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Elite: Dangerous' next update hopes to add a little character and a lot of strategy

Charlie Hall is Polygon’s tabletop editor. In 10-plus years as a journalist & photographer, he has covered simulation, strategy, and spacefaring games, as well as public policy.

One of the biggest criticisms of Elite: Dangerous, the vast spaceflight simulation now on Windows PC and Mac and slated for release on Xbox One and eventually PlayStation 4, has been that there's nothing to do. 400 billion channels, and nothing's on. While that's not entirely fair, the team at Frontier Developments have taken it to heart. Their next update will completely revamp the quest and faction system, adding a kind personality to the game that simply doesn't exist right now.

The core of the change is adding what are called Powers to the game. Since the early alpha, political factions have existed in Elite. But the evidence of their influence on the game world has been limited to what amounts to futuristic faxes, text-only stories that players can pick up when they dock at starports. There is revolution, betrayal and intrigue but right now it's only communicated through in-fiction dispatches from far-flung parts of the Milky Way galaxy.


With Powerplay, that changes. When players join a faction they'll be more intimately involved with the day-to-day triumphs and trials of their cohorts in new and hopefully engaging ways.

"Every Power is a fully fleshed-out organisation or character with a figurehead, biography, political leaning and faction-specific perks," reads a recent update emailed to Elite's playerbase. "Each one dominates an expanse of human-occupied space and your actions will see their influence grow as they overthrow neighbouring systems, or collapse as other players move against them."

Lavish concept art, like that shown at the top of this story, gives each faction a visible figurehead for the first time. Outside of early teaser trailers, these are the first human forms to show up in the game, now largely comprised of spaceships and spreadsheets.

"These characters offer us a chance to get deeper into the fabric of the Elite: Dangerous galaxy," art director Chris Gregory said in the same update. "Some of these Powers are new, and some will be familiar. You'll see fresh faces alongside names like Aisling Duval, Torval and Denton Patreus. Fans may already have a picture in their heads of what these people look like, but in some cases I think they'll be intrigued when they see those faces for the first time."

In addition to the powers, Elite will add a new strategic layer to the game that is not unlike a "massive strategy boardgame." New strategic maps, released on Vine, make it clear that maneuver and supply lines will be key to gaining advantage over another faction. With luck, it will increase the player density in some areas and contribute to heightening the roleplaying in the game.

But the team at Frontier is quick to point out that participating in Powerplay's faction-based warfare is optional. Improvements to the questing and mission system will trickle down to all players, but the real improvements will be in making each faction a living, breathing entity.

The beta of Powerplay launches May 20th.

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