Tuesday, 6 January 2015

Elite Dangerous: 3 Weeks In

Space. It's been a staple setting of my gaming hobby. Eve Online, Freespace 1 and 2, the X series, all the Star Wars games, and even to a lesser extent Starcraft all rely on the space setting of their games. But, beside the X series, the space simulation genre hasn't really seen anything new for nearly ten years. However, that's all changing. Late 2012 and early 2013 saw two major Kickstarters (and one small but extremely relevant one) for space sim games: Star Citizen and Elite Dangerous.

Elite was released on Dec 16 2014, and has enjoyed a lot of good publicity from both traditional games media and players themselves. As I said in my 2014 wrap up, I've been playing a lot of Elite since it was released. I also mentioned that I had some issues with the title and wanted to expand on why. To start, I want to make it very clear that my initial impression of Elite is a good one.

The area Elite Dangerous completely knocks out of the park is immersion. From having to manually dock and undock your ship, to the menus in your ship being holographic displays that your character actually looks at, everything in Elite sucks you into the universe, making you feel like you are really there. All of the ships I've flown so far have been extremely responsive, and feel like you imagine they would. A small, nimble ship can dart around quickly, stop on a dime and get to full speed quickly, whereas a freighter takes a little bit more time to stop and accelerate with all of that mass behind it.

Flying in Elite also has a great level of complexity to it. Your ship is able to enable "flight assist", which makes your ship fly more like an aircraft, with the onboard computer firing thrusters to arrest any momentum you might have in zero gravity. When you toggle flight assist off, your ship is able to perform the classic space fighting maneuvers such as spinning your ship backwards to fire at a target chasing you. This all leads to a simple to learn, hard to master flight model that I really enjoy. Where my first couple of dogfights I couldn't even track the target, now by alternating between flight assist on and off and using the vertical and horizontal thrusters on my ship, I can generally fight even targets bigger than me. Getting around is fun too. Your ship is equipped with a Frame Shift Drive that allows for either a warp like "supercruise" that enables you to travel across systems in minutes rather than hours or days, or a hyperspace jump to another system within your ships range.

Graphically, ED is extremely pretty and seems fairly well optimized. As I've mentioned before, my graphics card is 4 years old now (GTX570), but Elite immediately ran at 60 fps locked in a borderless window on almost max settings. I have had some frame drops in stations, however some mild tweaking to the settings has got me right back up to 60 with little hassle. While the ships aren't at Star Citizen levels of graphical fidelity, they are still extremely good looking and well animated. Opening cargo scoops, turning on lights, closing heat vents and lowering landing gear all change how your ship visually looks to other players.

So there's a lot Elite Dangerous has going for it right now, but... there's also a lot of problems too. The biggest and most glaring is the progression in the game. Currently there are fifteen ships in Elite, with 6 listed as multi-purpose, 4 freighters, 2 dedicated combat ships, 2 exploration ships and a passenger ship. In fact, here's a list of the ships (click to enlarge):
Table from http://elite-dangerous.wikia.com/wiki/Ships
Looking at that list, you can see the first six ships are all fairly close in cost (the Sidewinder you get for free). Once you are in a Cobra however, to jump to the next non freighter ship, the Asp, you need 6.6 million credits. Considering the Cobra only costs 379,000 credits, it's a fairly sizable jump. The same can be said for the jump from the Asp to the Imperial Clipper at 22.3 million (the Clipper also requires good reputation with the Empire, adding even more time).

None of this would be a major issue if making money was balanced. Unfortunately, Frontier seems to have opted for the "grind for ages" route of making money. Bounty hunting gives you laughable amounts of cash for the time investment, not to mention the risks taken. Exploration, flying to uncharted systems and scanning the orbital bodies there, takes a very long time and pays even less than bounty hunting for the time investment. They've also managed to make a mining system worse than Eve's, with the mining lasers chipping off little chunks of ore that you then have to scoop out of space like an infuriating game of space 52 pickup.

That leaves trading. By far the best way to make money in the game in terms of both credits per hour and risk, trading is exactly what you think: you buy commodities in one station, and sell them for more at another station. Frontier also introduced rare commodities, items that are only available at one station in the game and sell for more the further away you get from that station. Each station has a limit on how many rares you can get at any time, so depending on how large a cargo hold you have fitted to your ship, you might have to fly to a number of stations to fill up on them. Doing this, I can spend roughly an hour collecting rares in my cargo hold and then flying the required distance away to sell them for a profit of around 1.5 million an hour. Not bad considering.

But even trading has issues. Despite being 1000 years into the future, we apparently lost the internet, so where I would expect to be able to check prices of commodities in other stations, you can't, even within the same star system. This means you have two options. Either, break your immersion and use an outside tool to check prices or fly around star system checking prices and writing them down. I understand the need to not make it too easy to churn a large profit, but even allowing you to check prices within the same system would be a major improvement.

I'm one of the lucky ones. I actually quite enjoy the trading gameplay especially for rares. But, for what I assume is the vast majority of players, trading is dull. You wait around in stations, fly between suns, wait around in some more stations, then fly 150 light years away to repeat it all again. You can get interdicted by pirates while flying in supercruise, but the evasion mechanic to get away is laughably easy, and if you do get pulled out, it's usually pretty easy to evade the pirate until you can jump to supercruise again.

Frontier haven't really talked about how they feel progression should work. In fact, Frontier don't really talk about any design choices beyond a broad scope of, "we want the game to be..." and then they insert some grand scheme. It reminds me a lot of CCP when I first started playing Eve. They hold their cards very close to their chest, rather than providing the playerbase with ideas to give feedback on, and then are surprised when people point out obvious things that players are going to do. Even when they make changes that can affect a certain play style, they go into no detail, leaving players guessing what the exact change was.

Despite all this, Elite right now is still a very good game. It's not a truly great game yet, but it definitely has the potential to be one. You see, as much as I hate saying it, Elite right now is just a framework for things to come. There are many features they are still working on, such as planetary landing, walking in stations, multiplayer crews in single ships, passengers who give you missions as you carry them around and of course additional ships. The point at which my buddy and I can fly together in a ship will be the point Elite becomes truly great for me.

It's my opinion that if you are looking for something feature complete and ready to play, Elite is not going to be the game for you right now. As they add more and more to the game, it might eventually become the game you are looking for though, so keep your eye on news and updates about it. However the core of Elite Dangerous is brilliant, and simply needs more work to be really amazing. If you don't mind not progressing very quickly, or don't care about changing ships often, then Elite is well worth the buy. The immersion alone has been enough to keep me playing, and I really enjoy the bounty hunter gameplay despite the lack of real reward for it.

As always,


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