Elite Dangerous is a game that demands much, but rewards more. It’s not a space fighter game, but a space simulator. It sets the lofty goal of recreating the Milky Way Galaxy in a 1:1 ratio, and then setting the player loose to explore it in any way that they see fit. I’ve put in quite a bit of time into Elite Dangerous, but my space-nut of a wife Laura hasn’t touched it. After a little bit of practice with a HOTAS setup, we donned our VR helmets and set out among the stars. If you are just starting out in the universe, or if you are a fan who is wondering what the game offers, let’s talk about Elite Dangerous in 2021.
First and foremost, there are people that have forgotten more than I’ll ever know about Elite Dangerous, playing it daily since its launch way back in 2014. I don’t profess myself to be an expert, but I wouldn’t call myself a casual either. I’m sure you’ll let me know if I’ve missed anything. Remembering my own rough entry into the game without much of a tutorial, I was happy to see that my wife wouldn’t suffer the same fate. Working through the tutorial, it introduced concepts I had to stumble upon and learn on my own, slowly and gradually adding more complexity as she took her first steps into a wider universe. She’s played flight sims with an X-56 from Saitek before, so it was more learning the specifics of Elite Dangerous. There are still some challenges with them as they lean hard into the story elements, saying things like “This is going to be a difficult landing without fully deployed landing gear, Commander” but not exactly telling you how precisely to do that. There’s still additional tutorial additions to be made, Frontier. Or maybe just flash the button on the panel?
Being able to look around the literally 100 billion stars is absolutely awe inspiring, and having it so lovingly rendered in extraordinary detail is frankly shocking, given that this game is headed towards 7 years old. The game looks gorgeous, and it runs on very reasonable hardware. The scale of planets, ships, asteroid belts, and the magnitude of space stations are magnificent, and that’s not even talking about the mind-blowing experience that is VR. We’ll get back to that, but suffice it to say: Elite Dangerous is a looker.
One thing that I truly love about Elite Dangerous is that space is quiet. Setting out into the universe in VR is even more so. There is nothing for the sound to bounce off of, so even when there are sounds, they are very muted. If you watched the most recent iteration of Battlestar Galactica, they absolutely nailed this aspect of lonely silence. Now imagine being out in the middle of nowhere, far from a shipping lane, blasting chunks off of a drifting rock. Your attention is on your work, so there’s a very good chance that you won’t hear those Sidewinders hanging behind you until your radar picks them up, dangerously close. It creates a tension to everything you do when being knocked out of a shipping lane and accosted can change your simple grab-and-go mining mission into a knock down drag out fight for your life in the blink of an eye.
Elite Dangerous’s most recent expansion, Odyssey, wants to take this experience and translate it to the ground game. Landing on the hundreds of available worlds (which is a seamless experience, as is the rest of the game — there is no loading screen beyond the initial one), you’ll finally be able to get out and explore. Sure, Horizons gave us the ability to drive around in small vehicles, but now we are free to roam about on foot.
Like the rest of the game, Elite Dangerous is rooted in physics, and going on foot is no exception. The atmosphere may require special equipment to land, and getting out of the ship means picking up a suit to handle whatever hazards that planet contains. Grenades, gunfire, and even jumping are affected by the gravity of the world. All manner of creatures and plant life are waiting for you to discover, and when you are the first, you’ll get the credit for the discovery. Mysterious shipwrecks and abandoned stations offer both risk and reward, with unseen dangers and impassable debris, unless you’ve brought the right tools.
The very things that make Elite Dangerous as immersive, engaging, and occasionally obtuse and impermeable are the same things that make it divisive. If you are looking for a pickup-and-play game that holds your hand every step of the way, then I’m gonna say this is not the game for you. If you are looking for a complex and bombastic story full of twists and turns, Elite Dangerous is going to be a disappointment. That said, if you are looking for a game that sets you free in the vastness of the entire galaxy and lets you earn your living however you see fit, then read on.
Hauling cargo, engaging in a little space piracy, escorting your friends as they ferry VIPs across the stars, or playing as a bounty hunter are all very viable, and each one brings their own risks, rewards, and gameplay style. Elite Dangerous is a lot of things at once, and it means there’s also a lot to learn. What is a fuel scoop? If it’s what the name suggests, how do I use it? Does it rip off if I engage my hyperdrive? How do I stop myself from overheating when being too close to a sun? How does one start a job mining minerals? What do all these stats mean? Is THIS where you use the cargo scoop? How do I just get off the damned landing pad before the base defenses decide they want to cut me to ribbons? How do I deploy my frame shift drive? Oh my sweet merciful Cthulhu, how do I stop and not run into the SUN?! I guess what I’m saying is that the game has a learning curve, but truthfully…that’s what makes it work.
Believe me, when I finished the tutorial missions and was given an armed ship with the ability to leap between the stars, I had no business in the pilot seat. Thankfully, part of the tutorial got me off the landing pad with a computer assist and spat me out of the space station, away from anything I might shoot or bump into on accident. I throttled up and moved away from the station a bit and tried to remember how to charge up my frame shift drive — the system that lets me travel beyond the speed of light. Nope, that’s weapon hardpoints. Nope, that’s the scoop. Well, I put up my landing gear so that’s nice. Oh hell, I just dumped my cargo hold contents. Fast forward about an hour and I was no longer using the auto takeoff and landing system to enter and exit space stations. In fact, I had already remapped my controls to match my playstyle, using the small motion stick on the throttle for a small final descent onto the landing pad. I picked up a custom layout and modified it from there. I not only knew how to deploy the frame shift, but also how to troubleshoot when it didn’t deploy properly (your weapon hardpoints are probably still deployed). It’s not unlike playing your first Soulsborne game — you get dead until you get good, and then you are hooked.
