the law. In contrast, you can also do illegal stuff, such as becoming a black market smuggler, or a mercenary and taking on assassination missions, corporate sabotage and even piracy.
The choice is up to you.
Burden of choice
Having the open-ended choice of what to do in the game is where I’m currently stuck at the moment. You really have to set your own goals to work towards and make whatever you feel “progress” should be.
I feel like the accumulation of wealth is one goal to work on. Earning more credits and upgrading to ever more larger and impressive ships is something you can do and then see tangible results.
One thing I haven’t really gotten into is just exploration for the sake of exploration. I hear about players taking trips across the galaxy to various sightseeing spots. That is impressive, but not something I’ve really considered further. What is there to do when you get to your destination, light years from anyone else? Take a screenshot and then go home? At least there’s also gathering exploration data to sell. That alone can make a trip worthwhile and if you make a first time discovery, then your name will forever be recorded as the initial discoverer.
I’d like it if there was something more tangible for travelling far away to new frontiers, like establishing a new outpost for humanity, where you can then live and sustain yourself. Galactic colonisation perhaps?
The other thing I can do is work on my character’s reputation. There are the three main Pilot’s Federation ranks to work on getting to Elite rank – in combat, trading and exploration. But there’s also reputation and rank with the three main superpowers in the galaxy – the Federation, Empire and Alliance. Improving reputation with the superpowers and even the minor factions in control of each system can open up better opportunities in terms of missions offered.
There’s also pledging to one of the Powers in the territory control game of Powerplay. You can work for a particular powerful person in the galaxy, further their interests and earn rewards for doing so, including a weekly salary of credits and potential benefits while in their territory such as trade dividends or equipment discounts
That’s it for my initial impressions of Elite Dangerous. There’s a lot more stuff that I’ve dabbled with such as planetary surface missions, engineering, community goals and alien encounters, but I’ll save that for another time.
Remember: never fly without rebuy.