[HANDS-ON] Elite: Dangerous – so many stars, so little time

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As has famously been observed, in space no one can hear you scream. This is especially true in the dark and lonely void that is the Elite: Dangerous Premium Beta, which was launched last week.

In 2013, Elite: Dangerous raised R27m through Kickstarter for its creator David Braben to make the dreams of all forty-something gamers’ dreams come true and update the original and ground-breaking 1982 classic space trading-sim which can claim all number of accolades: first space sim, first truly immersive sim, first 3D game and the special prize for sheer bloody awesome-ness.

Also, it was the first videogame to have been used as the basis for a musical theatre production:

Kickstarter backers have been playing the Alpha version as a thank-you for a while, but with the release of Premium Beta anyone can join in and get an early taste of how the game is shaping up. You can play Elite: Dangerous now for the not inconsequential fee of R1 700 rand.

The Premium Beta is almost entirely multiplayer-based. You can gasp in awe as pilots enter the slotted maw of the dodecahedral space stations and touch down in their allocated docking slot without placing a single space-toe on the brakes. You can laugh as lessor drivers attempt the same and smash into the rotating sides of the orbital hulks. You can grimace and clutch your joystick tightly as you duck, dive and thrust your way in ship-to-ship PVE or PVP dogfights.

But in space, no one can hear you scream – the communications system hasn’t been implemented yet. All those ships are mute.

This isn’t, however, a terribly pressing problem in and of itself. The soundstage of Elite: Dangerous is almost as beguilingly elegant as the gorgeously updated graphics which pay homage to the original wireframes but bring the cockpit of your craft to life. Engage throttle for the first time and I challenge you not to smile at the sound of your ships engines revving up: part Cylon attack craft, part Porsche racing engine and part two stroke lawnmower your Sidewinder snakes off into oblivion sounding for all the world like one of the Mangalore fighters from Luc Besson’s The Fifth Element.

Eventually, you'll be able to land on planets. Right now they're just scenery.
Eventually, you’ll be able to land on planets. Right now they’re just scenery.

What Elite: Dangerous does is capture the atmosphere beautifully. Even at this early stage, when you can only visit five of the 400 billion projected star systems that will be in the final release, it’s engrossing – and that’s some achievement already. Aside from the missing 399 999 995 suns, there’s also no mission structure as yet, and yet I still find it beguiling. You’re limited to a few PVE battlegrounds, the occasional attack by pirates and trading – which of course is almost the entire point of an Elite game.

To get started in Elite: Dangerous you’ll need to build up a bit of capital. You start in a humble Sidewinder, with just four cargo slots and a ridiculously ineffective single laser. You have 1 000 credits and no reputation to speak of: which makes the first few hours a slog.

To succeed, you buy low and sell high. Each system has a single space station with a menu of goods you can purchase or sell. The economy is dynamic, prices change according to supply and demand, but at this stage of development they’re fairly predictable. There are already apps and web calculators to help you eke out maximum profit running between Dahan’s Gateway and Chango Dock with alternating loads of cobalt and domestic appliances: in the early game you can earn just under 1 000 credits every round trip, not a bad return to get you started.

Yes, I love being an intergalactic washing machine salesman. There. I said it.

400 billion stars in the galaxy and you had to walk into this one.
400 billion stars in the galaxy and you had to walk into this one.

The reason is that the travel mechanic is both frustrating and incredibly satisfying. The Elite: Dangerous universe is set up to model real-life Newtonian physics, which means systems are hundreds of light years apart and planets or space stations within them separated by vast numbers of parsecs.

To deal with this, your ship has three types of drive: The first is your regular jet-and-thrusters for combat and docking – more on that later. The second is a faster-than-light drive which can be used to travel within a system. It reacts to local gravity, so accelerates and decelerates depending on throttle and how close you are to large masses. The most interesting mechanic is that if you get too close to a planet and you may find yourself trapped in its orbital radius, desperately trying to pilot out of range to engage your light drive again.

Disengaging the light drive is a fine art – if you’re flying towards a space station, for example, you have to manipulate the speed down to 200km/s as you pass within 200km in order to lock onto your target and return to normal speeds within range. Otherwise you’ll hopelessly overshoot and either spend days trying to dock or turn the light drive back on again.

