The vast majority of my early days playing PC games were spent restarting my career in one of the
Wing Commander games. Due to the game's use of permanent death for wing mates, usually from my own hands, I simply couldn't live with myself knowing I couldn't save everyone. The moment I saw the first screenshots of Wing Commander: Prophecy and the new 3D engine, I just had to return to the vastness of space. Wing Commander began my love for games that took place in space, but if you grew up across the Atlantic, Elite may be a more familiar name.
Unlike Wing Commander, which focused on enemy engagement and blasting the furball feline menace the Kilrathi, Elite emphasised the importance of trading and exploration. It has been 20 years since the original title, but Elite has not been forgotten, and through the use of the crowd-funding platform Kickstarter, the series has been reborn to a new generation of space faring adventurers.
Elite: Dangerous's draw comes from the accurate mapping and full-scale recreation of the entire Milky Way galaxy. When you start off, you are given a decent starter ship, 1,000 credits, and you are left alone to do anything that you want in the galaxy. My recommendation would be to play through the tutorials before venturing online. Otherwise you may find yourself unable to afford repairs after accidentally deploying hardpoints (weapons) inside the space system, followed by firing them accidently inside the station, and you'll have every Federation ship in the vicinity disintegrate your ship. Outside of an optional control checklist before launching, Elite: Dangerous will not hold your hand. Even a simplistic task as docking in a revolving space station can be deadly. You're bound to make mistakes early on in the career as a commander, colliding with things you shouldn't be or worse, flying too close to a star. If you think you have reached a point where you can't get back on your feet, you are free to delete your save file and start fresh with a new commander. Sadly, the name Commander Keen has already been taken.
I shouldn't have to say it, but a HOTAS (a flight stick) is highly recommended, although I have been playing the game with a PlayStation 4 controller with moderate success. The controls are fully customizable, allowing you to change key bindings or buttons to anything you desire. The default mouse and keyboard controls are subpar, and if you want to go that route, you may want to search the Elite forums for recommended settings.
As an online title in the same fashion as Diablo III and Destiny are online only games, you must be connected to the servers at all times. There are options however to tailor your experience depending on how you want to interact with other players. I've chosen to play in the unrestricted open-world, allowing me to see all other players, and experience the good and bad that come with it. Setting the option to solo or private group will limit your interaction with other players.
As it was with the original Elite in 1984, Elite: Dangerous focuses on exploration and trading more than combat, although you can choose to follow a bounty hunter path if you desire. After docking with a space station, you can access missions that task you with delivering goods to another system, taking out pirates, and other fetch style quests. Trading is the most intricate; as every system will have varying prices on goods, think of it as the difference in goods or gasoline from one state to another in the United States. Depending on your influence and reputation, you may not be able to turn-in or access missions, let alone even dock at some stations.
Although Elite: Dangerous is an evolving world with your actions impacting all other players, the game can feel lonely if you aren't playing with people you know. Hailing other players gives you the option of communicating through text or voice. The voice chat option mixes in digitized sound, giving the allusion that you are hailing another vessel in the vastness of space. I appreciated the little detail, but if you are like most gamers, you'll already have an open Skype or TeamSpeak channel.
The game utilizes three different traveling options, each having their own use depending on the situation. Hyperspace will be your quickest option to travel between star systems. You may have to make multiple jumps to reach your destination, leaving you vulnerable in an unknown system while you recalculate the coordinates. While in a system, you can choose to fly at a normal rate, best for dog fighting and docking, but Supercruise, a step down from hyperspace, can move you from planet to planet within a system. While in Supercruise, you'll be in control of your thrusters, giving you the option to speed up and speed down at will. Mastering the controls in Supercruise takes some time, so expect to zoom past your intended target multiple times, before perfecting the art.
Supercruise isn't without surprises, as you can be interdicted and pulled from your scheduled travel plans. If this happens, you are giving the chance to fight out of the interdiction. Most of the times it will be another player that wants to test out some new hardpoints on unexpecting new players, but you may also have to watch out for AI controlled ships depending on the system you are in. At one point I was in a fierce battle against someone with a high bounty, and two Federation ships showed up to join the pursuit. After collecting the bounty, I tried to avoid being scanned by the Federation ships (I did have some contraband stashed away). Hastily making it to the nearby station, I found I had a bounty and a fine that needed to be paid off.
There are many different factions in the galaxy, and if you aren't reading the news blurbs that are posted while docked, you will miss out on current events in the game. Even then, I recommend signing up for the Elite: Dangerous Newsletter in order to gain tidbits for the on-going narrative. I do think this approach to a narrative is different, as the majority of games that put you front and center in the story. At the time of launch, players were able to determine the fate of the Emperor, by taking sides in a conflict within the Imperial worlds. I choose to stay out of the conflict, as my tiny Sidewinder had no chance against engagements involving capital ships.
I've mentioned earlier the emphasis on exploration and trading, but at times you can't avoid confrontations and Elite: Dangerous has some of the most satisfying combat since the classic LucasArts games. Each ship can be equipped with dozens of upgrades and various pieces of equipment, but the true fun occurs when you save enough credits to purchase a new ship. With the starting ship, you don't have to worry about purchasing insurance, incase some pirates get the best of you. Spend hard earned credits on anything bigger, and you will rue the day you didn't purchase additional insurance.
Elite: Dangerous has core mechanics that work well within the online multiplayer universe, but has many single-player components built-in. Missions tend to get repetitive, but I have yet to exhaust myself exploring a new system or planet. The universe can feel quite empty, even if you are playing with the open-world options. Frontier promises to expand the game with content updates, and if you were looking for a new paint job, they are available for purchase. You'll be sure to experience a new "wow" factor every time you play.
Note: The Elite: Dangerous review is based on a digital PC copy of the game, provided for review purposes.