Friday, July 22, 2016

Elite Dangerous Review (XONE)

Playing Elite Dangerous is pretty much a full time job if you want to actually play it well.  It is a deep and realistic simulation of real space exploration with a learning curve that can take weeks to come to grips with.  If you put in the time and effort to learn to play it properly, however, Elite Dangerous is one of the greatest and most satisfying videogames ever made.  Putting in that effort is a huge hurdle, though, and not something everyone will be able to handle.  If you have the right stuff, it is well worth it in the end.  See our full review of Elite Dangerous for Xbox One here.

Game Details

  • Publisher: Frontier Developments
  • Developer: Frontier Developments
  • ESRB Rating: “T” for Teen
  • Genre: Space Sim
  • Pros: Gigantic 1:1 scale Milky Way Galaxy to explore; incredibly deep simulation gameplay; lots to do; incredible presentation
  • Cons: Extremely steep learning curve; takes forever to do anything; needs better tutorials
  • MSRP: $60 full package
Elite Dangerous is available in a number of different versions and packages, so bear with us.  You can get the standard Elite Dangerous game, that also comes with the multiplayer combat-focused Elite Dangerous Arena, for $30.  You can also just buy Elite Dangerous Arena by itself for $7.49 if you only want multiplayer.  If you have the standard Elite Dangerous game, you can buy a DLC expansion called Horizons that adds planetary landings for an extra $30.  And if you want everything Elite Dangarous has to offer all in one package, the Elite Dangerous Commander Deluxe Edition has everything for $60. 

The first thing you need to know about Elite Dangerous is that it is very difficult at the beginning and it doesn’t really do a very good job of teaching you how to play.  There is a set of very basic tutorials at the start, but anything more complicated than simply taking off and landing is left for you to learn on your own.  The game does have some links to videos that help you out, but everything is still very much trial and error.  You have to teach yourself how to navigate and what all of the readouts and information the game throws at you means as well as really important things like how to properly slow down and approach a space station or planet so you don’t blow 10 light years past it.  This learning curve isn’t so much a curve as it is a straight cliff face that can take 10-20+ hours to overcome. 

The gameplay takes place in a first-person perspective from the pilot seat of your space ship.  You access all of your systems by either looking around the cabin at the various screens for communications, weapons, navigation, etc. or by simply holding a button assigned to each system.  Each one of these systems, obviously, has its own set of things you can do so you have to learn what everything does.  While flying around a planetary system your controls are fairly simple as you just sort of point your ship where you want to go and can change your speed, adjust shield strength, transfer power to different systems, raise and lower landing gear, and more with just the press of a few buttons.  Flying at light speed, however, requires you to use the navigation system and actually plot a course so you don’t just fly off randomly and get stranded out in the nothingness of space.  As I keep stressing, learning what everything does and how to use it properly and then actually executing everything in the right order when the time comes is very, very hard when you first start out.   

If you do learn how to play, though, Elite Dangerous opens up into a hugely engrossing experience that is amazingly satisfying.  You have the entire Milky Way Galaxy to explore and do anything you want in, and the scale is absolutely staggering.  Even with light speed travel it will be impossible for one player to see even a fraction of the 400-million stars (and billions of planets) available in the game.  With the Horizons DLC expansion you can actually land on those planets and moons, which adds a whole new layer of depth to a game that already gave you a whole galaxy to play around in.

You have to keep in mind, however, that Elite Dangerous is a hardcore simulation at its core, which means accomplishing pretty much anything takes a surprisingly long time.  Light speed lets you travel between stars in a few seconds, but traveling between planets in the same system at sub-light speed can take several minutes or even hours where you aren’t doing anything except watching the distance counter on your overlay slowly count down.  It is particularly tedious at the beginning of the game since your ship has a very short range, which means you have to make frequent stops to re-fuel and repair.  When you get a better ship things go a little faster and smoother, obviously, but it still takes a while.

What is the point of all this slowly traveling around?  Well, you pretty much have to decide that for yourself.  The basic goal in Elite Dangerous really is to earn money in order to keep funding your exploration.  Exploring planets and solar systems and selling the data earns you money, but you can also take missions to transport legal cargo, smuggle illegal contraband, scavenge wrecked space ships, or even be a pirate who attacks other ships and steals their stuff.  You get to do whatever you want.  Just keep in mind that your motivation should probably be simply the joy of space travel, though.  Elite Dangerous is a gorgeous looking game even during the monotonous bits, and loving space travel itself is the key to really enjoying the experience.  If you can’t self motivate without any structure, however, Elite Dangerous absolutely won’t be for you.

Elite Dangerous actually is technically a MMO since other players are playing in the same galaxy with you, though you can choose a solo mode if you want.  It is sort of interesting, however, in that you don’t really ever come across other players unless you seek them out by going to high traffic areas.  The galaxy is simply so huge that the chances of actually meeting another player randomly out in space are incredibly low.  Also interesting is that, if you do happen to meet another human player, they’re usually very friendly.  There isn’t a lot of griefing or player killing in Elite Dangerous because everyone sort of understands that it is hard enough to play without jerks ruining your fun.  Everyone is very civil, and I love that.

Elite Dangerous is an absolutely gorgeous looking game, which is why the exploration, even the traveling that takes hours, is so enjoyable.  The orange and blue glow of your instrument panel looks awesome and everything is clear and easy to see.  And when you come across a star or planet or space station, they are simply stunning to look at and totally justify any hardships the rest of the game present.  I can’t stress enough how satisfying it is to simply gaze upon a new star or planet.  It is addictive and wonderful and make it all worth it.

It sounds great, too, but with very subtle audio design.  The sound you hear most of the time is simply the hum of your engines, but it is absolutely wonderfully appropriate.  When the sound needs to pick up, such as when you enter or leave light speed or during combat, the sound effects are very cool and “sci-fi”.  The music is dynamic and slowly rises and falls to match what you’re doing – like how it swells as you come home to a station after being out in space for a long time – and it is awesome.

My apologies if this review seems like I’m trying to scare you away from the game, but it cannot be understated just how challenging Elite Dangerous can be when you first start playing.  It has complicated controls, a million systems to manage, doesn’t ever tell you what to do next, and regularly has long stretches where you just have to sit back and watch.  But it is also amazingly beautiful to look at and incredibly satisfying when you do learn how to do everything.  If you ever dreamed of traveling through the stars, and can also appreciate the realistic simulation aspects of it, Elite Dangerous is a dream come true and absolutely worth a purchase.   
Disclosure; A review code was provided by the publisher.