The PC version of Elite: Dangerous is an unabashedly hardcore space exploration/trading simulation. Massive in scope, largely unstructured, and boasting an exceptionally steep learning curve, players are free to do what they want. Whether you aspire to be a pirate, smuggler, bounty hunter, stellar cartographer, trader, or a mix of all of the above, Elite: Dangerous gives you an open universe to explore and make your fortune however you see fit.
Now the game has been ported to Xbox One, and so far, it seems to be almost exactly the same game that I played on PC. It hasn't been simplified, and indeed it features some of the most complex controls I've ever seen mapped to a joypad. However, despite it having a similar learning curve to the PC version – expect to play training missions for a good hour or so before you can even start successfully doing basic stuff like traveling between space stations and docking – I found using a joypad to control the game was actually easier than the PC. It does take time to get used to which buttons its myriad controls are mapped to, but there is a logic to it that makes it a lot easier to learn than using a keyboard.
I basically spent an evening tooling around using the training missions and experimenting, and had a lot of fun. There were some basic frustrations too – such as remembering to lower my landing gear when I went into a space station and getting the ship in just the right position so I could actually successfully dock my craft. It was a little hit-and-miss at first, but eventually I managed to do it. And therein lies the early rub of Elite: Dangerous: if you're going to have fun in this game, small victories like successfully flying a space ship into a rotating space station and landing on a small docking area have got to float your boat. If you're easily frustrated, then this is probably not the game for you.
Beyond the basics, the game feels very akin to the same original Elite that had a huge impact on me when I first saw it running on a BBC microcomputer almost 30 years ago. Since then the game has taken on almost legendary status.
It’s not hard to see why. When Elite 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 if 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 a 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, and sold at planets where demand was high. Similarly, goods could be transported between systems for profit. Those seeking adventure could take on military missions and go bounty hunting – which could involve space combat, and the potential for the destruction of their ship and death, unless they’d equipped it with an escape pod. Or if all that was just too honest, daring players could become a pirate and 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.
Elite: Dangerous is a conceptual throwback that offers the same basic premise as the original game. Players start in similar fashion than they did in 1984, with nothing but a basic spacecraft and a pocket full of change – and the mission is to go out there and seek your fortune in whichever way best suits your disposition. Only this time the galaxy has grown. Around 160,000 star systems have been recreated using real astronomical data based on our galaxy, and if you want to travel beyond them, you can. The game creates additional stars and planets procedurally, based on statistical data to make the experience as realistic as possible.
In terms of vocation, the player has the same choices as before. 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 massive numbers of players potentially playing it – space is a big place, so players are generally spread extremely thin, and even then, certain busy space ports are instanced. This is to ensure that the game doesn’t become just a PvP space combat game, with players robbing one another for profit.
There is an upcoming new aspect of the game that will deliver this – Close Quarter Combat is a dedicated PvP mode that essentially allows players to fight one another on equal terms in specially-built PvP arenas. But in-game, if you start shooting at other players, you'll very quickly attain wanted status with a nice bounty on your head that other players will be quite happy to kill you for – without being penalized themselves.
The game is being tuned to offer a combination of single-player and multiplayer experiences. Elite's universe is dynamic, and offers a variety of different things for players to do. Whether it's following a gold rush to a newly-discovered planet, tracking down mysterious signals – which could offer bounty or be some kind of trap – or simply schlepping cargo between colonies for profit, there will be a variety of ways to earn money in the game – even from exploring and selling your astronomic data to those who seek it.
These commercial opportunities aren’t the only thing that is fluid in Elite: Dangerous’ single universe. There are also potential wars and political situations the player can become involved in. Whether you take sides, or simply take advantage of situations commercially to traffic goods and services between factions is up to you.
In terms of combat, each craft 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 of 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 heat of your ship rapidly climbing until you have to open all vents (or explode).
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, making combat potentially very tactical.
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 generate heat, open your vents and make yourself look like you're temporarily vulnerable… until you unleash your cool-firing Gatling gun and rake your enemy’s ship with hot lead. There's certainly plenty of potential for all manner of smart tactics to be used in battle.
What's clear so far, with about six hours of playtime elapsed is that Elite: Dangerous on Xbox One is basically the same, highly sophisticated, deep and overwhelmingly huge game as the PC version. It pulls no punches, and offers little in terms of niceties and conveniences. This is a game you'll spend hours learning, but that investment will pay off in terms of a game that offers many months of potential exploring and trading: it's an MMO space game of a like that really hasn't been seen on consoles before. I've not even scratched the surface of the game, and I'm already deeply impressed. Elite: Dangerous is still in an early access/preview state, but if you want to try it out, there's a free demo you can download, and if you want to buy it, you can do so at a discounted price of $30.99.
If you do decide to jump in, remember that this is an early version, and you will potentially have crashes and other issues. So far, I've had one complete lockup, and a protracted period of not being able to log on. It's to be expected with early access gaming, but I thought it important to remind everyone before they set off that this game still isn't finished yet – despite it mostly feeling that way.