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More than 4,600 Elite: Dangerous players will embark on an epic, eight-month journey

Distant Worlds 2 kicks off Jan. 13, and there’s still time to join the fleet

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.

Elite: Dangerous is a remarkable spacefaring game. In order to experience it, players must navigate a realistic simulation of all 400 billion star systems in our Milky Way galaxy. But the high-level gameplay produced by the team at Frontier Developments can often leave something to be desired.

What makes Elite shine are its tremendous spaceflight systems. There is a joy to maneuvering in this game, and real risk at every turn. Enhancing those systems is a dedicated community of avid players. Early next year, they’ll embark on one of the largest and most dangerous journeys ever undertaken in the game. It’s a 200,000 light year journey to the edge of our galaxy called Distant Worlds 2, and I will be there to cover the event when the fleet departs in just over two weeks.

I’m also hoping to make at least part of the journey in-game. Preparing for the epic trip, however, hasn’t been all that much fun.

In what has become a sort of holiday tradition here in my house, I’ve spent much of my free time over the last week or so locked in my office with an Oculus Rift strapped to my face. Inside the black plastic headset is the cockpit of the Evelynne Christine, my souped-up Asp Explorer.

My ship, the Evelynne Christine, positioned just outside the Hind Mine dock at T Tauri.
My ship, the Evelynne Christine, positioned just outside the Hind Mine dock at T Tauri in 2017.
Charlie Hall/Polygon

Every year I like to set myself a new goal. Last year it was to grind faction credit in the hope of unlocking a top-tier ship. I eventually burned out on the endless fetch quests back and forth between sleepy star systems. A few years ago I had a bit more luck when I elected to travel 1,000 light years outside the “bubble” of human civilization around our sun, Sol, just to prove that I could do it. For my trouble, I received millions of in-game credits and naming rights to dozens of new worlds, including three with signs of life.

Overall, I feel like I’ve made my mark on the game.

But this week I opted in to a new project. I decided to upgrade my frame shift drive, which will allow me to navigate some of the most challenging sections of the Distant Worlds 2 expedition. A frame shift drive is the fictional bit of tech on a ship that allows it to travel faster than the speed of light. To make the upgrade, I had to seek out an engineer named Felicity Farseer on a remote planet in the Deciat system and bring her the right collection of materials.

What followed was some of the most boring gameplay that I’ve experienced all year.

At one point I was chasing down dozens, perhaps as many as a hundred AI-controlled ships with a scanner sniffing at the contrails they left behind after jumping into hyperspace. It was the equivalent of sampling exhaust fumes alongside Chicago’s Kennedy expressway during rush hour.

Elite is simply full of these kinds of boring game mechanics. But once you’ve labored through them, the game opens up. Not because there’s anything much else to do mechanically, but because you can finally keep up with the game’s excellent community.

I had the privilege of visiting the endpoint of the original Distant Worlds expedition in 2016, thanks to some behind-the-scenes button presses by the team at Frontier. In total, more than 1,300 players attempted the trip. For Distant Worlds 2, the fleet will be even larger, second only to the 3,000 player space battle that I documented in 2017.

In total there are more than 4,660 players signed up across three platforms, including PlayStation 4, Windows PC, and Xbox One.

A promotional poster for the Distant Worlds 2 expedition in Elite: Dangerous, done up to match NASA’s own series, Visions of the Future.
A promotional poster, done up to match NASA’s own series, Visions of the Future.
Commander Deonon

The amount of planning that’s gone into Distant Worlds 2 is extraordinary. Simply plotting the course of the expedition is difficult, given the distances between some stars along the way. Checking and double-checking the waypoints is necessary to make sure that the slowest members of the fleet don’t get left behind. The communication challenges are similarly daunting. Elite is a session-based game that only supports a few dozen players at most in the same instance at the same time, so the group will stay in communication thanks to an external Discord server with its own set of rules and a team of moderators.

To add color to the experience, the team behind Distant Worlds 2 asked players to sign up for various roles within the fleet. Explorers and geologists will work together to study planets and asteroids along the way, while miners will forage for the necessary resources to keep ships fueled and underway. Fighter escorts will provide security in open play, while tour guides will invite other players into their ships during multiplayer sessions to take in the sights.

There’s even a contingent of artists, astrophotographers by trade, who will be on hand to document the journey. Myself and 80 other commanders will fill the role of media, providing coverage and commentary both in-fiction and here in the real world.

“We currently have a dedicated team of around 30 people working on the expedition and its peripheral events,” co-organizers Commanders Erimus Kamzel and Dr. Kaii wrote Polygon in an email earlier this year. “It’s going to be a mammoth undertaking, taking thousands of commanders to the far galactic rim and back, covering at least 200,000 light years and taking at least eight months to complete the entire journey.”

A map of the major player-led expeditions in Elite: Dangerous.
Commanders Corbin Moran, Finwen, Aura Lorell, Erimus, and Qohen Leth.

Making things even more exciting this time around is the promise that the developers at Frontier will be participating in the fun behind the scenes. Organizers tell us that there will be several new community goals associated with the expedition, including the opportunity to try out the game’s new mining and exploration mechanics near Sagittarius A, the black hole thought to be at the center of our galaxy.

While I’m not sure that I’ll be able to make the entire journey, I’ve never been to “Sag-A” as it’s called, and this seems like as good a reason as any to make the trip.

If you’d like to join me, there’s still time. But you’ll need to be quick about it if you want to upgrade your ship’s frame shift drive. Dr. Kaii has an excellent YouTube series on how to do it. Although it’s a bit outdated now, the good news is that the number of resources needed has gone down overall. That means less time sniffing exhaust around a spaceport.

The expedition kicks off on Jan. 13, from the Pallaeni system. You can find more information on the official website.