This week Elite: Dangerous’ Distant Worlds 2 fleet departed for an 18-week journey to the far side of the Milky Way galaxy. I’m going along for the ride in a souped-up spaceship capable of double or triple the jump range of your average vessel. But, to make the trip more enjoyable, I’ve done quite a bit more than just spruce up my virtual vehicle.
Here’s a list of all the real-world hardware that I’m using for the journey, plus thoughts on how I plan to upgrade my setup in time for the return leg.
Elite is a spacefaring MMO released more than four years ago. As such, the system requirements for players on Windows PC are fairly modest by today’s standards. You’ll need a bit more horsepower if you want to run the game in virtual reality.
Inside my gaming PC, I’ve got an Intel Core i7-4790K, which is a good deal more powerful than what the developers recommend as a baseline. Unfortunately, I’m also running an aging Nvidia GeForce GTX 980 Ti, which is right around the bare minimum to play in VR. That’s fine for a modern 4K monitor, but things tend to get a bit sluggish in VR when there are a lot of other players in the area.
And by sluggish, I mean nauseating.
I’d love to upgrade to a newer graphics card this year, something like the latest 1000-class or 2000-class Nvidia GPUs. Of course, Elite also runs well on the PlayStation 4 and Xbox One. More than 1,500 players are taking part in the expedition on those two platforms.
Whether you’re on PC or console, multiple screens are a necessity. Between the Discord channel and the various websites you’ll need to look up errata along the way, even console players will want to have a laptop or tablet handy. For my dual-monitor setup, I’m using a product from Echogear which holds three monitors off a single pole. In reality, just about anything that gets your screens off your desktop will do the job.
- HR 6164 includes a high-gravity world, also known as The View. Landings there are extremely difficult. Stacking your SRV on top of your ship is challenging under normal circumstances, but particularly dangerous here. Commander BlaesTheKerbal
- A major goal of the expedition is to survey parts of the galaxy that players have never seen before. The location of this newly discovered Earth-like world will pay off well when the data is turned in at a star base. Commander Utsuho
- Elite: Dangerous now features geological and biological features on planet surfaces and in space. Rare deposits are reported to fleet organizers, who may task scouts within the fleet to double back for further study. Commander DarkStarSword
- Some players, like Commander Raz81, are participating on PlayStation 4. The fleet is spread across PS4, Windows PC, and Xbox One. Elite’s Distant Worlds day 1. Some players, like Commander Raz81, are participating on PlayStation 4. The fleet is spread across PS4, Windows PC, and Xbox One.
- Two surface vehicles parked at The View. Commander Parabolus
Flying a ship that’s roughly the size of a 747 at many times the speed of light is quite a challenge, especially when it doesn’t have any rearview mirrors. That makes the single most important tool in my toolkit an aging bit of tech called the TrackIR Pro.
The TrackIR system relies on the same kind of infrared technology that powered the Nintendo Wiimote, although the head-mounted system predates the Wii itself by a number of years. By clipping its infrared emitter to my headset and attaching a receiver to my main monitor, the TrackIR is able to give my in-game commander a neck. That allows me to look all around the cockpit of my ship, even when I’m not in VR. Add to that the fact that Elite supports the TrackIR without so much as a tick box to check in the options menu.
For keyboards, I had considered going with a 10-key-less solution to save space on my desktop. Thing is, I really like my numpad.
So, for this trip out, I settled on the Kingston HyperX Alloy FPS RGB. The thing weighs a ton, all but insuring it won’t wander around while I slap at it from inside my Oculus Rift. But it also features an extremely thin bezel. That means I’ve got more room on my desktop for my flight stick and throttle. Its best feature by far, however, is the unobtrusive and extremely easy to use software suite that backs it up.
Now all my blinky lights on my real-world desk finally match the ones inside my virtual cockpit.
For my HOTAS set, it was a no-brainer. Logitech’s X52 is literally modeled into the cockpit of every ship in Elite. With all the presets and key switch icons already part of the game’s user interface, there’s just no reason to mess around with anything else.
Finally, the Distant Worlds 2 expedition presents a few unusual audio problems. The dedicated Discord channel is the lifeblood of the community. Meanwhile, there’s going to be an awful lot of downtime moving thousands of light years between waypoints. I needed something that would provide game audio, but also patch in audio from a separate source, like my iPhone, so I could avoid tabbing out and losing control of my spaceship.
After a few evenings of experimentation, I finally settled on the Turtle Beach Elite Pro 2 + SuperAmp.
For Polygon’s annual headset roundup, I put the Elite Pro 2 through its paces and found its baked-in surround sound audio profiles were simply too heavy handed for most games. As a stereo headset, however, it’s more than adequate.
The Elite Pro 2 is a wired solution that attaches to your PS4, Windows PC, or Xbox One via USB. But it also includes a so-called SuperAmp with built-in Bluetooth. Thanks to that dongle, I can pair the headset with my phone for Discord chat without tabbing out of the game. Alternately, I can use the same feature to push podcasts into my headset to help break up the monotony of a long flight.
Best of all, the volume of my PC and my phone is controlled separately. If I need to focus on the sound of my engines during a difficult planetary landing, I can simply turn up the dial on the SuperAmp. If I want to crank some tunes, I just turn up the volume on the phone itself.
For this one particular use case, the Elite Pro 2 is just about perfect. Whether or not that warrants the $250 price tag is up to you.
Participating in Distant Worlds 2 has been intense. Tonight, I’m going to try landing on a planet with gravity more than three times that of the planet Earth. If things go wrong that attempt could end my trip before it’s even begun.
Part of flying safely is staying within the limits of your ship’s capabilities. Given the distance of the trip, I’m stuck with the ship I’ve got for the foreseeable future. There’s simply nowhere to refit until the fleet builds a new star base at the galactic core later this year, and even then the pickings are sure to be slim. Here in the real world, though, there’s a few upgrades that might help to make my journey just a little bit easier.
Obviously I’d like to get a better graphics card so that I can spend more time in VR. But, after years of steady use, it seems like I actually need to refurbish my Oculus Rift as well.
The built-in foam gasket that goes up against my face is frayed to the point that it’s now uncomfortable to wear, so I’m looking into aftermarket replacements. Right now I’m studying the replacement parts catalog of a company called VR Cover. Their $29.00 “facial interface” comes highly recommended by other members of the fleet, who swear it’s extremely comfortable and also helps to reduce fatigue.
I’m also considering building mounting brackets for my X52, something to bring them closer to me while I sit in my office chair. It would also be nice if I could lower them just a bit below the surface of my desk. That would give me plenty of room to work the keyboard and mouse when I need to.
I’m torn over whether or not to build something out of wood on my own or purchase aftermarket components. Either way, I’m not entirely sure that my Ikea desk will be up to the challenge.
One option that I’m curious about showed up on Twitter last week. Called the Foxx Mount, it’s a set of adjustable metal brackets that clamps to the front of your desk. They appear to be well-suited to Thrustmaster-brand flight sticks. They start at $175 and go up from there.
While a copy of Elite: Dangerous can be had for pretty cheap these days, clearly the hardware requirements — especially on PC — are another matter entirely. But if I’ve learned anything from playing with a TrackIR for the better part of a decade, it’s that the gear you use makes a huge difference in your flying experience.
If you’ve got a lead on something that might make my spaceship easier to live with for the next 18 weeks and beyond, just drop it in the comments below.
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