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Elite’s Distant Worlds 2 travelogue: a week filled with wonder and wreckage

Taking in the sights with a fleet that’s grown to nearly 13,000 players

The entrance to Observation Post Epsilon in the Trifid Sector of Elite: Dangerous. Distant Worlds 2.
The entrance to Observation Post Epsilon in the Trifid Sector of Elite: Dangerous.
Commander ryanjbarba
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.

Less than one week ago, more than 11,800 players set out on the Distant Worlds 2 expedition, heading for the edge of the Milky Way in Elite: Dangerous. As part of the fleet, I’ve traveled more than 5,500 light years across the galaxy, fully five times farther than my little ship and I have ever flown before.

I’ve also lost a lot of sleep marveling at the wonders that Frontier Developments has built into its version of our galaxy, one it’s filled with trillions of procedurally generated worlds. I’ve also had my fair share of close calls. Jumping from from one uncharted star system to the next is grueling and at times hair-raising work, but the payoff has been absolutely extraordinary.

Here’s the latest news on the expedition, a story which I’m filing from inside a remote asteroid mining facility on the edge of uncharted space.

The map to waypoint 2 on the Distant Worlds 2 expedition in Elite: Dangerous. Commander Erimus Kamzel/Elite Dangerous Star Map

Crash landings

Shortly before the expedition launched on Jan. 13 from the Pallaeni system, organizer Commander Erimus Kamzel sent out information on the second waypoint. By this weekend the Distant Worlds 2 fleet — which now numbers close to 13,000 players — is expected to arrive en masse in the vicinity of the Omega Nebula, a gaseous region of space in the constellation Sagittarius discovered way back in 1745.

In the fiction of Elite, the Omega Nebula is now home to thousands of independent contractors at the Omega Mining Operation. Their outpost, situated inside a massive asteroid within the rings of an otherwise inhospitable planet, is effectively the only place to get a fresh cup of coffee for thousands of light years in any direction.

For players unaccustomed to traveling such long distances, it’s a great place to repair their ships before heading on. Personally, that meant patching a few holes equivalent to about 12 percent of my ship’s total integrity, damage which I attribute to a real-world calibration issue with my Logitech X52 flight stick. Over the next 17 weeks I’ll need to be a lot more careful when I go in for a landing.

I wasn’t the only commander to have an accident. The fleet has seen a decent amount of attrition thanks to one planet in particular. Known as The View, it’s an excellent place to land and take in the sights — a neutron star blazing away near a black hole just over the horizon of a small, purple-ringed world. But at 3.3 times the gravity of our Earth, the little bastard is a real pain in the ass to land on.

According to information gathered by the Elite Dangerous Star Map (EDSM), a player-managed database fed by data logs automatically generated by Elite itself, 54 players have crashed into the surface this week, ending their trip before it had even really begun.

In one clip shared to Reddit, you can see a player trying desperately to bring their Anaconda-class starship in for a landing after an initial descent that was way too fast. They manage to pull out of a dive at the last minute. They wait as long as they can to hit their boosters in a desperate attempt to gain altitude, but eventually they run out of steam. The big ship stalls out a few hundred meters above the surface, wheels over in a sickening hammerhead turn, and then belly flops into the dust below. The ensuing explosion is devastating.

Note that at more than 140 meters in length the Anaconda is one of the largest ships in Elite. The closest real-world analog to this digital disaster would be crashing one of the United States Navy’s brand-new littoral combat ships (LCS) into the surface of Earth’s moon.

The administrator of EDSM tells Polygon that the number of crashes on The View is unprecedented. They only have record of 11 accidents previously in their database, which goes back to October 2017.

First responders

As dangerous as the journey has been so far, it’s been an awful lot of fun for two role-playing groups who have come along for the ride.

The adorable shoulder patch of the Hull Seals, official fleet mechanics for Distant Worlds 2.

The newly formed Hull Seals is a small band of fleet repair vessels stood up just weeks before the fleet launched. Representatives tell Polygon that they’ve performed more than 120 repairs of player ships so far. According to data tracked by its members, roughly half of their missions have been in the vicinity of The View.

One particularly long-range repair required seven Hull Seals to jump a total of 7,000 light years. The client was a player who smacked into a high-gravity world much like The View. Instead of losing the ship, however, they were able to land safely and take off again, but not before reducing their ship to just 16 percent of its initial strength.

Without the Hull Seals they’d have likely burned up trying to get refueled in the corona of a star before making it back to safe harbor.

Hull Seals, a player-led repair group in Elite: Dangerous, after a 7,000-light year trip during the Distant Worlds 2 expedition. Their client, Commander Fergard, had crash-landed their starship and was in need of repair. Left to right, Astaced, Sabazeus,
Commanders Astaced, Sabazeus, DrunkunMunkey, Jimbo Jupiter, George Maidlow, Artyom Scardovi, and Svetislav lined up with their client, Commander Fergard, after traveling two hours to reach his stricken vessel.
Hull Seals

Additionally, Elite’s famous Fuel Rats have made 10 deliveries to players stuck in star systems with empty tanks. Fuel in the spacefaring MMO is either purchased at a base or scooped directly from the corona of a star. Jump into a star system where the stars are too hot to scoop, however, and it’s easy to get stuck without enough fuel to jump out.

