Elite: Dangerous PC Review: Let's Get Dangerous

Frontier's massively multiplayer space combat sim is striking in its breadth and scope, but it's not an easy nut to crack. Our full review.

Kat has been hauling space freight and fighting battles against the Empire and the Federation for the past week. Here are her final thoughts on Frontier's epic space combat sim.

Kat Bailey Day 1

Elite: Dangerous sometimes makes me question my life choices.

Last night I was up until 2am hauling freight, desperate to find that sweet spot where I could finally make some actual money. Naturally, it wasn't until the very end that I suddenly received a handful of really good missions, at which point I had to go to bed. Up until that point I had spent literally hours just flying between stations with my cargo.

I've been asked if this is "fun," and I honestly don't have an answer. All I know is that I really want to jump back into my Hauler because I'm pretty sure that I can make some serious money on this run and buy a Viper or a Cobra. That's what Elite: Dangerous is all about—living life in the spaces between stars and trying to find the next big score before everyone else. It's at once insanely addicting and insanely boring to just sit there hauling freight, but I can't really stop. I feel like I'm almost to the point where the galaxy will really begin to open for me and I can embark on some really excellent adventures.

Combat is exciting, but you'll spend a lot of your time hauling freight.

The road to get to this point has been a long one. I've been playing on and off for a few months now, but it's only been recently that I really feel like I've gotten a handle on the game's mechanics. Somewhat embarrassingly, I didn't realize that upgrading my frameshift drive was crucial for being able to traverse the galaxy, which resulted in me plotting ridiculous routes from star to star because I didn't have the range to set a direct course. But Elite: Dangerous also doesn't help much in that regard either, despite its handful of basic tutorials covering navigation, combat, and docking.

What I've had to come to grips with is that Elite: Dangerous is a space sim in the truest sense of the word. There's almost no automation—not until you can afford a docking computer, at least—and so you handle pretty much all of the procedures yourself. Just the process of getting from one point to the next involves plotting a course, escaping the station's gravity well, carefully zeroing in on your destination while steadily decelerating, requesting permission to dock, then guiding your ship into the bay and to the landing pad. It's fascinating in that it really makes you feel like you're traversing the stars, but it's also time-consuming and somewhat overwhelming, especially to newcomers. It was a while before I really felt like I had a handle on all of the processes.

Once you get your head around the actual process of getting from planet to planet, though, things begin to open up. At base, Elite: Dangerous is an open-galaxy MMO in which you are competing with thousands of other players to make money. The quest for money can take many forms: Combat, mining, piracy, or simply hauling rare freight (both legal and illegal) for the best possible prices. All of this is against a backdrop of conflict as various factions battle against one another, encouraging you to either take sides or simply prey on the fringes. It wouldn't be accurate to say that it's like EVE Online—no one player can rule the galaxy or set up a killer organization—but it is possible to have a significant influence on galactic events, become a notorious pirate, or simply while away your hours mining asteroids in the middle of nowhere.

It's the open-ended experience that ultimately interests me the most, because it's the meat of the Elite: Dangerous experience, but I've been mostly stuck at the fringes hauling freight to this point. Without any kind of story to speak of—the narrative is mostly handled via dynamic events, conflict zones, and the natural progression of the various factions as the players align with them—Elite: Dangerous feels like a bit of a grind in the early going. However, the prospect of a really good ship and even more freedom has thus far proven to be good incentive to continue.

Getting back to the original question of whether this is all "fun," I'm still not sure I have an answer. It's certainly been different, and the thrill of terror when a pirate pounces on a big haul will stick with me for a long time, but I almost feel guilty how much time I've wasted at the controls when I'm done. This game is truly an enormous time sink.

With all of that said, I'll see you all in Yoruba. Just please leave my cargo alone. A gal has to make a living.

Day 3

It took utter disaster to finally shake me out of the rut I had fallen into with Elite: Dangerous and push me into the wider galaxy.

