"Have you played Elite: Dangerous before? No? Well why don't you come over and land this ship for us?" And then there I am, a flight stick in my sweaty right hand, throttle in my left, trying to land my tiny fighter craft inside an enormous, rotating space station while David Braben—the David Braben, co-creator of the original 1984 classic, Elite—and about a half dozen other people stare intently over my shoulder.
Back in form
Though it's only in alpha after a successful crowdfunding campaign, Elite: Dangerous is already under a bit of pressure itself. This year is shaping up to be the year that space cockpit games make a triumphant return after more than a decade of being all but put them to rest. I ask whether Braben is at all worried watching the genre he pioneered become so crowded again, what with Elite: Dangerous, Oculus Rift exclusive EVE: Valkyrie, and Star Citizen (from Chris Roberts of Wing Commander fame) all on the PC gaming horizon.
But Braben doesn't see it as a competition, not really. He sees it more like a wealth of options for wannabe spacers. Nobody would ever play Battlefield, Arma 3, and Call of Duty and then mistake them for the same game, after all. Space is, I'm told, infinite. There's certainly room for variation.
You've got EVE: Valkyrie, which as of now is a lightweight and arcade space combat game. Whether it progresses beyond that for the full release is anyone's guess, but it's an accessible and enjoyable shooter. Star Citizen falls on the other end of the spectrum—it's for the people who want to have a second life in space. The people who think, "I'm going to work 9-5, then come home, pop in Star Citizen, take on a job as a munitions loader for a much larger space corporation and I'm going to enjoy it, damn it."
Then there's Elite: Dangerous.
Elite is the most traditional of the three games. More simulator than Valkyrie, less "life replacement" than Star Citizen, Elite falls in the same "lonesome space cowboy" category as its predecessors, as well as other classics like FreeSpace 2 and Wing Commander.
No, I don't mean "space cowboy" in the Firefly sense. No boots and holster for you! But Elite: Dangerous is, at its core, about exploration… and trade and combat and ship upgrades and space stations and asteroids and pirates and all that. But first and foremost it's about exploration, a "Space: The Final Frontier" of video games.
In the near future—weeks away at most—Elite: Dangerous will enter its next alpha phase, which finally brings the trade and exploration aspects into the game. As a result, you'll finally be able to explore the full Elite: Dangerous map, which is utterly gigantic in true Elite form. Most of it is uncharted and ripe for player discovery.
There's going to be an overarching galaxy story, but like in the wide-open world of Skyrim, it's hardly the focus.
"There will be lots of threads that are all important in different ways," says Braben. For instance, you might take part in a "gold rush"—a mass of minerals is discovered out in, say, an abandoned asteroid field and people flock to the area. Over the next few weeks, you might see the abandoned asteroid field turn into a bustling commercial area. Then the raw outline of a space station will appear. And then, a few weeks later, a fully operational space station will open for business.
Or you might stumble on an instanced faction war and be forced to weigh in on one side of the other—and the outcome might forever change the economy of that region.
"Most of the ships you'll meet in the game we're designing to be AIs. We want people to cooperate. We don't want the victims to be players," Braben told me. He says they've already seen quite a bit of vigilantism emerge in the game—people enforcing their own laws against aggressive players.
"It's a bit of a social experiment," says Braben.
Hands-on with Elite: Dangerous Alpha v3
For now, Elite: Dangerous Alpha v3 is a collection of four smaller maps—a space station, an asteroid field, and some combat areas. It's not much, but it's already enthralling.
Even in this limited form, the little details are what make Elite: Dangerous so impressive. The bobblehead on your dashboard; the oily, lived-in feel of the space stations; the clunk guns make when they emerge from your ship's hull; the scream of your ship's engines, and the way you can immediately tell if you're overstressing them by audio alone; getting into a turn-war with a pirate and frantically trying to spot where the enemy disappeared to.
This might be an Early Access game, but it doesn't feel much like one. Most of the time, those "small details" are what separate the good games from the great games—that extra layer of polish that says "Love and craft and care was put into this."
And if you're sick of hearing people gush about EVE: Valkyrie on the Oculus Rift without being able to play it? Well, you could be playing the alpha of Elite: Dangerous right now—which also has Rift support—and getting a feel for what it's like to fly through space in VR. I've put quite a bit of time into Elite now just cruising around with a Rift strapped to my face: flying around the asteroid field, dogfighting a bit, doing a few barrel rolls, and then heading back to base to dock.
Of course, being an Early Access game it could all go wrong tomorrow. Elite: Dangerous could always turn into a complete disaster of a game prior to release—but what's there already is very, very promising indeed.