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Elite: Dangerous Lives Up To The Hype

Tis' the season, and Steam's Holiday sales are in full swing.  The Humble Bundle has been having a sale for a few days now, as well.  However, I have beyond too many games right now.  I bought one final game this season, full price, and that's Elite: Dangerous.  That's enough!

Elite: Dangerous is pretty damn good, but I have a hard time putting into words as to why.  It is not because I am particularly lacking in eloquence, but rather because the main appeal of the game is overwhelmingly tactile.

What do I mean by that?  Well, you may have heard game reviewers discussing a first person shooter game, saying that the guns need to have a good "kick" to them.  A combination of the animation, sound effects, and overall presentation that makes what's essentially a simple projectile spawner in to something that's fun to use.

In Elite: Dangerous, EVERYTHING has that kick.
  • The very MOVEMENT has a kick.  You move forward, and you will be treated to an overwhelming sense of acceleration as your view bobs back to the g-forces.  Every action causes the engines to roar in engagement, each ship having a unique sound effect for movement.  Even slightly nudging in a direction makes a different sounding maneuvering rocket noise, my Viper sounds a bit like a tiger purring as it rotates about.  Sometimes, the ship's frame creaks from a subtle movement, and you come to anticipate the sound as associated with that specific make of ship.
  • Interacting with the environment has a kick.  You run into a cargo canister or shard of asteroid, you will be treated to an appropriately loud KLANG as it bounces off your hull.  You bump into most things, you will hear your shields short-circuiting against it.  You enter the main entrance of a station, and you can hear the pulsing energy containment field on the station as you pass through it.
  • Traveling has a kick.  There is a very real-feeling simulation of what should be a thoroughly unreal thing: you are in a space capsule that is capable of folding space around it in order to make travel between the stars and planets, with reasonably realistic distances, much quicker than it would be possible with present-day technology (needless to say). The developers' incredible vision for spaceflight brings this to you.
  • Your ship's cockpit has a kick.  There's a wonderful number of tone-perfect beeps and boops, in addition to voice queues, for various activities you are undergoing in your ship, from landing to cargo scooping to fuel scooping.  You hear the fine grating of the nano scrubbers as they repair your hull damage at the station.  You hear the fuel as it is loaded aboard your ship.  You can freely look around your cockpit, which is fully modeled (including the fidgety pilot sitting in it) and the Oculus Rift is supported.
  • The stations have a kick.  Some stations are just platforms in space, but many of them are gloriously-modeled habitats that you fly through and watch ground traffic as you hunt for your landing pad.  Landing is compellingly nail-biting until you're good at it.   Once you are on the landing pad, you can choose to be moved underneath, inside of the hangar (and must be in order to have your ship outfitted).  Outfitting your ship treats you to a cinematic view of your ship's exterior as you swap your equipment, though it does stop just short of having mechanical arms come down and do the work.
  • Space itself has a kick.  The custom engine renders outer space the better than any game that I readily recall ever playing.  The suns look like shimmering, vaporious balls of burning hydrogen.  The asteroid fields look as brooding as you would expect for a bunch of dead rocks floating in space.  Hyperspace sends you plunging through limitless nameless nebula.  The planets... well, actually I guess the planets are a bit of a work in progress (making them landable is on the "to do" list) but they do not look out of place.   Overall, if this is not the best looking space game there is, it should be in the top 1%.
  • And yes, all the weapons have a kick to them as well, from the rolling metal of the multi-cannon gatling guns to the rapid pew pew of the pulse lasers.  Some have more kick than others, true enough, but they are all supplemented with a fine feel of being mounted on the ship in deployable hardpoints.  Much of what makes up this elaborate combat engine is basically all of the above combined.  An enemy damages my windshield, and what happens next is incredible.
In short, it simply has to be experienced to be appreciated.  Maybe, in time, the wonderful feel behind everything will lose its luster as the players simply extrapolate the whole experience down to what it takes to win, a natural process of learning.  Until then, I am in awe at the pains taken to make Elite: Dangerous perhaps the most immersive-feeling space simulator ever made.  I am entertaining thoughts that this game may well have finally unseated Volition's Descent: Freespace series for genre king.
In my previous entry, I was worried about how Elite: Dangerous does not have any of the sandbox aspects of the likes of Space Engineers or StarMade.  At most, the sandbox aspects in this game are currently a very watered-down implementation of what EVE Online does: cells of space in which you may encounter other players, but there is no crafting in Elite: Dangerous so the whole player economy that is the backbone of EVE Online is not really there, just the space and other (potentially aggressive) players.

With no easy way to see who owns what, nor a way to see where the most players are, the online mode in Elite:Dangerous is not all that different from playing it solo.  This is because the universe in Elite: Dangerous is huge, modeled at 1:1 scale to the real universe, and (in the spiral arm galaxy it simulates) there will be hundreds of thousands of solar systems, many rich enough that a player could choose to stage their whole spacer career there without ever leaving.  So, once you get far enough out of the starting sector (of which there are about 50 or so) what are the odds you will ever bump elbows with another player?

What I am suggesting here is that there needs to be better mechanics for interacting with other players over vast distances in order for the online mode to work.  For that matter, even playing a game with friends is hard, because grouping up at the same system takes a lot of coordination to avoid getting separated.  If you have a different enough ping than your friends, you may be excluded from interacting with them.  (Don't hold me to this, though, I really haven't messed with the "group" mode much, but from the sounds of things it is basically just a "solo" game that you invite friends to.)

Overall, my lead critique of Elite: Dangerous is that it could probably use a better end game.  Aside from PvP and grinding credits for bigger ships, what is there of worth to do in the Elite: Dangerous universe right now?  Well, if you complete certain missions (and maybe other things), then this would seem to lightly influence buffs and debuffs on NPC factions.  It is a start, but a really bare-bones implementation of player consequence that the game does not communicate clearly as making much difference.  Unlike EVE Online, there's no player faction space holdings yet, but there have been developer interviews that established it is something they have put some thought into.

Despite this, I am not complaining, as Elite: Dangerous is well worth the price of admission simply for this gloriously atmospheric, well-balanced, plays fantastic, space exploration/combat simulator.  However, as it is currently much ado about nothing, I wait with bated breath for what additional aspects of purpose the developers come up with and actually get around to implementing.

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