You may recall that I had spent most of my time hauling freight up until the point, which at times had caused me to question my life choices. I also mentioned that I was on the verge of a very nice payday. Well that's true; after much grinding, I finally got a mission asking me to haul a load of silver for 35,000 credits. With that money, I would have enough money to buy an Eagle starfighter. I was very excited.

I was so excited to get into combat... and then I died.

I had the silver and I was heading into one of the docks in the Yoruba system when I saw a message that made my heart stop: "Trespassing Warning." I had been so focused on landing and getting my money that I had forgotten to ask for permission to dock. I fumbled with the controls to turn around, but it was too late; the station vaporized me and I lost my cargo and my money. When I respawned back at Yu Station, I had 1,000 credit to my name.

If I hadn't been on the hook for a review, I might have quit right then and there. Elite: Dangerous can indeed be a cruel mistress. A cruel mistress indeed.

Instead, I picked myself up, dusted myself off, and headed to the near shipyard. Unable to deal with hauling more cargo, I sold my Hauler with its advanced Frameshift Drive and used the proceeds to buy myself an Eagle. It was time to have some fun.

So this is the part where I talk about the combat in Elite: Dangerous. In general, it's very good. It's possible to fly everything from fast and nimble fighters to heavy duty transports bristling with turrets, with weapons coming in a variety of flavors. I ended up buying a gimbled burst laser to pair with my pulse laser as well as a machine gun, making my Eagle a mean flying machine. I eagerly sought out an opponent and got ready for my first real dogfight.

After some searching, I eventually found a pirate in one of the many Unidentified Signal Sources floating around every system—essentially an instanced event in which its possible to collect contraband cargo or fight CPU opponents. I eagerly opened up my hardpoints... and suddenly had every system go to zero. My weapons were drawing too much power for my measly power plant to handle. In the meantime, the pirate was peppering me with weapons fire and cracks were forming in my canopy. The next thing I knew, I was eating raw vacuum.

Let me tell you, there's nothing worse than having your canopy blown out in Elite: Dangerous. You hear the cracks forming, then there's the sound of glass shattering and the powerful whoosh of vacuum, and the oxygen countdown begins. Absent a miracle, it's a death sentence; five minutes isn't nearly enough time to get back to a station and effect repairs. I raced as fast as I could for the nearest platform, but I knew it was already too late. It was back to the respawn screen for me.

This happens to me a lot in Elite: Dangerous, I find. I'll be doing really well for a while, then I'll hit some terrible setback that questions my will to keep playing. Getting my Eagle blown up in my first encounter wasn't as bad as losing my cargo and all of my savings, but I wasn't too happy about having to grind more money to buy a new power plant. Thankfully, Elite: Dangerous allows you to sell equipment at face value. I sold off the burst laser and the machine gun and used the proceeds to buy a new power plant. Soon after, I was back in business.

Over time, I've found that combat is a much more enjoyable way to make money in Elite: Dangerous; at least for me. There are always plenty of CPU pirates to kill, and they usually (though not always) yield a solid payday. Before I knew it, I was making between 10,000 and 20,000 credits per bounty, and I was getting lucrative assassination missions. Of course, there's the added risk of accidentally getting bounties on your own head—the Feds get quite testy when you accidentally hit them in the course of a firefight—but it's worth it for the added excitement.

At the moment, I've got two pirate hunting missions on the docket that will yield substantial paydays; and I've also found a planet that sells Non-lethal Weapons—items that are crucial to leveling up your reputation with the Federation. Life is looking good. It just took utter disaster to get there.

Day 6

A little side effect to hunting bounties that I've discovered over the past few days: Everyone in the Federation seems to hate me now.

In Elite: Dangerous, pretty much everyone seems to adhere to the philosophy of, "Shoot first, ask questions later." You may recall, for instance, the time I nearly went broke because I forgot to ask for permission to dock at Mendez Station and got blown out of the sky, losing a valuable cargo in the process. That happens a lot in Elite: Dangerous, and combat leaves you more opportunities to run afoul of the law than usual. For instance, accidentally shooting a Federal ship while trying to take down an enemy fighter, which results in an instant bounty and everyone trying to kill you.

