I’m the first person to speak up against video game crowdfunding. I used to have to apologize for this sort of cynicism, but lately failure after failure has shown us that giving developers money on the strength of names and promises alone doesn’t necessarily lead to great things. Sometimes, though, it works. FTL was pretty good. Broken Age was passable, even if the development cycle was a shambles. Shadowrun Returns wasn’t bad, but Dragonfall and Hong Kong were both fantastic.
Elite: Dangerous might be the most ambitious project of them all to both actually release and meet with acclaim from critics and players alike. Frontier Developments hasn’t sat on their laurels, of course; today we’re looking at Horizons, the first expansion for Elite: Dangerous that focuses on planetary landing and exploration.
Elite: Dangerous, if you recall, is essentially a game about being a space trucker. It’s a very pretty game that offers a vast breadth of content, but back when we first looked at it the game was kind of hurting from a lack of depth and some odd design choices. It’s not a bad game, but there’s a very particular kind of player who’ll get into Elite: Dangerous – the kind who’s willing to make their own goals and wade through some muck to accomplish them.
The real meat of the gameplay is in hauling space-cargo across space in a space-rig in order to make space-bucks which you will then spend on a bigger, more impressive space-rig. Sometimes you might want to just wander off into the galaxy to dig up exploration data to sell later. If you’re feeling squirrely, you might want to drop some cash on a fighter so you can hunt bounties or harass players, assuming you ever find any of the latter and are cool with possibly being blown to bits. Combat’s a good time, but Elite: Dangerous players often complain about the “fun vs. profit” model, and space battles lie firmly in the former camp.
Horizons adds some new goodies on top of this, giving the game a much-needed shot of variety right in its space-veins. For one, you can finally group up with other players in this massively multiplayer online game! This isn’t really a Horizons update, but it wasn’t there at launch, so it bears mention. You still can’t trade credits between players, but one step at a time I suppose. For another, the randomly generated missions you can do are now a little more complex and engaging. You have to work a bit harder for your money; maybe you have to go and pick up a package for delivery from a ship out in space somewhere, for instance. This is fine, though, as it shakes things up just enough.
Let’s be real, you’re not here for any of that; you’re here for planetary landings in the Surface Reconnaissance Vehicle! Yes, you can now hop in your space buggy and land on certain planets to go roving about, assuming those are airless, rocky planets since you still can’t land on any others. You’ll need to drop some space-bucks (of course) to upgrade your ship in order to make this happen, as well as buying the SRV itself, but once you finally manage this it’s pretty cool. Flying up to a planet lets you orbit, going down from there brings you planetside, and finally you can find a nice, flat area to land and hop in the buggy.
You can then drive about to your liking; the SRV feels a little odd to start with but you’ll rapidly get the hang of it. Hopefully, anyway. If you don’t, you’ll probably break it and have to get a new one, spending more precious space-bucks in the process. You can do a variety of things while driving around, typically surface-flavored versions of the usual Elite: Dangerous activities like hunting baddies and collecting resources to sell. Driving around is inherently a good time; so its getting to check out your ship from a third-person perspective on the ground.
There’s a good dozen or more hours to enjoy here and your experience may vary depending on your tolerance for procedurally-generated content. Chances are that eventually you’re going to get tired of this as you likely did with the original Elite: Dangerous; one can only drive over so many rocky landscapes and blast so many drones, after all. That’s not really the point, though; the point is that this is a significant and enjoyable upgrade over the original gameplay, one that takes Elite: Dangerous to new levels and makes it a much more impressive game.
Why do I mention this? Well, let’s wrap back around to video game crowdfunding. Elite: Dangerous’ only real competition at the moment is Cloud Imperium Games’ Star Citizen, a $100 million project that hasn’t gone much of anywhere in the time it’s taken Elite: Dangerous to launch and see an expansion on top of significant updates. Where Elite: Dangerous has a fully realized and expanded game launched and available for purchase (with a console release besides), Star Citizen has produced a barely-playable alpha while it continues to inhale backers’ money.
One of these projects represents everything that can go wrong with video game crowdfunding: massive scope creep, management faux pas, and arrogant leadership, to mention just a few issues. CIG lead Chris Roberts’ recent statement that he was “annoyed” when backers continued to ask him about promised features really says all that needs to be said about Star Citizen.
The other project represents what happens when a team that respects its own limitations gets the chance to do something big. More importantly, it represents what happens when that team respects the time and money of the backers who placed their faith in them. For that reason alone, Elite: Dangerous is an important game, and Horizons makes it even better. If you’re a fan of this sort of space sim, you owe it to yourself to check this out.