Coming out of hyperspace usually drops you next to a sun. If you don't steer away fast you'll get caught in its gravitational field.
Coming out of hyperspace usually drops you next to a sun. If you don’t steer away fast you’ll get caught in its gravitational field.

The final drive is a hyperdrive for warping between systems. Again, you can’t be close to other large bodies when engaging it, but it is fly-by-wire – line up your destination, engage the drive and something a little like the opening sequence of Doctor Who takes over your field of vision as you pop through a wormhole and cover vast inter-stellar distances in a few seconds.

So that’s trading – and the important thing is not to upgrade your ship too early. Lose an unmodified Sidewinder in battle and you’ll eject and get given a new one for free. Lose one with an extra gun emplacement and you’ll have to spend a fair chunk of cash to replace the ship as is. Do that without a capital buffer and you’ll be left with no reserve for trading.

I found saving about 5 000 credits before buying a second laser and engaging in a bit of profitable but risky bounty hunting to be the best way to go. Ace pilots out there might be willing to take a few more risks.

The new space stations are astoundingly detailed. But still modelled on the original wireframes.
The new space stations are astoundingly detailed. But still modelled on the original wireframes.
This is what they looked like in the '80s.
This is what they looked like in the ’80s.

What else is in the game so far? The ship interior is pretty much finished and looks awesome, combat is pretty much there too – your ship has a very simple but deceptively detailed range of controls and systems, which make balancing shield power versus laser cooling power while trying to get behind a tooled up Cobra MKIII quite the challenge. It is, however, virtually impossible to fly with a keyboard and mouse. To get the most out of Elite: Dangerous you’ll need one of those fancy joysticks with lots of buttons and a separate throttle.

Which fortunately I have. It’s not been used in a long time, but was well worth dusting off for this.

And finally, docking. Docking in the original Elite’s wireframe stations was infamously difficult. The new stations in Elite: Dangerous are also dodecahedron in shape, and rotate at quite a pace to create gravity. They look awesome, but as you close in on the letterbox mouth (having first requested permission, of course) all those horrible memories of crashing into the side come flooding back.

Fortunately, these new orbiting shipyards are much easier to enter, and once you do you’ll have to navigate the hollow inside to your allocated landed pad where you must touch down with precision. It’s tricky to get the hang of, still, but you’ll get it right on your third or fourth try, rather than the 30th or 40th of games of yore. If you don’t get it right, the chances are you’ll simply bounce off the internal hull, which is fine. Hover too long before touching down, however, and the station authorities will charge you with loitering. Which – rather unfairly – is punishable by instant death.

Cause of death: big laser to the canopy. No court of appeal here.

Your docking bay has been assigned. Proceed swiftly and carefully to it. Or else.
Your docking bay has been assigned. Proceed swiftly and carefully to it. Or else.

And that is pretty much it. On the one hand, it’s an unfinished game about intergalactic street hawkers with no real purpose or reason for being there. On the other, it’s already the most atmospheric and enjoyable space shooter I’ve played since… well, since Elite (and trust me, I tried to like the X-series for months).

Should you buy it yet? If you’re a nostalgic old Brit who grew up with Spectrums and BBC Micros, developer David Braben deserves your R1700 just for being David Braben. For any one who doesn’t have the emotional tie? No. Save your money and wait for the final game. Not only will you be getting a bargain (essentially a space trading game the size and scale of Eve Online without a monthly fee), but if this first public beta is anything to go by it’ll be even better by then.

Plus, I’ll have saved up enough in-game money for a really big ship, and I’ll be coming for you. With all my washing machines in tow.

See you then, commanders.

The starting laser needs about 200 direct hits to take down an enemy ship. Yeah.
The starting laser needs about 200 direct hits to take down an enemy ship. Yeah.
Adam Oxford

Adam Oxford

Adam is the Editorial Director at htxt media. He has been writing about technology for almost two full decades now. In a previous life, he was the editor of PC Format and Digital Camera Shopper in the UK, before going on to work as a freelance journalist for seven years. His work has appeared in or on Stuff, The Guardian, Linux Format, TechRadar, Wired.co.uk, PC Gamer, Green Futures, The Journalist, The Ecologist and The Review. Adam moved to South Africa in 2012 and loves 3D printers, MakerFairs and tech hubs. He hates seafood. None of his friends remember this when cooking.