Over the past year, spacefaring simulation Elite: Dangerous has gone through tremendous expansion, and that's saying something for a game that started out with 400 billion procedurally generated star systems. But some critics still argue that the actual gameplay is lacking in content. Lots of places to visit, but not all that much excitement to write home about.
To that end, the team at Frontier Developments launched two key updates this year. The first, called Powerplay, introduced imposing characters to the game for the first time. Another, a game mode called CQC, added a thrilling combat arena for fans of dogfighting. Now, fulfilling a promise made during the game's initial Kickstarter campaign in 2013, the Horizons beta allows players to land on the surface of the majority of the game's planets — hundreds of billions of full-scale worlds — for the first time.
Early this week I pulled the cover off one of my favorite starships, spent a whole day updating my computer and most of an afternoon fighting with various bugs (Horizons is still in beta, after all) in order to travel nearly 50 light years to go off-roading in a futuristic dune buggy.
I gotta tell you ... those last few miles made it all worth it.
If you've spent the past year perched on the edge of your seat, waiting for the promise that is No Man's Sky to come to your rescue, just stop ... for now at least. Your adventure is here, and it's called Elite: Dangerous.
My Asp Explorer has been docked at White Orbital — a gigantic, spinning, spoked space station in the Aiabiko system — for the better part of four months. I put a lot of miles on that baby, but sadly work meant moving on to other games. The whole time I've been keeping my eye out for my golden ticket into the Horizons beta, and when it came in my inbox last week I started downloading just as fast as I could.
When I launched into the new 64-bit engine, the bells and whistles inside the hangar bay were immediately noticeable. What used to be a rather static interior space was now bustling with activity. More little service vehicles were flitting around the ring roads and sensor packages were spinning on top of the control towers. Meanwhile other, computer-controlled ships were coming and going in quick succession.
None of them were actually other players, however. This far from galactic core running into another real-life human being in Elite is actually pretty rare. Considering players will need thousands of generations to explore every star system, player density is always going to be an issue somewhere.
No matter. I like my alone time just fine.
In the shipyard menus were a number of new add-on systems. I added a planetary approach suite to my ship, including a set of thrusters and avionics that would allow me to fly around close to the surface of a planet, for a mere 50 credits. Next, I had to get rid of one of my cargo bays in order to mount a shiny new planetary vehicle hangar and an SRV Scarab, the little dune buggy that makes its debut in the game.
One thing is clear from the in-game pricing model; Frontier wants to get people onto the surface of planets as quickly as possible, and they've made all the gear you need to do it extremely cheap. For less than the amount of credits I could have earned hauling freight between starports for an hour I was on my way. While you don't start the game with the ability to enter planetary flight or drive around once you land, it won't require all that much time for new players to gather up the resources needed to get rolling.
I set my sights on a nearby, peaceful system called Ross 263. Only 49 light years away, it's just a few minute's journey from Aiabiko in-game. It's also relatively well-populated, boasting more than 56 million souls per the game's fiction. That meant little possibility of being intercepted by pirates along the way.
But what really got me excited was how complex the star system suddenly was.
Ross 263 A is a red dwarf star on the cooler side of the celestial spectrum, making it both a good navigational target and an easy place to refuel for the trip home. The star itself has four gas giants orbiting it, each with potentially spectacular ring fields to fly through. Making things even more interesting is the fact that star A is locked in orbit with another pair of stars — Ross 263 B and Ross 263 C — which are in turn orbiting each other. In total, this triple star system has attracted about 60 planets, and with the Horizons expansion in place I could now land on more than 40 of them.
I narrowed down my search to Ross 263 B and a pair of small, rocky spheres orbiting fairly close to one another — Ross 263 B 5 and Ross 263 B 6 — and laid in a course.
Less than a minute later I dropped out of faster-than-light travel and into supercruise, which is itself many times the speed of light. While in supercruise, the mechanics of the flight model are such that you have to be mindful of the gravitational pull of the bodies you're flying around. It takes a bit of getting used to, and the amount of skill required varies from system to system.
Approach your target planet too quickly and you'll overshoot, and have to slingshot around the backside using the planet's own gravitational field as a kind of emergency brake. Pull in too close to a star while refueling, on the other hand, and you'll be pulled out of supercruise entirely and cooked inside your own ship like an egg in a microwave. There's not a lot of room for error.
I dropped into orbit around Ross 263 A, sipped a bit of hydrogen off the star to top off my tanks, and made a hard right turn toward my destination around Ross 263 B.
I've orbited planets in Elite at supercruise speed before. It's an awesome sight, and a powerful experience to be able to force stars to eclipse around a planet just by hitting the gas. But before Horizons there was only so close you could actually get to a planet before the game simply wouldn't let you go any further. That's all changed.
