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Elite Dangerous expansion aims to give players their own ‘Neil Armstrong moment’

The details for the Odyssey expansion are still a bit hazy

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.

Frontier Developments’ upcoming expansion to Elite Dangerous, called Odyssey, will allow players to set foot on alien worlds for the first time.

In a new trailer for Elite Dangerous: Odyssey, fans get a glimpse at what it will be like to exercise their “space legs” for the first time, as well as the first details on the game’s new genetic sampling tool. It all looks very exciting but, even after an interview with the developers, many of the specifics of how this new expansion will work still seem to be up in the air.

In Elite, players take command of a starship and are free to roam a realistic recreation of all 400 billion star systems in the Milky Way galaxy. While it’s played from a first-person perspective, players have never before had the opportunity to actually get out of the captain’s chair and walk around. Odyssey — like Elite Dangerous: Horizons, which added planetary landings and wheeled rovers to the game in 2015 — will open up new gameplay opportunities.

That includes the ability to land on planets with very thin atmospheres. Players will still need to rely on oxygen while out and about, but there will be enough gas floating around to make for some extraordinary skyboxes. Art director Jonathan Bottone said in our interview that lots of work has gone into making every sunset feel unique. A new algorithm takes into account the composition of the planetary atmosphere, the color and distance of the nearby stars, as well as other factors. The result is “a huge range [...] of interesting alien kind of feels.”

An SRV burning out on an icy planet in Elite Dangerous: Odyssey Image: Frontier Developments
An icy planet with a tenuous atmosphere, from Elite Dangerous: Odyssey.
A Sidewinder starship landed on a dusty world in Elite Dangerous: Odyssey.
A barren world with a tenuous atmosphere seen from orbit. Note the blue corona. Image: Frontier Developments

The game will also feature new levels of detail on landable planets, including millions of older ones players might have already discovered. Bottone said that one of the highlights will be new living creatures, which will be distributed across the galaxy based on complex, in-fiction rules and logic. Players will locate these “biologicals” — like flora and vegetation — from orbit, then land to sample their genomes. Just like other kinds of exploration data, they’ll then be able to return to port and exchange those discoveries for cash to buy upgrades. Just like discovering new planets and stellar phenomena, player names will be permanently attached to the things they find.

Players should also expect to find new social spaces where they can meet and interact with other each other in first person. Developers are also considering allowing them to walk around inside starships, exploring the vessels they’ve owned for years for the first time. The feature won’t be available at launch when Elite Dangerous: Odyssey comes to PlayStation 4, Windows PC, and Xbox One sometime in early 2021.

Other questions about gameplay details went unanswered. That’s because, principal designer Gareth Hughes said, many of those details have yet to be finalized. That includes how the game’s flight model will be changing to deal with traveling through atmospheres for the first time.

“I know it sounds like a bit of a cop out, but it really isn’t,” Hughes said. “We’ve had to get so many of the the kind of fundamentals in place before we can look at almost this layer of sophistication and presentational elements on top. And we’re just finding [...] the development focus to start really looking at those now.”

Also undecided is how players will transition from ships or wheeled vehicles to walking on foot. The team wants players to have their own “Neil Armstrong moment” Hughes said, of being the first person to step on a distant world. Trouble is that they’re just not settled on what that moment will actually feel like. Also undecided is how Odyssey — which will not launch with support for virtual reality — will impact players who have long experienced the game exclusively in VR. Hughes said his team is keeping those heavily invested in VR technology in mind as they make their plans for launch.

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