Elite: Danger­ous

PC

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We’ve seen things you peo­ple wouldn’t be­lieve. Ana­con­das on fire off the shoul­der of Eranin. We’ve watched beam lasers glit­ter in the dark near Kre­mainn Three. And we’ve spent an in­or­di­nate amount of time re­peat­edly seek­ing dock­ing per­mis­sion at busy out­post sta­tions. Time to try again.

While you’ll en­counter plenty of spec­tac­u­lar sights as you travel around whichever clus­ter you grav­i­tate to­wards in Fron­tier’s dis­ori­ent­ing and re­mark­able 400-bil­lion-sys­tem vir­tual Milky Way, most of your time in Elite: Danger­ous will be spent en­gaged in rather more pro­saic ac­tiv­i­ties, not mir­ror­ing the non­stop ac­tion sug­gested by the game’s fre­netic launch trailer.

Queu­ing is cer­tainly high up on the list. Or rather, wish­ing that you could queue. Danger­ous’s ad­her­ence to the imag­ined re­al­i­ties of ga­lac­tic pop­u­la­tion den­sity means that as you travel far­ther away from a civilised cen­tre, whether that’s ven­tur­ing be­yond the Goldilocks zone of a so­lar sys­tem or leav­ing it en­tirely, space sta­tions tend to be less com­mon and smaller. If you head some­where re­ally re­mote, land­ing per­mis­sion is un­likely to be a prob­lem, but it’s fairly com­mon to re­ceive a terse, com­put­erised “Dock­ing per­mis­sion de­nied” on busy trade routes and re­source hotspots.

It’s one of the few times Danger­ous over­steps the mark in its nods to re­al­ity. Float­ing in space just a few hun­dred me­tres from the only place that you can claim pay­ment for your most re­cent mission, en­gines dimmed to a quiet hum, is a frus­trat­ing po­si­tion to find your­self in – es­pe­cially given that sta­tions are of­ten clogged by NPC ships. But while mo­ments such as this might in­ter­mit­tently frus­trate, they are more than made up for when, for ex­am­ple, you jump into an un­ex­plored sys­tem and find your­self skim­ming along the shim­mer­ing rings of a gas planet sev­eral times the size of Jupiter, or find your­self fight­ing for your life as cracks form in your ship’s canopy just as your shields fail un­der sus­tained fire. Heart-in-mouth mo­ments are plen­ti­ful, but it’s Fron­tier’s will­ing­ness to em­brace the less im­me­di­ately rous­ing el­e­ments of trav­el­ling across dis­tances mea­sured in light years that will truly ex­cite your in­ner space geek. Danger­ous’s uni­verse hasn’t been built sim­ply to sat­isfy itchy trig­ger fin­gers (though the com­bat-hun­gry are catered for spec­tac­u­larly), but as a place for those who want to in­dulge their fan­tasy of living a science-fic­tion life, dull bits and all. There’s a per­verse plea­sure to fi­ness­ing your ve­loc­ity as you glide past plan­ets and moons on the way to your des­ti­na­tion, match­ing your speed to the re­main­ing dis­tance in or­der to safely drop out of hyper­drive. It’s rarely a quick process, es­pe­cially not in the game’s larger sys­tems –LHS 3447, for in­stance, of­fers a par­tic­u­larly daunt­ing he­lio­cen­tric sprawl – but en­sures the game’s over­whelm­ing scale is never un­der­mined and re­in­forces that sen­sa­tion of be­ing a pi­lot just a canopy’s breadth from the vac­uum be­yond.

Travel around Danger­ous’s galaxy is un­der­taken in one of three tiers, the first and slow­est of which is re­served for close ma­noeu­vres, dock­ing, min­ing and, should the need arise, dog­fight­ing. You have ac­cess to a recharg­ing boost, and can eke out a lit­tle more speed by redi­rect­ing your ship-core power to the thrusters (which will also have the ef­fect of more quickly charg­ing your boost). This is ef­fec­tive at short ranges, but try to tackle the gap be­tween plan­ets and your es­ti­mated jour­ney time will be mea­sured in days or years. Bet­ter, then, to en­gage your Frame Shift Drive (FSD), a ba­sic ver­sion of which comes fit­ted as stan­dard on all ships, even the bat­tered Sidewinder with which you begin.

The FSD re­quires a short charge be­fore it can be used, and for your weapons and any other ex­ter­nal tools to be stowed, af­ter which there’s a wel­come kick as your ship ac­cel­er­ates to faster-than-light Su­per­cruise speeds and the ce­les­tial bod­ies around you begin to move like an or­rery. It’s at this speed that you’ll del­i­cately guide your ship to­wards star ports, re­source-ex­trac­tion sites and anom­alies that catch your eye, and much less del­i­cately in­ter­dict other ships (here rep­re­sented as flares of blue light) in or­der to claim juicy boun­ties. It’s the eas­i­est way to ex­plore a sys­tem, but it’s also easy to over­shoot your tar­get if you’re not con­cen­trat­ing. And just as you can pull oth­ers out of Su­per­cruise, they can do like­wise, which can be es­pe­cially trou­ble­some if you hap­pen to be pulled over by a law en­force­ment ship and your craft’s belly is full of con­tra­band.

