Space and science fiction used to be popular in the nineties. It started long before then, but by the nineties we had multiple Star Trek shows, Star Wars came back, and there were more games like Elite Dangerous than I could count. And then, like Star Trek on TV and Star Wars in the theatres, there came a point in the two thousands when people didn’t really want space any more. And the space sim disappeared. Games like Freelancer and X-wing or Tie Fighter were once cherished, but now people were starved to know what it would feel like to be a pilot behind the joystick of their very own space faring craft. With Star Wars, Star Trek and The Martian all doing exceedingly well at the box office the time has never been more right for a space simulation resurgence. It’s disappointing, then, that Elite Dangerous is so complex and unintuitive most people will see in it all the faults that let the genre die a decade ago.
If there’s one place that Elite Dangerous succeeds more than anywhere else, it’s easy to point to the simulation. This game takes realism about as seriously as the last game I reviewed, Tom Clancy’s Rainbow Six Siege. However, while the realism in Rainbow Six (And trust me, that’s where the comparisons between them end) creates new gameplay challenges and compelling multiplayer experiences, here it does little more than add tedium to an already extremely tedious experience.
You start the game at a station with a starter ship, and absolutely no sense of where to go or what to do next. This is not one of those guided experiences you might be used to. This is more akin to Minecraft, or perhaps EVE Online, where you are dropped into a world/universe and told to make your own way however you want. Of course your ship is a dinky piece of garbage loaned to you by the developers, so you’ll have to take on missions to buy a new one slightly better. There’s combat missions, but your ship isn’t strong enough to handle them. And online forums are quick to point out a lot of mission types are quite glitchy and often unbeatable.
To progress forward, I personally only had luck with small simple trading missions. Since I only had 4 cargo spots and my ship couldn’t jump far enough to make it to a lot of distant systems, I was stuck taking only the least paying jobs. This usually involved filling the cargo hold, leaving the station (Promptly once released, as loitering nets you a fine), and using hyperspace to jump from one solar system to another. Traveling light years takes as long as the loading screen as you snap into place uncomfortably close to the sun. It’s traveling between systems where tedium sets in.
Much of your time is spent pointing your ship at a distant object and watching as you slowly accelerate to far faster than light speeds, then decelerate. And you have to give equal time to both, or risk passing right by your destination. This whole process can take upwards of ten minutes at times, and is so engaging that you can go for a smoke and come back without missing anything. Docking is just as tedius, only far more engaging, as you have to guide your ship in, and slow it down to hit softly against just the right tiny ten meter square. That said, I did find the docking more enjoyable than flying within the solar system. But each and every system in this game is so complicated, that only the most hardcore sim fan will have the patience to figure it all out.
Even as a trader, things aren’t always easy. Some missions would ask me to retrieve a commodity for a station, without any suggestion where that commodity might be found. There’s a whole buying and selling economy in this game that’s very inaccessible with external means. This game is a lot like World of Warcraft, in that you can get a lot more out of it if you take advantage of online databases. I found one here, https://eddb.io/ and it was integral to the experience, allowing me to input which station I was at and what I was looking for, and the site would tell me where the nearest station was that would help me. Of course it wouldn’t be any help for combat missions that say things like “Kill this person” and give a solar system, without any suggestion where in that massive solar system to begin searching.
And even if you get the money for a bigger ship doesn’t guarantee you’re going to be able to do all the things you want. Just to mine requires multiple open slots that most ships don’t have. You can always take slots from important systems like shields or scanners, but yet again a potentially simple gameplay design decision has been made with a focus away from fun and towards complete tedium. I never got to the high level ships, and I never attempted to get to the late level missions, but I assume all the late game depth in this Elite: Dangerous runs off the same simple philosophy as “clicker” games on the app store. Make the numbers bigger. The bigger numbers lets you make the numbers get bigger faster. All games like this can be boiled down to that, and how well they hide it depends on their narrative structure and with no narrative structure to speak of, the numbers feels like all there is.
There’s more to hiding statistical gameplay systems than just narrative structures. It also helps to have very pretty graphics, and this game does try to push them forward in spades. The ships all look very pretty and are high resolution, and there are stations so huge and majestic that you can fly inside and gaze in awe at the ships coming and going from more than fifty different landing pads. Entering a system to the glorious blazing beauty of the sun is a sight worth experiencing at least once. Watching the game work was a marvel to see, but it’s to be mentioned that I also watched the game chug on numerous occasions. A couple times my xbox had such a hard time processing what was happening on screen, that it would give up the ghost and crash entirely. This didn’t happen enough to be game breaking however.
It should also be noted that the space genre has been pulling off high resolution textures and complicated lighting effects for a long time. I’m not sure if I can point at too many very specific ways in which this game looks better than it’s closest comparison, the PC MMO EVE Online which was released in (are you sitting down?) 2003. I’ve actually put some thought into that, and how space games have been able to pull off looking so great for so long, and I think I’ve come across a theory. While the ships in EVE Online all looked better than anything in any other game at the time, space is very empty and there’s a lot less the computer has to generate than on the ground with walls and trees and a skyline. You can have far higher resolution textures when your console only has to compute four or five of them at a time. All that considered, one has to question how much credit can be given to the look of such a game, especially when other aspects of graphics such as the art direction comes across as bland and uninspired. To make matters worse I have photographic evidence (below), of low resolution planets sneaking in to even this modern day experience.
Like the graphics, it’s hard to say that the sound direction is particularly inspired, however it does boom and whoosh and fizz with a considerable level of satisfaction. When you blast into a system it’s enough to make you jump. And as you get closer and closer to the sun, the crackling and hissing of your ship slowly melting is enough to make you cringe. When “Super-cruising” around the solar system, acceleration has a somewhat unrealistic way to it in how it builds only to reset like a screaming toddler stopping to take a breath. Also I came across certain sounds not playing when their supposed to, such as when firing certain lasers or retracting hardpoints. No glitch was particularly recreatable and most the problems I had with the game were legitimate design decisions and not issues with the game’s presentation.
There is a large open universe to explore, with perhaps thousands or more stations and suns. There are many complex systems in place that are easy to learn and difficult to master. Wait, no, I meant difficult to learn and impossible to master without internet resources. Elite Dangerous asks you to invest a lot and does little to reward your efforts but there is definitely a lot to see, even if it all could quite possibly be only very slight variations on everything you’ve already seen in the first handful of hours. There’s a lot of random points in space to explore, but most of them lead to death, and almost all in this game will eventual feel like a waste of time.
Watching my girlfriend try to figure out how this game works made it quite clear that this game requires a far higher level of thinking than most people sitting down on their couch wants to put in. I’ve often believed that there is no mechanical or electronic system I can’t figure out how to use, and as such I was quite used to experimenting and figuring out how things work in Elite Dangerous. But there’s a type of person smarter even than I. They are capable of not just figuring out systems easily, but figuring out how to manipulate them, and take advantage of them for their gain. It’s perhaps people like that who will get the most out of this game, but for everyone else it seems more beneficial to just steer clear. Elite Dangerous is so complicated and unintuitive that it makes all the mistakes behind the collapse of the genre a decade ago. If you’re like me and desperate for a space simulation experience, it’s probably best if we all just wait for Chris Robert’s Kickstarter god of a game, Star Citizen. Even if it’s going to take longer than Duke Nukem Forever to get here.