As I came in close to Ross 263 B 5 the entire planet rose to fill my windshield. The individual craters lost their shape, revealing themselves to be massive valleys filled with yet more craters. The enormity of the landmass I was about to touch down on was simply shocking.
Around 25 kilometers above the surface my supercruise unceremoniously switched off and the entire spacecraft started shaking and groaning. As my Asp entered glide mode, it was clear that the game was loading in textures in the background. Everything froze for an instant, lurched forward and then froze again. The transition was a bit jarring, and there was no exotic FTL animation to hide the load time.
I was left with an eerie silence and a stuttering screen, but just as soon as it began the hesitation was over and my heads-up display revealed a gyroscopic gimbal, showing me my ship's attitude relative to the ground. Around seven kilometers off the deck my engines kicked back in and my very large, very expensive ship began to handle very differently.
It felt heavy. Ungainly, even.
I could feel the thrusters blasting away, trying to keep my big Asp suspended above the gigantic brown planet. As the game loaded in yet more textures of the rocky valley below me, I very much regretted bringing such a big exploration vessel along for the trip. Skimming the surface would probably be a lot more fun in something fast, like a tiny fighter.
But I wasn't here to joyride in a starship. I was here to get my tires dirty.
After scouting out a nice flat place to land, I eased the big ship down without a scratch. As the thrusters powered down, I turned my head slightly to the bottom of my screen. Using my Track IR, I highlighted the ground vehicle panel of my instrumentation and hit the launch button.
The screen went black — there are no traditional first-person perspectives in Elite, not yet at least — and when it came back I was inside a Scarab, a tiny six-wheeled buggy with a spherical cockpit. The hatch below me, the bottom of my starship, opened up and I was dropped onto the surface of a world for the first time.
I pushed the throttle forward and peeled out. The big, knobby tires bit in, the suspension rocked back slightly and in seconds I could hear bits of stone bouncing off my canopy as I careened over the surface of a dusty world.
The handling was responsive, but a bit floaty. It was easy to lose control and drift to one side, making straight-line driving the safest. Soon I came alongside the edge of another, nameless canyon.
But, instead of going around it I hurtled over the edge and ... took flight.
You see, the Scarab isn't your average all-terrain vehicle. Each of its six wheeled arms has a directional thruster, the same kind of thrusters mounted on the big ship I'd already left behind. What those thrusters allow you to do is keep yourself firmly planted on the ground on planets with ultra-low gravity — planets just like Ross 263 B 5, which has only one quarter the gravity of our Earth. Think of it as the extra downforce created by the airfoils on a Formula 1 car.
But what these thrusters also allow for are some truly ridiculous mid-air stunts. I was rolling and spinning my little dune buggy up one side of the canyon and down the other. I felt like the Incredible Hulk at the world's largest skatepark. It was fantastic.
When I was done having my fun, I just tilted my head down, hit the recall button and my massive starship flew over and landed right next to me. I powered it up into a low hover, lifted off a few kilometers, yanked back on the stick and punched the throttle to push myself back into orbit.
In the distance, looming just a little larger than Earth's own Moon, was Ross 263 B 6 — the other half of this orbiting pair of planets. Within five minutes' time I was down on that surface, back in my Scarab, having a hell of a time again.
Elite: Dangerous' new Horizons expansion isn't done, and it won't be released on Windows PC until Dec. 15. Considering that tight window, I was surprised to encounter so many bugs.
For instance, I left out the part where the game simply refused to let me take off when I came back aboard my starship with the Scarab. Putting it in auto-pilot with the recall button had freaked it right out, and I had to shut the game down and then start it up again. I also glossed over the episode where instead of launching me into supercruise above the surface of Ross 263 B 5, Elite instead decided to unceremoniously dump me back to the desktop. I even skipped the bit where, while refueling in the corona of the star on the way out of the system, I should have fried along with my 6-million-credit Asp after ignoring the stupidly high levels of heat that were building up around me.
The play experience, for all it's beauty, is still marred by the weird little eccentricities common to games still in development. Hopefully, the bulk of these issues will be smoothed over before Horizons makes the long journey from PC to Mac and Xbox One, dates which have yet to be formally announced.
But, in my opinion, the splendor of it all overpowers those missteps. Suddenly there is a whole lot more to see and do in Elite. The Ross 263 system isn't just full of 40 new worlds to explore. There are dozens of new locations to visit, including observatories and faction-aligned trading depots. There are enemies to court and friends to anger, as well as ground-based installations to assault with the help of my wingmates in multiplayer. There are untold riches to be mined inside asteroid belts, and fortunes to be won committing acts of piracy across the galaxy.
This game, already as big as the Milky Way, feels intimate in a way that I'd never quite imagined possible. If you have the stomach for the hard science behind it, and the patience to learn its quirks, Elite offers up a space adventure unlike any other.