Elite: Dangerous hands-on: In which a mineral oil salesman is accosted by space pirates

Elite: Dangerous

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Mars ain't the kind of place to raise your kids. Neither, for that matter, is Dustball, described as "a cold airless rocky world" in the i Bootis star system.

But I'm headed there anyway. A cosmically insignificant 13.8 light seconds away, by my calculations the trip should only take my tiny Sidewinder ship five to ten minutes of in-game flight at maximum speed.

Sometime in the last month or so, Elite: Dangerous got filled with quite a bit of space.

Pick up that can, citizen

Elite: Dangerous, modern successor to the 1984 classic open-world space game Elite, entered public beta last week, adding 10,000 new players to the game. It was the perfect excuse I needed to drop everything and hop back into my ship for a few hours. This was the first time I'd been back since Alpha 3, and wow, things have grown a lot more complicated in my absence.

Elite: Dangerous

When last I left, Elite: Dangerous was basically a collection of discrete, instanced zones. There was the combat mission zone where you could put your ship through its paces with some dogfighting. There was the zone with the enormous rotating space station. There was the asteroid belt zone. Each of these areas was spacious, but felt somewhat like an arena.

No longer. Alpha 4 enabled the game's trade and exploration features, albeit only in five major star systems.

When my pilot awoke from his month-long sleep, he found the universe a much different place than he left. His ship, once left outside a nameless station floating in the middle of nowhere, was now located outside Azeban City, which is part of the independent Eranin system.

I requested docking, and once approved I entered the station's rotating mouth. Dock 8. I'm looking for dock 8. I circled myself into position and gingerly set my spacecraft down. Like riding a bicycle.

Elite: Dangerous

In the station services menu I spotted an Alpha 4 addition: the commodities market. Gold, appliances, ores—it's all traded on Elite's open market. I noticed my Sidewinder had four open slots in the cargo hold, so I scanned the list for anything trading under market average. Mineral oil it is. It's not the most exciting cargo, maybe, but I couldn't afford much.

And so began the trade run of a lifetime.

Mystic signals

With no idea where to go, I decided to engage my hyperdrive and check out some nearby systems. As mentioned, the game currently consists of five star systems. I popped open the game's map and zoomed out. And zoomed out. And zoomed out.

Here, take a look at these screenshots to get a sense of the scale:

Elite: Dangerous
Elite: Dangerous
Elite: Dangerous
Elite: Dangerous
Elite: Dangerous

Elite: Dangerous is overwhelming. The five star systems currently accessible are nothing in comparison to the full map. It's like the first time you looked at your house on Google Maps and then rapidly scrolled out to see the entire globe, except it's more like if you looked at an ant in your house's backyard through a microscope, and then zoomed out to the entire planet.

And maybe that scale isn't even enough. I'm not very good at estimating how large an ant is compared to a single star in a gigantic galaxy.

That's the future, though. For now I zoomed back in, selected the i Bootis system, throttled up, and enjoyed the relaxing hyperdrive trip. I Bootis is under control of the Federation, a "democratic" faction that's more of a corporate oligarchy.

Unlike the quiet Communist sector I originated in, the Federation patrolled this area with regularity. Upon entry I was immediately stopped, and my cargo scanned by five Federation ships. I hope they thoroughly enjoyed grinding my mineral oil-toting self beneath the jackboot of commerce.

Feeling affronted, I set my sights on Dustball. I was sick of civilization and looking for a bit of frontier fun.

Elite: Dangerous

I found it. Ninety percent of the way to Dustball I was again stopped for a random scan. This time, however, the ship was not one of the Federation cruisers I'd become accustomed to—it was an enemy, preying on traders.

Not today . I flicked open my ship's single hardpoint, equipped with a piss-poor laser beam weapon. We rolled, spun, dodged our way through empty space, fighting for position. I had his shields down—all I needed was one more shot. I hurried after him and then...he disappeared?

Still in beta

Ah yes, the game isn't quite finished yet. It's hard to remember, when so much of the game is polished. As far as I can tell, the enemy ship went into superdrive, except that animation doesn't exist yet, so it looked for all intents and purposes like he vanished into thin air.

Elite: Dangerous is still a beta for now—a supremely engaging beta, sure, but still far from finished.

Elite: Dangerous

There's no real mission structure, and with trade confined to such a small area the supply/demand curve for commodities is actually pretty flat in most places. Until you've got a larger ship, you're going to make a pittance off trade. My lofty mineral oil cargo? 142 credits in profit. I wouldn't exactly call that a king's ransom, especially for twenty or so minutes of game-time. It's much easier to go blow some other ships out of the sky and steal their credits.

Combat scenarios are still a bit awkward, though, and the AI isn't great. And, by making combat so central to gaining money currently, it feels like you're forced down that road. Presumably trade and other money-making schemes will gain importance when the full game opens up and missions are implemented.

I don't know when that'll be, but I hope it's soon. Elite: Dangerous is fantastic, even in this early stage, and I'm looking forward to a horde of people unleashed on an unsuspecting, uncolonized universe. Fantastic enough it's worth buying into the game's $150 premium beta? Well, that's your call, Commander.

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