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No Man’s Sky, Star Citizen and Elite: Dangerous are allies, not enemies

There's enough room in the universe for all these games

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No Man's Sky E3 tentpole images
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.

Once upon a time ago, everyone thought they knew what kind of game No Man’s Sky was going to be. Some compared it to Elite: Dangerous, and others to the Star Citizen persistent universe. But now that it’s out there, across multiple platforms for the gods and everyone to see, we finally know with certainty what kind of a thing it is.

And for damn sure, it’s neither Elite: Dangerous nor Star Citizen.

No Man’s Sky is a walking simulator tied to a bit of a survival game. That’s pretty much exactly what I read on the tin these past few years while I’ve been covering it.

By being what it is, No Man’s Sky is filling a big hole in the spacefaring genre right now. It’s doing things that these other games haven’t had the willingness or the ability to do. It’s an experience all its own, and it’s worthy of your attention.

And I’m also having a good time with both Elite: Dangerous and Star Citizen. Have been for years now. So if you’re a bit miffed that No Man’s Sky didn’t do that one thing that you hoped or prayed or hallucinated that it would do for you, well then I have some good news.

There are other games out there for you to play, and they’re all trying to do different things in the same genre. And that’s good news for consumers.

So here’s what they are, and here’s what they ain’t.

What is Elite: Dangerous?

Elite: Dangerous plops you into the heavily populated center of the known Milky Way galaxy circa the year 3300. Humanity has divided itself into great factions that are at war with each other from time to time, but by and large it’s pretty easy to find a peaceful part of the sky and just float around for a bit.

When you play Elite, in its current form at least, you don’t play a person so much as you play a ship. You can trade, you can explore and you can fight a bit. You can also very easily bake yourself in the hot corona of a star trying to refuel.

On the PC, Elite makes use of a hands-on throttle and stick, but also works well with a gamepad or a keyboard. You can even get yourself a TrackIR or, as I like to call it, an in-game neck. If you’ve got some disposable income and a rig that can handle it, it’s fully compatible with the Oculus Rift and simply put one of the most beautiful VR games you’ll ever play.

Here’s what they are, and here’s what they ain’t.

But, if you just want to get your feet wet, or if (like me) the dogfighting in No Man’s Sky is putting you to sleep, there’s a cut-rate version of Elite made for you. That knocks off all that silly persistent galaxy stuff and puts you right into the action. It’s called Elite Dangerous: Arena, it’s $7.49 and you can play it right now on your Xbox One.

For me, the most amazing part of Elite is exploring its 400 billion star systems, landing my little ship on a rocky world and driving around in a rover. The physics are fun and floaty, and the massive mountain ranges and canyons — some of them higher or deeper than Mount Everest — are breathtaking, especially in the Rift.

But I can’t actually get out and walk around. None of the planets you can land on has an atmosphere. Or water. Or life of any kind. Yet.

There’s a whole galaxy to explore, but it’s never quite as friendly or meaningful as No Man’s Sky has been for me.

There’s a lot more I could say about Elite, but aside from the grind to make a living and upgrade your ship, it’s hard not to recommend giving it a try. It’s a mature platform, constantly being upgraded with "seasons" of new content and it’s a hell of a lot of fun.

It’s also pretty easy to find and play with other people. I’m just saying.

What is Star Citizen?

Well ... that’s a good question and it seems like it’s always changing. Last time I checked, Star Citizen writ large was a hope wrapped inside a dream buried inside a few layers of controversy. But looking past all that, I want to focus on what’s playable right now.

Star Citizen has two modules that actually run, and one that actually works as it should. It’s called Arena Commander.

For all its blemishes, Arena Commander is a hoot.

Hop into a starfighter shinier than a new Lamborghini and jump into the middle of a contested star system. Go toe-to-toe with some AI or a few other players launching missiles, firing lasers and skidding around shooting backwards like Starbuck in Battlestar Galactica. It’s a bit faster paced than Elite, and demands more from your hardware. It’s also slightly more hardcore, with the physical limitations of the human body playing a key role in extreme maneuvers. You can easily black out going way too fast into a turn.

Joystick, gamepad, keyboard and mouse are all supported as well.

There’s also the "persistent universe" part of Star Citizen, a kind of massively multiplayer mode. It’s not done yet and, well, I’ve not had very good luck with it lately myself. It’s a bit of a work in progress, and that’s being kind I think.

In theory, it should allow you to travel between several populated starbases and fly a number of different ships with a multiplayer crew on board. You even have the ability to pop the canopy and float freely into space, fixing radio relays and fighting in first-person shooter style battles. You can go shopping, see the sights and pal around in a cantina.

But it has this nasty tendency not to work well or, at times, at all. Your mileage will vary inversely with your level of patience and technical skill.

For me and for my free time, I value stability more than anything else. While Arena Commander has been rock solid for some time now, I can’t seem to get the PU to run right half the time. There's clipping and lag and all manner of oddness that I have yet to properly troubleshoot with my rig. But those that get into it seem to really enjoy it.

Don’t worry, be happy

No Man’s Sky, Elite: Dangerous and Star Citizen are all very, very different games. Each of them has something different to offer. All of them have value, and what that means to you depends on what you want to get out of your space gaming time.

But understand that the one thing you can’t do in Elite or Star Citizen is the main attraction in No Man’s Sky: get down on the ground with your own two feet, pet a weird looking monster in the middle of an acid rainstorm and go spelunking on an alien world. No Man’s Sky is uniquely able to put you on strange alien worlds, in first-person, and I think it does a hell of a good job at it.

It’s got 18 quintillion worlds or something, and the few I’ve visited have been memorable. That’s enough for me.

One of these games isn’t any better than the other. None of the three are going to become the only game for you, forever and always amen. It’s a great time to be into space games on the PC or consoles, and each of these is scratching a very different itch.

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