So, basically, it’s still the same Elite you knew and played years ago. What’s changed now, of course, is the presentation and the depth of the options and career choices you can make. The playable space is still as huge as ever (a 1:1 scale Milky Way of around 400 billion procedurally generated systems, all operating according to correct scientific principles and correctly proportioned, with consequently realistic day/night cycles). The Bulletin Board system of missions is still there, with all of its intriguing, amusing, exciting and lovingly-written texts – a desperate request from a bunch of under-equipped miners (“Anyway, me and the lads had a whip-round, and it’s not much but we can offer you 3,000 credits”) will always sound like a desperate request, whereas shadier deals will often be couched in more indirect terms, their very innocence betraying the fact that it’s a kill mission, or some other under-the-radar activity. Market trading is also obviously in, and like everything else in the game it’s a robust, incredibly well-designed system that you can really sink your teeth into. Most importantly, it is (again, like everything else), easy to learn, just hard enough to truly master, and supremely satisfying to conquer and play like the three-eyed, four-armed, blue-skinned Gordon Gecko (or Gertrude Gecko – you can choose your gender in the options, a fact I discovered only after weeks of staring confusedly down at my latex flight suit-covered breasts) of your cosmic dreams.
All of these mechanics and systems – trading, mission-running, combat and navigation etc – are the beating heart of the game, and what any such sandbox lives and dies by. To simulate the endless possibilities of life (as far as possible within the context of a computer game with a specific genre setting), you need a good variety of systems (which ED has), which all need to be air-tight and fool-proof (they are), that also need to mesh smoothly with each other (they do), from which meshing you can create divergent forms of gameplay, or poke and prod at the limits of the game (yep). The ultimate effect of all this is to allow you to quickly conquer how to play the game, in order to give you the most time and freedom to explore why you’re playing the game. And if there’s one thing Elite Dangerous is really good at, it’s convincing you that you are, in fact, a hot-shot space pilot.
Elite Dangerous does this partly through an incredibly intuitive interface that, once you’ve got your key-bindings sorted out, quickly becomes second nature to navigate. And like everything else in the game, your ship’s cockpit is also designed to increase your immersion, with each and every action you take in the real world – clicking mice, manipulating joysticks and tapping keys on your keyboard – finding an immediate, obvious reflection in your console’s gorgeous lights and indicators. Out of the box, ED has pre-defined control schemes for over a dozen expensive and complex flight sticks (looking at the game files, some of the predefined control schemes are named for Saitek, Thrustmaster and Logitech, amongst others), as well as 3D support and head-tracking goggle-thingy compatibility. It’s a gadget-enthusiast’s dream, and already people have been building custom stations and desks for their Elite experience and posting them online. Personally, I use a WASD/Arrow key combo, with one handy key (H) unlocking my view and making my mouse move my head around. It’s simple, intuitive, and – frankly – fucking awesome. It’s not completely necessary to move your head around, as the number keys will move your focus from the front window to the various consoles and screens in your cockpit, but it is fun, and sometimes handy for lining up a landing approach or checking for unwanted guests.