But even Su­per­cruise, re­al­ity-bend­ing as it is, won’t al­low you to hop light years at a time. Charge the drive again at th­ese speeds (or sim­ply while tar­get­ing an­other so­lar sys­tem), and you’ll be sucked into a strobing warp tun­nel and spat out in alarm­ing prox­im­ity to your des­ti­na­tion sys­tem’s pri­mary star. One sweat-beaded eva­sive ma­noeu­vre later, you’ll be back in Su­per­cruise, ready to ex­plore, or stop off to buy fuel. This setup strikes a wel­come bal­ance be­tween playa­bil­ity-fo­cused con­ve­nience and con­vinc­ing sci-fi func­tion­al­ity, en­sur­ing that you never feel dis­con­nected from other play­ers, NPC traf­fic or your own place in the game’s uni­verse. And Hyper­drive man­ages to avoid feel­ing like a cheap quick-travel op­tion, in­stead pre­sented as a danger­ous en­deav­our at the very edge of your tech’s ca­pa­bil­i­ties, and one that re­quires fas­tid­i­ous plan­ning us­ing the var­i­ous maps and nav­i­ga­tion tools avail­able to you. Wait­ing for the drive to charge can be frus­trat­ing early on – es­pe­cially when you’re mak­ing a jour­ney that in­volves mul­ti­ple hops, or have stopped some­where you didn’t in­tend to – but bet­ter ships and com­po­nents ac­quired later on can al­le­vi­ate that prob­lem.

The stu­dio’s de­ci­sion to fo­cus on com­bat and the feel of pi­lot­ing a ship dur­ing Danger­ous’s al­pha and

This uni­verse hasn’t been built to sat­isfy itchy trig­ger fin­gers, though the com­bat-hun­gry are catered for spec­tac­u­larly

the early stages of the beta, long be­fore the se­ries’ hall­mark ex­ploratory or trad­ing el­e­ments were in­cluded, has paid off with nu­anced, sat­is­fy­ing han­dling that sets a new stan­dard for any cock­pit-based genre, let alone space games. And the clever em­bed­ding of a deep UI into the var­i­ous ships’ at­trac­tive dash­boards al­lows pi­lots to choose the level of en­gage­ment they want to have with the in­tri­ca­cies of their craft. Quite a lot of it fits on a gamepad, too, and we man­aged to spend most of our time in the game with­out touch­ing a key­board or mouse, and still ca­pa­bly zip­ping about space with no flight aids. Even track­ing other ships dur­ing com­bat us­ing freelook on the right stick, rather than wear­ing a Rift head­set, pre­sented no par­tic­u­lar dif­fi­cul­ties.

But not ev­ery­thing is so well grounded in Elite’s fic­tion. While Fron­tier has de­liv­ered on its prom­ise of free­dom to make your way up the ranks in any way you choose, whether that be bounty hunt­ing or piracy, ex­plo­ration or min­ing, or any com­bi­na­tion of the avail­able ca­reer paths, some ac­tiv­i­ties are stymied by the game’s re­liance on in­stanced mission ob­jec­tives. A great many of the jobs found on star­port bul­letin boards re­quire you to search some­thing out – per­haps rebel trans­mis­sions, a black box or a par­tic­u­larly no­to­ri­ous pi­lot. You’ll find th­ese in uniden­ti­fied sig­nal sources (USS) that spawn around you, and must be trav­elled to in Su­per­cruise. You might find what you need first time, or you might have to stop at sev­eral be­fore what you need ap­pears. As such, th­ese USS en­ter­prises are un­pre­dictable, and the fact that sig­nals can take a while to ap­pear only un­der­scores their con­trivance in a galaxy that, for the most part, feels so or­gan­i­cally alive.

You’ll have to rely heav­ily on th­ese piece­meal jobs when you set out in your un­der-equipped first ship to grind out the cred­its for a heftier or more nim­ble craft, but USS events be­come less im­por­tant as you be­come more ca­pa­ble. Once you’re in a well-armed, size­able craft, it’s far more prof­itable to es­tab­lish your own trade routes, pa­trol nav bea­cons and re­source-ex­trac­tion sites for pi­rates, or set about map­ping un­ex­plored sys­tems and sell­ing that data on to re­mote sta­tions.

But trav­el­ling vast dis­tances takes its own par­tic­u­lar toll as the rep­e­ti­tion of as­sets chips away a lit­tle at the be­liev­abil­ity of each new for­eign port. There’s a pleas­ing amount of va­ri­ety in the ex­ter­nal con­struc­tion of space sta­tions and out­posts, but bar a hand­ful of ex­cep­tions, ev­ery sin­gle han­gar space is iden­ti­cal. On the larger sta­tions, which can have nearly 50 land­ing bays, space fork­lifts have taken the time to de­posit cargo boxes and can­is­ters in front of each bay’s con­trol tower in ex­actly the same for­ma­tion. With 400 bil­lion sys­tems to pop­u­late, it’s un­fair to ex­pect ev­ery­thing you en­counter to be unique, but even a hand­ful of vari­a­tions would go a long way to staving off the creep­ing sense of déjà vu that man­i­fests it­self af­ter a few hours spent with the game.

But this is a prob­lem symp­to­matic of Danger­ous’s un­fin­ished state. It might be of­fi­cially fea­ture com­plete, but Fron­tier’s am­bi­tion reaches con­sid­er­ably be­yond what’s in the cur­rent build. Planet land­ings, ex­plorable space sta­tions and ships, space­walks and func­tion­ing ecosys­tems are all on the stu­dio’s to-do list. It’s just what Danger­ous needs: the depth and va­ri­ety its exquisitely de­signed me­chan­ics de­serve.

Ana­con­das are min­nows com­pared to cap­i­tal ships, but they’re mighty craft nonethe­less and avail­able to pi­lot if you can af­ford the ask­ing price. You’ll have to be care­ful squeez­ing them through star port dock­ing en­trances

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