The immediate impression Elite Dangerous makes is that it’s a very complicated game. The core of the game, flying a spaceship from station to station, easily becomes lost in the sea of systems the game drowns you in when you begin. What I love about Elite, though, is how accomplished flying is. It’s supremely satisfying to drop out of warp, to request docking permission from station security, to execute the perfect landing, to plot the optimum route to your next stop. Elite is a game of routine so it’s a good job Frontier, the developer, have done such a stellar job making every part of that routine the best it can be. I played Elite Dangerous in 2017 but it was first released in 2014. This year saw the game change dramatically plus it was released on PS4, so I feel comfortable including it here.
Elite is a game about finding an activity you like and repeating it. When you begin the game, you’ve got a small ship and a few missions which introduce the four main activities: combat, trading, exploration and mining. Where most open-world multiplayer games (I avoid the increasingly useless term ‘MMO’) attempt to show every player all the content, Elite’s happy for you to experiment until you find your routine. Trading, in my case.
What makes Elite compelling is that every part of my routine is satisfying and cool. When I’ve bought the commodity from the station I’m in, I request to leave. The station raises me up to a landing pad, turns my ship so it faces the exit, and releases the docking clamps so my ship can float. Then I navigate to the narrow station exit, waiting my turn when there’s oncoming traffic. I leave, retract my landing gear, and make my first warp jump. Most journeys take multiple jumps, so in each new solar system I reorient myself, find the correct path to the next system and steer around the planet or suns blocking my path.
When I reach the correct system, I have to plot a course to the station which takes me in at the correct velocity to approach the station rather than overshoot it, or worse crash into the planet it orbits. I arrive at the station usually intact, open my communications screen, request docking permission from the station, and sell my goods.
Every part of the routine has been perfectly tuned for maximum effect. Since the game can only be viewed in first-person from a cockpit view, there’s a satisfying physicality to turning your head to the communications screen to talk to a station, and turning it to the other side to make sure you’re carrying the right cargo. The sound design is perfect; the thrum of your ship dropping out of warp, the whirring of your weapons when they’re being deployed instantly excites me as a sci-fi fan. Even waiting for a docking pad to clear is evocative, since it’s a sign of other ships and players busying themselves with their own errands at every station. It’s easy to feel present in Elite’s cockpits since Frontier have done a stellar job of realising the sound and the physicality of life in space.
Elite’s also a game of terrifying possibility. When I’m hauling goods, completing a delivery or recovery mission, I don’t encounter any resistance the vast majority of the time. Usually when a job asks you to go from A to B it’s that simple. Of course, that routine makes it frightening when something does happen. I’ve only been interdicted once in 20 hours of Elite. Interdiction is where a ship pulls you off your intended course and into their area of space so they can either rob or kill you. The other pilot wanted my cargo of basic medical supplies and I didn’t want to give it them. I had no chance in a fight: my ship, the Type-10 Transporter, is fitted for hauling and I removed my weapons to save power. It wasn’t a heroic fight I narrowly won: instead I stalled the player by pretending I didn’t know how to give him my supplies just long enough to charge my frame-shift drive and run away.
It was thrilling. Space is vast in Elite, so finding players is rare, and finding a hostile player is rarer still. Meeting a pirate in deep space was a little like being invaded for the first time in Dark Souls: in both cases, I met someone who was going to kill me in a place I thought was safe, and because of that it was far more shocking and impactful that meeting an enemy player in any other game. Even though I survived in an unconventional way, I didn’t cheat. I outwitted an opponent in a way few if any other games allow. I channelled Han Solo when I talked and talked and talked until the trouble passed.
Elite is a comfort game most of the time. It’s familiar and pleasant to work out what I want to trade, how far I want to go, and how to make the most money. It’s neither intellectually demanding enough to make you devote all your concentration to it, nor so simple it’s boring. You can probably comfortably execute your routine in Elite, but you’ve still got to watch out for the heat of the sun, the planet in your path, and if you’re the commander of the Sulfur Loveliness the pirate who doesn’t believe you can’t work the inventory screen.