Continuing our look at what’s shaking in the Early Access scene. Since you can’t review an unfinished game, we tell you what they’re about, what state they’re in and what you get for your early buy-in.
With the current resurgence of space sims led by the twin hype vortexes that are Chris Roberts’ Star Citizen and No Man’s Sky, it felt entirely appropriate that the grandaddy of the genre, David Braben’s Elite, would be involved. The announcement in November 2012 that Braben was planning to develop a Kickstarter-funded fourth entry in the series, Elite Dangerous, came as a surprise to no-one but was still welcome to us old farts with cherished memories of the earlier games.
Interestingly, Braben’s motivation to jump on the crowdfunding train was exactly the same as Roberts': No AAA developer would touch the project on the rationale that the space sim genre was long dead. Now of course, with the massively promising Star Citizen now having grossed $52m and rising and Elite Dangerous in its final stage of beta, we can point at the suits and laugh heartily, though that doesn’t diminish the fact that up until a couple of years ago nobody was making space sims anymore. The genre lived on in the hearts of fans, but that was it. From an industry standpoint it was dead as dead can be, with nobody willing to develop new entries in the genre because they simply couldn’t see the huge audience that was out there secretly hoping that someone would make these games again.
While Star Citizen has snaffled up a lion’s share of the hype, Elite Dangerous has, up until its shift to the cheaper Beta 1 at the end of July, been a somewhat quieter affair, due in no small part to the uncommonly high price of entry (A whopping $150 got you the Premium Beta with season pass, which has now become a DLC-less Standard Beta coming in at $75). Braben has explained that part of the reasoning behind this seemingly crazy price tag was to deliberately limit player numbers so as to avoid server stress and presumably avoid large-scale technical hiccups during the early stages of development, which has unfortunately meant very little exposure for the game compared to Star Citizen and No Man’s Sky.
However, with the price of entry dropping and the full release of the game apparently drawing near (Braben’s Frontier Developments seem to be standing by the stated window of Q4 this year) Elite Dangerous is finally getting some much-needed attention, which begs the question: Is this exceptionally expensive crowdfunded beta worth it?
The answer is a planet-sized ‘yes’, especially for old-school gamers who may miss the series, or at least crave a space sim with a decidedly traditional level of challenge. Or for that matter, Euro Truck Simulator fans who like the idea of a version in space that lets you shoot other (space) trucks.
It sounds weird for sure, but Euro Truck Simulator is perhaps the closest modern analogue to the Elite experience. One of the first true sandbox franchises, Elite throws you into a vast and hostile universe with a crappy ship and a simple goal: ‘Survive and prosper’. Your first source of income is by playing the galactic trade market, hauling goods between systems with a keen eye on where the highest-value trade routes are. As you progress and acquire better ships you can take on missions, become a bounty hunter or smuggler, or even eschew orders and become a pirate stalking other haulers as they drop in out of hyperspace. It’s up to you, and while the franchise has historically avoided setting any overarching goals the real hook has always been mastering the challenging flight physics, making your fortune and exploring the galaxy.
The current Beta has a total of 55 star systems to reach, with Frontier Developments claiming that the final release version will give us the whole Milky Way galaxy with 400 systems, around 150, 000 of which taken from real astronomical data. It sounds crazy, but when you consider that Braben has worked on comparable scales with the previous Elites (on older hardware with a fraction of the power of modern PCs) and the sophistication of modern programs such as Universe Sandbox and Space Engine, this claim actually sounds fairly plausible.
If the beta tells us anything, it’s that exploring this universe is going to be an incredibly pretty experience. It’s a beautiful-looking game, especially the gorgeous and very 80s sci-fi looking spaceports that at this stage are your regular destinations (although Frontier have announced that planetary landings will be coming in a future update).
While dogfighting is fun, with a series of single-player missions selectable from the main menu for practice purposes, it’s much wiser to focus on trading at first and getting the hang of navigation. Simply travelling from one system to another is a multi-stage process that, in old-school PC sim fashion, is left for you to figure out on your own. This, however, ensures that when you get the knack for it dropping in and out of the various stages of warp/sub-warp travel to pop yourself neatly at the doorstep of your destination is hugely satisfying. It helps as well that the game’s hyperspace effect is appropriately spectacular, conveying well a sense of ridiculous velocity without resorting to the old cop-out of ‘wibbly tunnel in space’. The only real downer is that the docking, which in the original game was inspired by the docking sequence in 2001: A Space Odyssey, is no longer scored with the Blue Danube (Who knows how many young cinephiles-to-be were primed by that 8-bit classic?).
In a way, navigation and travel has always been one of Elite‘s strengths simply because you spend so much time jumping back and forth, and Elite Dangerous nails this in highly immersive fashion, also helped by some excellent sound design (The descending bass as your booster kicks in is a particular favourite, and sounds phenomenal through decent speakers). The flight model is also highly impressive, with flight assists able to be deactivated if you want to put yourself fully at the mercy of the zero-grav physics; interestingly, many players have developed dogfighting techniques involving this to pull off some very cool Battlestar Galactica-esque manoeuvres. While keyboard and mouse and flightstick control schemes are available, the game works extremely well with an Xbox gamepad, with most functions easy to access on the default configuration. While the game forces you to figure things out for yourself gameplay-wise, it’s refreshing to see Frontier make an effort to make it as accessible in a technical sense as possible – and yes, Elite Dangerous is Oculus Rift/Track IR compatible.
Even at this stage Elite Dangerous is a marvellous experience, but is it worth $75 to get in on the Beta? Personally I don’t regret spending the money at all (By the way, this makes me a backer so please feel welcome to take my gushing with whatever size grain of salt you feel appropriate) but with the full release apparently still coming soon it’s even more of a case of one’s personal mileage varying as usual for crowdfunded projects. Fans of the series or space sim nuts who have been waiting for the price of entry to lower a bit will certainly get their money’s worth by jumping in a couple of months early, though those with more a curiosity and less of a burning desire as some of us may be better advised to hang on a bit and wait for release.
Whenever you want to buy it, however, Elite Dangerous is well worth your time and the perfect way for sim fans and space geeks to ride out the still considerable wait for Star Citizen, and is a rousing if at this point pricey comeback for one of gaming’s most influential franchises.
This article is based on a purchased Standard Beta version of Elite Dangerous.