There just aren’t that many space games anymore. If you’re out for a shoot/trade-em-up, you’ve got the X series, EVE Online (which is closer to a turn-based MMORPG than a space flight game) and some lesser-known indie fare. There have been a few attempts at bringing the genre back now that we’re in the era of crowdfunding, like 2013’s Strike Suit Zero which was more of an arcade-style shooter and dogfighting sim. If you have fond memories of Freelancer, though, then the first real attempt to get your attention (and cash) is Elite: Dangerous.
How well can you stand spending a lot of time on repetitive tasks? That’s going to play a big part in your enjoyment of Elite: Dangerous. This is very clearly a niche game that makes some backward design decisions in order to appeal to that niche. Ship controls, while workable on a keyboard and mouse or gamepad, really demand a joystick to feel right, and it’s going to take some practice before you get a handle on every tiny aspect of flight. You’ve got systems to route energy to, heat to manage, cargo scoops to unfurl when it’s time to loot a defeated foe…basically you’re probably going to want to keep a cheat sheet around for awhile.
One aspect of the game’s design that bears mention: docking with a station in order to partake of station services is entirely manual and while this is an interesting novelty the first ten or so times you have to do it, the next thousand or so might end up grating on your nerves a bit. In fact, one common station design is a giant rotating dodecahedron with few to no identifying signs as to where the docking gate actually is. With continued play you’ll work out the best way to approach these issues, but that relies on you being willing to stick with a game that, at first glance, appears to actively hate you.
Why not slam the game over this kind of thing? Because all these backward decisions actually feel like they were made intentionally. For instance, if the docking system bothers you that much, you can fill one of your ship’s internal component slots with a docking computer to make it automatic. You’re weighing convenience against the value of that component slot, which is something I can get behind. As for those dodeca-stations, it turns out they all rotate on the same axis and you can use this to find the gate, along with your ship’s targeting systems helping a bit with guidance arrows. And either way, docking is manual largely so you can slip into and out of a station without being detected by security if you want to play Han Solo and smuggle illegal goods. It’s unusual in today’s world of Early Access-enabled halfassed game design to see a multifaceted system like this.
One thing I can take umbrage with is the apparent lack of any sort of autopilot outside of said docking computers whatsoever. It takes a long, long time to get pretty much anywhere, and you have to handle the majority of the trip manually because your ship’s jump drive will gleefully send you careening into a burning sun if you don’t. This, combined with the lack of an in-game means of checking trade good prices at different stations, means you’re in for some pain if you’re trying to trade “legit” without outside sites providing assistance. Playing as an explorer is even worse – you’re going to spend a long, long time going out to a system to scan it and coming back to sell the goods. If you didn’t buy into the game’s Kickstarter, your starting options are also a bit less generous than anyone who did so, which can be a little discouraging when it comes to making long trips in a star-jalopy.
Basically, I didn’t find a whole lot of enjoyment in trading or exploration. Call it ADD but if I’m going to spend an hour playing a game, I’d like at least 75% of that to be entertaining. Plotting out trade routes or treks to distant systems is fun, loading up on goods is fun, docking at your destination is fun, getting paid is fun. That takes up maybe 10% of the entire trip. Sorry, can’t do it. It would be silly to think that there aren’t people who’d enjoy it, though. If you’re willing to put in the time and effort, Elite: Dangerous absolutely will reward you.
Personally, I had the best time gearing up a quick little fighter and playing as a bounty hunter. Space combat is great fun and the ratio of time spent doing nothing to getting paid is significantly less. You do have to spend some time playing Space Highway Patrol scanning ships to check for outstanding warrants, but the thrill of the chase and kill makes it worthwhile. Apparently bounty hunters don’t make quite as much as other professions, but I found dogfighting to be a lot more exciting than playing as an interstellar truck driver.
My other beef with Elite: Dangerous is that it didn’t launch with an effective means of playing with your friends. The developers have said that we’ll see this soon, but if we reviewed games on what developers said they’d eventually add then every Kickstarter pre-alpha to cross the Popzara desk would get an Editor’s Choice. The fact is that trying to organize anything felt really futile.
My co-op partner and I made big plans to start a bounty hunting team and join forces to take down dangerous player criminals…and these plans promptly fell apart when we couldn’t fly together in any effective way, we couldn’t actually form a team, and we couldn’t find enough players to shoot down. Even if we could, it’s not like we could have split the bounties since players can’t trade. Hunting NPCs is a good time, but this game really seemed to be sold on the multiplayer aspects and at the moment those aren’t too strong; the fact that players can’t trade with each other is, by itself, kind of a travesty.
In terms of aesthetics, the game looks and sounds amazing. When things are actually happening, holy $&!+ they are HAPPENING. Combat tends to end with the canopy of your ship being destroyed and your pilot being exposed to the vacuum of space, removing your HUD and giving you minimal time to get back to a station for repairs before suffocating…if you survive the fight at all. Even simple travel between stars looks pretty great. One point that I really liked was that each model of player-controllable ship has its own cockpit design; this is the kind of touch that makes games for me.
So when it comes down to brass tacks, should you play Elite: Dangerous? Well, to be honest, there aren’t many options like it right now. There’s Star Citizen, a colossal crowdfunding project that’s happy to take your money and not give you a game to play, potentially for years. There’s No Man’s Sky, which at the moment is a lot of pretty screenshots and promises. And there’s this: a game about living the space captain life of your dreams, assuming those dreams don’t skip to the good parts. If that sounds like something you’d be into, give it a shot. Try bounty hunting first. The explosions are so nice.