There’s one last thing that makes Elite Dangerous jump from a solid space-faring adventure to something otherworldly — virtual reality. Donning a VR HMD, you are entering an entirely different universe. On the H-56 I have to use my castle on my stick to “look” at my panels to the left or right, or glance upwards or downwards in the cockpit. With a VR helmet, I can just…look in that direction. It feels more natural, and it’s immediately intuitive.
If you’ve played VR before, you’ve likely noticed how everything seems dramatically bigger, and when we are talking about already huge planets, it’s simply awe inspiring. Ships go from big to huge, and stations are behemoth. Approaching a planet in the distance goes from “look at that tiny thing” until you come out of warp and realize that you are an insignificant spec amidst this massive celestial backdrop that has just consumed every square inch of your forward vision. If Elite Dangerous does anything better than any other game out today, it’s scale.
Let’s address the elephant in the room — Star Citizen. Comparisons between Star Citizen and Elite Dangerous are inevitable. They both set out to create a massive slice of the universe, but they came at it from the opposite directions. Star Citizen is attempting to create every single system from scratch, opting to launch it in chunks without coherent webbing between functions. While it is fun, it’s still very much alpha. Yes, you can walk around, you can dogfight, there’s a FPS module, and you can trade, but it’s not exactly a “game” yet, nor will it be for some time. Elite Dangerous opted for the opposite approach, launching a game with flight, stations, trading, and dogfighting, and then iterating since then. Horizons let you land on moons and planets and roll around in your own personal ground vehicle. Odyssey iterates again and lets you get out of the cockpit and engage in some FPS action. In short, Odyssey spells another iteration, and that’s both a pro, and a con.
As you can see in the video above, you can now land at a station, and instead of interacting with static menus, you can get out of your ship and walk around the station. Some are massive sprawling affairs, and some are small outposts in the middle of nowhere. Inside you’ll find the same vendors and characters you’d have run into in Horizons, only now fully realized as people. You can order a drink from the bartender, quest givers call you over to put you to work, and other seedy characters will try to get you to take out their competition. The stations are incredibly detailed, with gorgeous lighting and slick presentation all around. The only problem here is that it’s currently all window dressing, and repetitive at that. You’ll see the same station repeated frequently. While it’s not reasonable to expect that they’d model 10s of thousands of stations by hand, whatever randomization element that is supposed to make each unique isn’t here, or isn’t working. The people stand around and wait for you, and I can’t say I’ve spotted another player that I didn’t bring with me. It makes the whole thing feel rather empty — like it revolves around you, and they are simply waiting for your arrival.
Eventually you’ll end up in combat on foot. The shooting mechanics work relatively well, though guns lack “oomph” that can make your foes feel like bullet sponges. Enemies will use shields and try to take cover, but at this stage the AI isn’t the sharpest. They’ll routinely funnel up paths, climbing over the corpses of their friends without a second thought. They’ll also run directly towards you for the most part, having only a juke move that all of them seem to share to try to dodge incoming fire. FPS AI is difficult, and this one is merely middle of the pack.
When you do run into other players and the guns come out, the game changes. Fighting your foes in low gravity means flying around at crazy angles, and that makes for some fun, albeit rare, encounters. There is also a new mode called Frontline that is meant to fill the on-foot PvP gap, with NPCs joining in. It is essentially a capture-and-hold mode, though I’ve not found enough people participating to try it for myself. Odyssey separates players into haves and have nots, so it’s unsurprising.
I was disappointed to find that I had to take off my HMD when you step foot on the ground — VR isn’t supported by any ground-based activity at launch. There are plenty of games that do this well, so perhaps this is something we’ll see in the future.
While on foot, there is a new skill to play with — xenobiology. Discovering and cataloging the various denizens of the myriad of worlds present in Elite Dangerous (or at least the ones identified as ones you can land on) will keep you busy. Putting your boots on terra firma, you’ll use your handheld computer to scan the various life forms. With that data collected, you’ll bring it back to a station and sell it at a shop accepting biosamples. It makes for another non-confrontational method of making money, just like ferrying passengers and trading. If you are into making a peaceful living, this new skill could be worth pursuing.
During other on-foot missions you’ll be tasked with going inside of space stations to explore. There are often goodies on shelves or scattered about the place. You’ll use a pocket welder to open the door, or have to charge the door with your suit, but it’s the basics here. This is another example of a minimum viable product — it works, but it isn’t going to set the world on fire with its complexity.
I’ve actually delayed this hands-on with Elite Dangerous Odyssey quite a bit. I’ve seen the team apologize for the bugginess (and I ran into a few), and I’ve seen the team respond with very long patch notes of things they’ve hemmed up. What it speaks to is a team that listens to the community, but frankly launched a little early. That said, Frontier also has a reputation for iteration. They’ll battle through the bugs, they’ll continue to refine. In the meantime, there’s a whole lot of universe to explore. Just maybe keep your boots off the ground for a lil bit.