‘Elite: Dangerous’ Is the Han Solo Simulator You've Always Dreamed of
Frontier's new Oculus Rift-enabled game blew my tiny mind.
There are 300 billion suns in this swirling mass of gas and rocks we call the Milky Way. In reality, we're pinned to a single, solitary rock, cold and alone in a vast, unfathomable universe. But in Elite: Dangerous, the galaxy is yours to explore.
If you were alive and sentient in the 1980s, you probably played, or saw someone else play, Elite. First released for the BBC Micro in 1984, computer wizards Ian Bell and David Braben managed to squeeze eight galaxies and 256 planets onto a floppy disk.
Back then, most games were only slightly more complicated than Space Invaders. Simple, bleepy things that sat in the corners of smoky pubs and devoured 20p coins in wind-battered British beach arcades. But Elite was something else entirely.
Elite: Dangerous – E3 2014 trailer
You were free to play how you wanted, and the Milky Way was your galactic playground. You could become a fearsome pirate, a mercenary, a trader, or a pioneer. It was one of the earliest open-world games, allowing you to travel between the stars freely, long before Grand Theft Auto was even a twinkle in a sociopath's glinting eye.
"The ideas behind Elite are timeless," Braben tells me. "The earlier games formed a key part of many of our formative years. I also think it was a game that was, in many ways, before its time. We haven't seen anything else like it for years."
Fast-forward to today, and the long-awaited fourth instalment in the series, Elite: Dangerous, has 300 billion star systems waiting to be explored, conquered and plundered. It's a dizzying number, but the most obvious indicator of Braben's mad ambition for the game.
"There have been many challenges," says Braben, whose work in the games industry earned him an OBE in June. "It's been so long since the original game. Expectations of games today are already very high to start with, and we're also taking a slightly different approach. We're developing Elite: Dangerous for an audience like us – by which I mean the people working on the game and our backers."
By "backers", Braben means the 25,000 people who funded the game on Kickstarter. $1.5 million was invested, and it probably couldn't have been made otherwise. It's the latest in a string of classic games given a new lease of life through crowdfunding.
Free from the influence of a big publisher, Braben and his Cambridge studio, Frontier Developments, can make the game they want. But he also considers the people who invested in the game to be an important part of the development process, too. "I think this is the best way to develop," he says. "We don't need to 'second guess' our audience. Engagement with the backers is a fantastic way to validate decisions."
Elite: Dangerous is due for release on December 16th – but you can play it now, in the form of a beta. There are "only" 2,500 star systems in this pre-release version, but it's already hugely impressive.
You start in a backwater space station with a basic ship and a handful of credits to your name, and what you do next is up to you. The freedom is exhilarating, and also slightly overwhelming. It's a literal galaxy of possibilities, and deciding how you want to play will involve experimenting with the game's many jobs and gameplay systems.
After losing multiple ships in dogfights, I decided the pirate life wasn't for me and became, essentially, a space trucker. I bought a fat cargo ship and began ferrying supplies between space stations, making massive profits in the process.
That might sound like the most tedious thing imaginable, but remember, you're in space. The cosmic scenery that spins past your eyes as you travel between worlds in real-time is stupefying, with burning alien suns, colossal ringed planets, and asteroid fields made up of millions of individually-rendered space-rocks.
And you can share all this with other players. Multiplayer is a big part of Elite: Dangerous, and player interaction will make the galaxy more, well, dangerous. You can play solo with AI ships if you want, but sharing the world with other pilots – who could be friend or foe – will make things vastly more exciting.
People have already begun testing the limits of what's possible in the game. "I've seen some amazing videos of players using different in-game systems in ways we hadn't expected," says Braben. "I love Isinona's smuggling video (below), where they use the stealth mechanics to avoid a space station's police force."
Speed docking has also emerged as a popular way to kill time between missions. To dock, you need to squeeze your ship through a tiny, spinning slot, which for most people involves a slow, careful approach. But speed-dockers pride themselves in being able to fling their ship into a station and onto a landing pad in a matter of seconds.
While a full version of Elite: Dangerous will be available to play later this year, it'll be far from finished. Frontier's grand plan is to support the game for years to come, regularly adding new features, missions, ships and other content.
"We're planning on adding the ability to walk around and fight inside ships and on stations, ship-to-ship boarding, co-op play, entering atmospheres and exploring the surfaces of planets," says Braben. "Each of these is essentially a new game in its own right, so a lot of work is needed to make each component a superb experience."
As for what you can play now, the third version of the beta boasts a huge amount of new stuff to do including mining asteroids and scooping up fuel from stars. There are already hundreds of hours of game here, and it's feeling more complete, refined and polished with every update.
The original Elite is as important a part of video game history as Tetris and Mario. I ask Braben if he thinks Elite: Dangerous will have the same impact. "I do hope so. I feel like we've been pushing the boundaries already in the way multiplayer works, in the size and scope of the game, and in the way it is being developed."
Frontier is also probing the possibilities of virtual reality, and Elite: Dangerous is one of a few games that already features built-in support for the Oculus Rift. I've spent some time playing the game in VR, and I've never experienced anything quite like it. Being able to look around the cockpit, and see your in-game hand mirror the movements of your own on a flight stick, makes you genuinely feel like you're there.
In the thick of a dogfight, I saw enemy ships scream past my window and followed them by twirling my head around. I also spent at least an hour just floating around in space, staring slack-jawed at gargantuan planets and suns. If virtual reality takes off, Elite: Dangerous will be one of its most powerful showcase games.
This is the Han Solo simulator I've always dreamed of. Immense in scale, beautiful-looking, and bloated with exciting space-stuff to do, it's almost too good to be true. So many nostalgia-fuelled Kickstarter games are disappointing, clinging to past glories, but Frontier are making a legitimately brilliant, modern game that builds on the legacy of the original in a really exciting way.
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