I’ve spent the last few weeks with Elite: Dangerous (since Gamma 1.0 was released to us Kickstarters), and about four problem-free hours tonight, on launch day (and I’ll be coming back here periodically as time passes and the game grows). Probably about an hour of all of that time was spent just scrolling through the key bindings, and subsequently pressing keys on my keyboard that I rarely, if ever touch. Yes, after 30 years Elite is back, and it’s already eating my life.
Elite is one of the true jewels in gaming’s crown. It’s been ported from its original assembly language (assembled in the mighty BBC BASIC assembler), to more than 13 platforms, beginning life on the UK’s beloved Acorn Electron and BBC computers. The original version of the game was one of the very first to use wireframe graphics to convey proper 3D, and also the first to offer truly open-ended, ‘sandbox’ gameplay. As such, it’s a simple matter to draw long lines back to Elite from modern classics such as the Elder Scrolls games, the GTA series, X, FreeSpace, Privateer, even the Wing Commander games and EVE Online. It also came bundled with The Dark Wheel, a novella-length book exploring the Elite universe, as well as a hefty manual, reference card and ship identification poster. In short, for the fledgling home computer user back in 1984, Elite represented the sort of total immersion in a game that we’re perhaps only now beginning to contemplate again with massive, 50 Gb+ titles like GTA V, or the possibilities of the Occulus Rift.
Of course, there have been a couple of official sequels, but it’s been a nail-biting 19 years since the last one, 1995’s Frontier First Encounters, since when we’ve only been able to dream about returning to the stars. Finally, 2012 saw the actual, real, official, oh-my-God-it’s-true announcement of Elite Dangerous, a project which was Kickstarted in record time and has now – finally! – arrived, two years later.
As you can see, it’s changed a bit. The game, now online-only (but with opt-in multiplayer), launches through an MMORPG-style launcher which presents current game news and keeps the whole thing up to date. And much like its ancient predecessor, there’s a stripped-back elegance to its shades of black-and-yellow menu screens that immediately creates the impression of a living universe. In much the same way that Ridley Scott lavished vast attention on all the little background details of the original Alien film to create arguably still the most believable on-screen sci-fi universe to-date (now repackaged and fetishized in the excellent Alien: Isolation), David Braben and co. have paid attention to every last pixel in the game, with nothing deemed inconsequential or unimportant. The whole thing smacks of quality, and that’s before you’ve even set your options or explored the tutorials menu, let alone ventured out in-game.
As with all epic adventures, once you do finally get going you begin as an almost-penniless nobody with the most basic ship imaginable, and nothing but wide-open space in front of you. You may as well be flying a paper bag for all the comfort and protection it offers you, although, like a paper bag, there’s just enough room inside that you can immediately begin filling it up with goods and start schlepping your way to fame, fortune and that coveted Elite ranking. Others have, not unfairly, described Elite Dangerous as ‘Euro Truck Simulator in space’, and there’s a great deal of comparison to be made there. Both games essentially allow you to grow your fortunes by choosing your cargo and steering one of a variety of beautifully-modelled, upgradable and customisable rigs from place to place in a large, gorgeously rendered, open world. But where they diverge is in the fact that ETS doesn’t let you also equip lasers and missiles and decide that pirate-hunting and mercenary commissions are where it’s really at, or engage in illegal arms sales, slave trading and narcotics smuggling. Or to completely turn your back on the law and become an all-out bandit and cop killer. Or even to eschew guns and grains completely and just live a comfy life being paid for exploring and charting unknown systems and galactic anomalies, mining the occasional asteroid for a bit of extra profit and living the life of a total space bum. Or, eventually (when they finally add it all in), to land on alien planets and go mining for rare ores, or big-game hunting for exotic beasts, for fun and profit.