Without the help of the Fuel Rats, those 10 players would have had to self destruct their ships and restart their journeys from scratch.

They should have sent a poet

When I first committed myself to following the Distant Worlds 2 expedition early last year I expected to put in a lot of time in order to keep up with the fleet. Preparing for the journey was, frankly, the worst part. I spent the better part of two weeks sniffing exhaust fumes around busy starports and turning the game on and off again in order to glitch rare resources into existence so I could upgrade my ship.

But, now that the expedition has started in earnest, I’m having the time of my life.

Most of that joy is thanks to expedition leader Commander Erimus Kamzel’s itinerary, which is guiding me and thousands of other players from waypoint to waypoint. Not only has Erimus been to the edge of the Milky Way and back a few times already, he’s taken that knowledge and used it to create a kind of Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. Combined with annotations from EDSM, his notes not only warn participants to possible dangers, but serve as a way to interpret what you’re likely to see along the way.

The tourist destination inside the HR 6164 system, backlit by a neutron star. Distant Worlds 2.
The tourist destination inside the HR 6164 system, backlit by a neutron star.
Commander Montague Druitt

My journey so far has taken me to HR 6164, home of The View but also to a unique tourist destination. The massive man-made structure sits in high orbit around a flickering neutron star, its arms flung out into space and spinning wildly to create a small amount of gravity for its well-heeled guests. In order to approach the facility safely I had to steer around the black hole that lingers in orbit just three light seconds away.

From there I sailed my ship, the Evelynne Christine, to within 350,000 kilometers of another massive black hole called Thor’s Eye. In Elite, getting that close to a black hole isn’t terribly dangerous, but the closer you get the harder it is to keep your bearings. When flying in virtual reality the experience is even more intense.

Coming as close as I did while inside the Oculus Rift, I began to lose the horizon. The feeling was much like what terrestrial pilots experience when flying during whiteout conditions. Instead of a bright white sky blending in with the horizon, however, the closer I came to the black hole the more that the space around me began to warp and shift.

It was like flying along the edge of an oily soap bubble only to break through the surface and get stuck inside.

The colossal forces at work inside the black hole actually distorted the bright light from millions of distant stars in the galactic core. Pinpoints that had at first been fixed in space began to swim deliriously around my cockpit. To make my way out I had to focus on my instrumentation, keep the black hole behind me, and accelerate to safety.

The Asp Explorer TOTE’N GO II near the black hole known as Thor’s Eye. Distant Worlds 2
The Asp Explorer TOTE’N GO II near the black hole known as Thor’s Eye.
Commander Dr. Swo Boh Da

From there, I traveled through the Lagoon Nebula and the Cinnabar Moth Nebula. Beyond was a field of young stars in the PW2010 Supercluster. According to EDSM, the region is home to more than 800 young, hot stars as well as several black holes and neutron stars.

Traveling into the supercluster from a few hundred light years out felt like falling headlong into a forest of brightly glowing trees. Once I was inside of them the structure itself vanished, but I’m sure I’ll see the forest once more on my way out next week.

Tonight, after I log out of work, I’ll make dinner and then I’ll put the kids to bed. Once the house is quiet, I’ll launch my spaceship from deep within the bowels of a hollowed-out asteroid and ease my ship into space once more.

On my second monitor, I’ll log into the fleet’s official Discord channel so that I can check in with the other players making the trek in real time. In another window I’ll flip on the expedition’s pirate radio station, staffed by other players volunteering their time and talents to spin records and do short in-fiction advertisements and skits. Perhaps I’ll request a few songs from the commander/disc jockey working the overnight.

But, after I’ve said my hellos, it’ll be off into the black to do some exploration.

As part of the fleet, there’s plenty of work to be done. Unlike the dozens of times before when I’ve gone out on my own in Elite, this time I’ll be sharing the same goals as nearly 13,000 other like-minded players.

In a few weeks’ time the plan is to try and build a new starbase at the center of the Milky Way. Once completed, it will be the furthest outpost of human civilization ever constructed in the game. Throughout the next seven days, players in the Distant Worlds 2 fleet have been asked to fling themselves from star to star looking for specific resources that will allow that starbase to be built.

If a sizable deposit gets been located, either in the dense rings around a gas giant or in an asteroid cluster closer to a system’s central stars, the plan is to send back coordinates to expedition organizers on Discord. Once all the scouting report have been analyzed, leaders will assign follow-on flights of specialized mining ships to extract as much ore as they can carry before returning to the Omega Nebula to unload.

If I’m lucky, perhaps this weekend I’ll stumble across a motherlode of cobalt, indite, or praseodymium for other players to exploit. It won’t earn me any points with a particular in-game faction, and it probably won’t earn me all that much money either. But it would mean a lot to the community as a whole, and even more to the handful of players who would have the pleasure of cracking into those space rocks with futuristic tools from the year 3305.

Here’s hoping I don’t wander too close to a black hole in the process.