Which brings me to the factions, which is one of the keystones of Elite: Dangerous. In Elite's universe, there are three major factions—the authoritarian Federation, the slave-trading Empire, and the liberal Alliance, each of which control a swath of space. Under these three major factions are dozens of smaller factions that run the various space stations, control trade, and dispense missions. Doing business with them will earn you goodwill with both the main faction and the sub-faction, with the reverse also being true.

The problem as I see it is that reputation is currently weighted too heavily toward the negative side. After hours of painstakingly trying to build solid ties with the Federation and the Yoruba system parties, I find myself continuously stuck at "Unfriendly." Just a handful of screw-ups—a fine here or a warrant there—can send your reputation with one faction plummeting, undoing hours or days of work.

This is an issue because systems and factions that are rated as "Unfriendly" won't hand out as many missions. What's more, Earth—where many of the most interesting missions take place—is only accessible via Federation permit, which can only be obtained by becoming friendly with them. I've done my best to keep my nose clean over the past few missions by avoiding combat in Federation-controlled systems and selling contraband at independent stations, but I feel like I'm stuck running in place. Now that I have enough money for a Viper, I'm tempted to pick up stakes and switch over to the Empire, which is where most of the action is happening right now anyway.

That's one thing I think is pretty cool about Elite: Dangerous, actually—the events. Go to the Bulletin Board and check your GalNet feed, and you'll see stories about the Emperor's crazy son, Federation blockades, and Imperial slave revolts. All of these stories have a bearing on the gameplay—most of them represent a good opportunity to make big money—and depict a universe in motion.

One thing I've found about Elite: Dangerous is that it's best not to get stuck in a rut. Yes, some systems can offer some pretty lucrative trading opportunities, but it's best to keep moving and experiencing new things. Elite Dangerous' universe is gigantic, and there's a lot to find.

And really, I never much liked the Federation anyway.

Day 8

Alright, having played Elite: Dangerous pretty much non-stop since launch, I now feel comfortable assigning a score to this game. So let's wrap it up, shall we?

The first thing I'll say is that in some ways I'm really conflicted about Elite: Dangerous. I mean, it has a hold on me that has rarely been rivaled by other games, so it must be doing something right. But as I said at the very beginning of this process, it also makes me question my life choices at times. Someone recently compared it to Euro Truck Simulator, and I think that's an apt analogy. This is Euro Truck Simulator... in space. With lasers.

Okay, that's an over-simplification. In reality, Elite: Dangerous defies description. It is kind of whatever you want it to be, provided that your desires exist within the framework of flying around in a spaceship. You can become a member of the Federation military, linger around the Nav Beacons and hunt bounties (my favorite pastime), or you can be a space trucker. At its best, Elite: Dangerous feels vast, with a million things to do at any given time. Every time I feel like I've wrapped up my space errands for the day, I get five more things to do, and then it's suddenly 4 in the morning and I'm wondering why I'm not sleeping like a normal human being.

At its worst, it's tedious, opaque, and to some extent, unfinished. Elite: Dangerous lays the groundwork for a really fantastic open-world space combat sim, but Frontier has yet to fill in the gaps with high level content, preferring to rely upon in-game events and the imagination of its players. If you're looking for any kind of structure, then you're apt to be disappointed. The main goal in Elite: Dangerous is to upgrade your ship to the maximum extent possible, with the grand struggle for succession in the Empire mostly relegated to the background. I should add that of the three available factions, the Empire is definitely the most powerful. Helping the Federation is license to get your teeth kicked in by superior ships in PvP.

What's weird about Elite: Dangerous, though also oddly compelling, is how much it emphasizes the sense of being a lone wolf over running a pack. There is an in-game friend's list, but it is extremely basic, with no clans or squadrons to speak of. In that way, it's almost like Dark Souls in the way that players will interact with one another without ever really saying anything. Elite: Dangerous doesn't totally preclude player interaction—I've seen players organize via message boards and other locations—but there is little in the way of organic group play. In Elite: Dangerous, it's everyone for themselves.

