Sitting down to play Elite: Dangerous with its creator David Braben is a strangely surreal experience. The original Elite had a huge impact on me when I first saw it running on a BBC microcomputer almost 30 years ago.
It’s not hard to see why. When it was released in 1984, most software companies were churning out fairly simple games with bitmap graphics. Comparatively, Elite featured 3D vector graphics - with hidden line removal no less. That alone made it feel like it was several generations ahead of everything else. But the groundbreaking space-trading game had far more up its sleeve.
While most games were designed around an objective-based, coin-drop philosophy driven by the massively popular arcade games of the era, Elite was an open-ended game. And how open! It featured eight galaxies to explore, each with 256 procedurally generated planets.
Players took control of a basic space ship, and were free to go where they pleased – as long as they had the fuel to get there. Earning money was paramount, and cash could be acquired a variety of different ways. Asteroids could be mined for resources that could be sold at planets where it was needed. Similarly, goods could be transported between systems for profit. Those seeking adventure could take on military missions and go bounty hunting – which could lead to space combat, the potential destruction of their ship, and death unless it was equipped with an escape pod. Or a big payout if they were successful. And if all that was just a bit too above board, daring players could resort to piracy and simply destroy other ships for loot. But that would mean having to avoid solar systems with law enforcement.
There were new ships to buy and customize with everything from bigger cargo bays and better weapons to a hyperspace drive and an extending scoop that let you refuel by flying close to a star. The game was huge, deep and sophisticated. There really was nothing else like it – and there wouldn’t be for many years to come.
I put countless hours into the original Elite, so it goes without saying that I’ve been looking forward to getting my hands on this sequel ever since it was Kickstarted into life in January 2013 to the tune of $2.6m. My immediate impression is that it that it captures the spirit of the original game very successfully. Of course, there are one or two visual differences as you might expect considering the 30-year gulf between the original 22k 8-bit game and the multi-gigabyte, high-end PC version I was looking at, but stylistically there are similarities – most noticeably the ship scanner/radar, the layout of cockpit, and the design of some of the ships. A really neat touch is that a replica of the BBC microcomputer the original game was released on has been integrated into the cockpit display as a keyboard.
As well as taking styling cues from the original game, Elite: Dangerous also echoes its gameplay. Players start in similar fashion to the way they did in 1984 - with nothing but a basic spacecraft and a pocket full of change. The mission is also the same: Sally forth and seek your fortune in whichever way best suits your style and disposition. Only this time the galaxy has grown. Around 160,000 star systems have been created using real astronomical data, and if you want to travel beyond them, you can. The game procedurally generates additional stars and planets based on statistical data to make the experience as realistic as possible.
In terms of vocation, the player has the same choices as before. What's different this time around, however, is the threat of other players. Elite: Dangerous is a multiplayer game, although it’s not going to be massively multiplayer, despite potentially massive numbers of players actually playing it. Braben explains, “Most of the ships you meet in the game will be AI. We don’t want players to be nature’s victims. We’re using alpha to test out how many players should be put together in an instanced session – for example around a space station. We think maybe a few tens of players is what you want, otherwise things begin to get crowded.”
This is to ensure that the game doesn’t become a purely PvP space combat experience. Additional measures are also in place. “Players join a Pilot’s Federation that cracks down very hard on players who attack other players,” says Braben. “If you do, you’ll get a bounty on your head, and other players will be able to attack you without penalty.”
The game is being tuned to offer a combination of single and multiplayer experiences. “What we try to do is make sure that whatever profession you’re good at, you’ll generate about the same amount of money as another,” says Braben. “While exploring, you might come across distress messages. But is it a trap? Is it an opportunity?”
These individual adventures are offset with a universe that promises to be dynamic. Elite’s Frontier will be in continual flux, with regular changes being implemented by the game's designers. Braben explains, “There will be gold rushes in the spirit of 1849, and people will rush in. Resources might be needed, or there might be the opportunity to make money. Or perhaps a world might go into a state of famine.”
These commercial opportunities aren’t the only thing that will be fluid in Elite: Dangerous’ single universe. There will also be potential wars and political situations that the player can become involved in. Braben gives an example, “If there’s an uprising on a world that uses slave labor for mining and the slaves are successful, the price of ore might skyrocket. Will players want the price of their replacement ships to go up? If the majority of players side with the oppressors, the revolution will fail, and things will return to normal and that world will go back to making cheap hulls for the player to buy. Though I’m hopeful players will side with the oppressed and help it become a free independent world,” he adds.
In terms of the “geography” of Elite: Dangerous, there are many kinds of systems. The inner galactic systems are generally more law abiding, but as you travel out to the Frontier, you’re on your own. It’s important, therefore, to make sure your ship is correctly geared before you head out into the great black yonder.
Each of the game's many space ships has a number of hardpoints upon which can be mounted specific hardware. Weapons are of course very important, but so is evasion technology. Heat plays a very important part in the game. Engines and weapons all generate heat, and the hotter you are, the easier you are to see on another ship’s scanner. You can “button up” your ship temporarily to become nearly invisible. However, that results in the internal temperature of your ship rapidly climbing until you have to open all vents (or explode). Buying a heat sink might help dissipate that energy.
This use of heat is further complicated by the use of energy. Depending on the circumstances, you can route power between your shields, engines and weapons. This complexity is a deliberate move by Braben, who explains, “There haven’t been many of this kind of game. Elite: Dangerous is about tactics and strategies. You have limited resources.”
That certainly makes it feel like the original game. Losing a ship had real consequences, and making an aggressive move against another ship – or possibly player in the case of Elite: Dangerous – isn’t something to be taken lightly. Battles can be protracted – a potentially cat-and-mouse situation where patience and smart use of resources will win the day. If you go in guns blazing, you might quickly overheat your ship and be a sitting duck. Or perhaps you’ll use your heat-generating lasers deliberately to quickly raise your temperature, open your vents and make yourself look like a sitting duck… until you unleash your secondary cool-firing Gatling gun and fill your unsuspecting enemy’s ship with good old-fashioned lead.
Elite: Dangerous is certainly an exciting prospect, and one that became even more so when I played a combat demo while wearing Oculus Rift. While I’m not a huge fan of VR headsets for every kind of game, I do think they work extremely well with simulators where you’re essentially sitting down and looking around. In the case of Elite: Dangerous, it’s absolutely terrific. I quickly glance around the cockpit to get my bearings and then immediately start flying after the enemy ship that appears in front of me. I chase it through an asteroid field, slowly wearing down its shield with my lasers. As it arcs and loops above and below me, I track its movement: the experience is realistic and natural.
After I finally destroy the target and return to reality, I cannot help but be impressed. Elite: Dangerous is the perfect game for Rift. Its incredible visuals combined with an utterly convincing cockpit experience delivers a breathtaking, immersive illusion.
But even without a VR headset, Elite: Dangerous is looking phenomenal. It continues the legacy it started 30 years ago: open-ended, cerebral space exploration and adventuring that more than any other game gives you the chance to be the starship pilot you want to be, and go where no-one has gone before.
Oh, and you can shoot first too.
We had the chance to interview David Braben at GDC to tell us more about Elite: Dangerous and the way it works with Oculus Rift. Here's what he had to say: