The Final Frontier
Author’s note: Since I have never played the original PC version of Elite Dangerous, this review will encompass my whole experience of the game, and not just a review of the console port.
What if video games had a promised land? Some kind of wonderful paradise filled with strong single player content and wholesome online communities. In that promised land, there may be be a little corner where the perfect space explorer game could rest. A science fiction marvel, Star Trek meets Doctor Who, where worlds could be discovered and fantastic adventure is always a quick warp jump away. Whatever that game may be titled, hopefully it will avoid the mistakes of Elite Dangerous.
Elite Dangerous is, if nothing else, a multiplayer space sim. With the multiplayer aspect being minimal, most players are just names flying by. Mostly the player character explores the galaxy, mines resources and engages in combat all from the comfort of the cockpit. When first starting the game, there is a purposeful lack of direction. The player enters the galaxy in a starting ship and given free reign to play as you please. That at least is the intention. What happens instead is that the player is forced to take part in tedious tasks to unlock various functions or features. So the freedom is a bit of a bait and switch. Which wouldn’t be so bad if all of the tasks early players can complete were fulfilling or interesting in any way.
The “quests” in Elite Dangerous mainly involve a few things. Transport people to place, mine things from a place, or go shoot a ship. Ready to do that transport mission? Better hope you upgraded your cabin. Maybe mining is more your speed, sure hope you didn’t spend all your money on that cabin, because mining lasers aren’t cheap. Be careful when accepting that bounty hunt mission, because if you don’t buy guns to replace the laser pointers they call firearms you are in for a treat. The game does a poor job of educating you on how to prepare your ship for these tasks, and not all merchants have what you need. All of these tasks provide the player with credits which can be used to upgrade your ship and unlock new ways to do these same kinds of quests. This loop is the heart and soul of every sim game. So the fact that there is a loop isn’t a negative in itself. The issue with Elite Dangerous is that in its quest to be the definitive realistic space simulator it forgets to do one simple thing. Be fun.
Elite Dangerous is a frustrating game to play. Soaring through the galaxy can give the feeling of infinite possibility, until you have to really control your ship. Perhaps some will find joy in the gritty clunkiness that is flying in Elite Dangerous. For others, the game will be a chore. Even the simple act of landing at a port can take five minutes. This is a practice makes perfect situation, but the practice is not fun. Spinning around a port for 5 minutes like an idiot trying to guide your ship to the perfect spot is not fun, it is hair ripping insanity. Same with warp speed. Also known as the FSD drive, this is the tool players use to quickly move around a solar system. So say you make a run across the system to the nearest space station? No problem, activate your FSD and start gliding, but you need to make sure you deactivate your FSD at the EXACT right time. Otherwise your ship will zoom right past it and you will need to turn around and try again. Activate it too soon, and you will be so far away from the station that you will have to enter FSD again and then deactivate quickly. None of this is fun, and the urge to get better is absent, since the only thing the player will get better at is mindless tasks. Even the combat is lacking.
Combat in Elite Dangerous is underwhelming. Most encounters involve you spinning your cruiser until you can lock the enemy ship in front of you and then hold fire, since your ship locks on for you. Your ship also spins at a glacial speed, it is difficult to place the number of times I turned my ship to meet my enemy, only to have them zoom past and be forced to repeat the process again. Once you lock onto your enemy its time to fire. So long as you are able to take them out without losing sight of them, since just about every ship has regenerating shields. It is also possible to be trapped in a two on one situation, which the game vehemently states is possible to win. Since I was unable to even beat the tutorial version of this scenario, I’ll take their word for it. Once again, practice makes perfect, but if the practice isn’t fun, why bother?
Elite Dangerous is just not a fun game to play. It is extremely pretty, and catapulting through space with no particular goal is quite relaxing. When it comes to creating a fun game that keeps the player coming back for more, it still has a long, long way to go.