Elite Dangerous' last issue, as I've already mentioned, is that it has a learning curve about a mile high. It does a decent enough job of imparting the basics via a handful of tutorials, but the actual flow of the game has to be learned via trial and error. It was quite a while, for instance, before I realized the importance of Unknown Signal Sources, Conflict Zones, and upgrading my Frameshift Drive. There is a rhythm to Elite: Dangerous, but it's not the easiest thing in the world to find. Once you do though, everything starts to make sense, particularly the actual act of flying.

That, ultimately, is why I like Elite: Dangerous. For all my carping about its complexities, the actual act of flying is surprisingly easy. It's certainly no Il-2 Sturmovik, where one wrong move will send you plummeting out of the sky. Flying is smooth and enjoyable, and in fact has a lot in common with X-wing in the way that it emphasizes power management and speed. Of course, all of that comes with the caveat that I've been playing with a Saitek X52 Pro furnished by Madcatz—a $185 beast of a flightstick that actually lights up when plugged into the USB port. Suffice it to say, this is not a game you want to be playing with an Xbox 360 controller, or even a cheapy Logitech flightstick. It's possible, but you're apt to get your lunch handed to you in a real dogfight. At a minimum, you'll want a throttle, which is crucial for managing speed during battles.

Should you decide the initial investment worth it, you will likely find Elite: Dangerous an incredibly addictive experience, particularly once you get into the flow of trading and battling among the spacelanes. It does an incredibly good job of capturing the vastness of space, as well as the sense that you're just a tiny speck in the grand scheme of things. It remains to be seen how well its grand story—in which the player population has a hand in determining who becomes the new Emperor by supporting certain factions—will payoff, but it's done well to paint a picture of a galaxy in serious upheaval with the continual emergence of new Conflict Zones. I'll admit, a part of me pines for a more directed experience; but I also feel like Elite's strength is its freedom, and I'm glad it's not railroading me into some overblown story.

My general sense is that this is only the beginning for Elite: Dangerous. The foundation is strong, the community is dedicated, and the development team is committed to building out the world for what appears to be a long time to come. Give it a year or two, and I expect Elite: Dangerous will have a huge amount of new content. As it is, Elite: Dangerous is still a fascinating and entertaining space combat sim with nearly unmatched scope, which more than makes up for its gigantic learning curve and lack of structured content. If you've spent the past decade pining for a new space combat sim, then you'll find a happy home in Elite: Dangerous. I'll see you there.

Visuals
Elite: Dangerous is striking to behold, with extremely detailed spaceships and massive docks. You really feel like you're sitting in the cockpit of a freighter or a starfighter.

Sound
Elite: Dangerous marries a minimalist soundtrack with excellent sound effects. The music is almost entirely absent, leaving you to contemplate the vastness of space. Honestly, it's a great game to play while listening to a podcast.

Interface
The head-tracking is cool but unintuitive, and Elite: Dangerous does a terrible job of laying out all of its commands. After much experimenting, I ended up splitting the game's myriad commands between my flightstick, my keyboard, and my mouse. It works well now, but it's not the smoothest experience.

Lasting appeal
Elite: Dangerous is the kind of game that can take over your life once you get into the swing of things. Approach with caution if you want to have any other hobbies. This game is seriously addictive, and it never really ends.

There are moments where Elite: Dangerous feels like my Game of the Year. The flow of hauling goods, collecting bounties, and building my reputation with the game's various factions has often kept me occupied for hours at a time. On the other hand, as cool and immersive as it is to fly from one station to another, it's also extremely time-consuming and often tedious, with a learning curve that should be measured in astronomical units. I love it and hate it in equal measure, not the least because it's completely taken over my life this past week. But man, I really can't wait to play more.

4/5

Tagged with Elite: Dangerous, Frontier Developments, simulator, space combat, USgamer.

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