Elite: Dangerous Review: My Anaconda Don't (It Just Don't)
(Note: This review is based on both gamma phase and early final release of E:D.)
This one was a difficult one.
A space adventure combat sim that takes place in a massively open world galaxy based on the Milky Way, Elite: Dangerous is the fourth installment in the Elite video game series (which had not seen a new title since 1995) but the first to ever try to incorporate single-player play with an MMO's persistent universe.
The birth of this particular title began with something of a rocky start - tied up in funding negotiations for years with a publisher, Frontier Developments (headed by original Elite developer David Braben) finally took to Kickstarter in November 2012 where it raised nearly £330k more than the initial (and hefty) £1.25 million goal.
Playable alpha and beta test versions of the game have been available to backers since December 2013 where community feedback was collected and used to help improve and develop the game, and the final game was released mid-December last year.
What began as a handful of systems and combat tests has evolved into 400 billion star systems that you can literally reshape as a trader, bounty hunter, pirate, explorer, or a number of other vocations.
So why the history lesson?
"Kickstarter games" are a relatively new breed of animal - by circumventing the traditional investor model, it places a radically high emphasis on what the end consumer wants. And while investors can often be made up of groups of fractured, picky people, crowdfunding investors are usually made up of even bigger groups of fractured, picky people.
Elite: Dangerous feels like a story you walked in on halfway through the telling.
It's certainly a more complicated situation than that, but the upshot of this is that this is a game that has been played and tested by a large body of backers for over a year. This feels like a game that was made for them.
As a new player, you sense there is a great deal of stuff that is possible for you to do, and definitely a huge amount of space to explore and discover. It just feels like it's all for an old boys' club that you're simply not a part of.
This is hardly an alien sensation. For those newbies who walk into a new (to them) MMO, the effect is similar - the same scrolling screen names chatting it up in Global, shiny limited edition hats and mounts/gliders that you can't get, and an entire alphabet of acronyms for different dungeons in LFG that you've never even heard of yet.
This could easily be an 8- or even a 9-star game if it only gave you a little more direction and let you delve just a little deeper.
What is different in these games is that there is a framework for you to operate in - at least in the beginning. You may not have a shiny hat or a guild that wants to take you immediately, but there are quests to do, tutorials to guide you through, and a carefully designed leveling system that alternates between rewarding your time spent and allowing you to learn what you need to know. This is something that I would love to see included and improved upon in future updates for Elite: Dangerous.
Specifically, some of the problems exist because of the incredibly dense amount of information that must be imparted to the new user in any space sim. It can be thrown at you in a giant voice-over text brick (I'm looking at you Evochron Mercenary) or it can simply not provide enough information at all.
In Elite: Dangerous, while there was a tutorial, in order to actually learn what to do (and Frontier encourages this) I had to step away from the game and look up everything I didn't know myself - through YouTube videos, pages of spreadsheets, and wikis.
While this may work for the fine detail work of picking through quest chains and character building in other games, Elite: Dangerous relies on these methods a little too heavily for even the most basic functions.
(The compass. This is vaguely referenced to by the game, but nothing tells you that this tiny little circle is in fact it, and that the blue dot is full when you're facing where you need to go and just a ring when you're not.)
What happens once you pick a career is similar. If you choose to be a trader, you start off in a system with a few credits and a few credits worth of inventory. But how do you trade? And where? What should you look for? How do you use the map system? Galaxy map? System map?
To be clear, once you learn them, the map system is absolutely fantastic - clean and color-coded - allowing you to clearly define what is traveling where and how to plot your course accordingly.
But first, you have to learn.
And to do that, you have to step away from the game to pull up a YouTube video where someone (probably much, much younger than you) will tell you look for that thing, this is how you do it, you need to buy this from your system map to find out where that is going... otherwise you will just find yourself flying around aimlessly, pawning off pieces of your spaceship to buy slaves or other mission requirements.
If you're in this game for the immersion (and it has so many beautifully immersive details), this necessity can be a sore blow to that experience - at least at first.
(Look left in order to check out your menu options on your side HUD rather than by pulling up a UI menu)
And after the learning curve?
Elite: Dangerous is absolutely, astonishingly beautiful. Your actions are not static, meaningless, "kill ten pigs and bring back five cat ears" quest chains - the game will tell you the effect your mission has just had on the world around you. For example, when completing a trade mission for slaves, you may cause a small economic boom or contribute to a rising famine, your reputation will increase but your influence may go down (you filthy manflesh trader you), etc. In single-player, this makes a difference. In multiplayer, where in effect large masses of players can flock to one section of the galaxy, the influence can be huge.
At the same time it mixes the intense, exhilarating feel of combat and quest accomplishment with long moments of boredom, ennui, and repetition that feel like the bare foundation for something that could be so much more.
And while initial gameplay footage was daunting for some owners of low- and mid-end PC builds, this game performs like a dream. It runs silk-smooth and you are never plagued with eternal loading screens. Or any loading screens at all. (They may be hidden ones while you get the flashy effects of going through hyperspace in order to reappear in front of a sun or a new planet, but if so these are seamlessly done.)
There is very little music in this game, and it's good but it is not sit-up-and-take-notice scoring in and of itself (you should, however, sit up and take notice when it starts playing because it's likely someone just started shooting you). There is also very little voice acting - and the majority of which is limited to the computerized female announcer on your ship (e.g. "Frame shift drive charging").
What this means is a great deal of silence in the vacuum of space - but also ample opportunity to listen to the soft and satisfying purr of your engines starting, slowing, grinding to a stop, or cruising through hyperspace (which, by the by, sounds rather like listening to a distant, muted chorus of angels). It is at once both soothing and pleasantly immersive.
(More immersion: when your windshield gets shot out, you lose parts of your HUD, and you get an emergency timer counting down how much time you have before your oxygen runs out.)
A peek at end game.
What are you working towards?
While most players start out by choosing a class and learning how to make money to save for bigger and better ships, Frontier announced a one-time offer to reviewers during the holidays for any ship they wanted in-game. Since this was early on in my game progress and I'd just limped away from the sorry end of an attack on an Anaconda, I naturally asked for one. And promised not to crash it into the side of the spaceport.
They gave me one.
"This is it," I thought. "This is what most players just rolling into this game dream of flying."
I was too afraid to take it out into a real firefight against real people. It was my new precious. It was my baby.
And then I sold it.
There are a few reasons why I would ultimately turn down pretty much the most expensive ship in the universe, but this is the big one: I had moved from one of the smallest, fastest ships in the universe to the biggest boat in the Milky Way. It turned like a tank. And I found this to be something that really mattered to me.
It was a matter of playstyle (and admittedly, this part was entirely my own fault) - I'd gotten used to a smaller ship and having fixed target guns and gimballed guns that, if I were good enough, I could use to target enemy ship subsystems myself - focus attack on their engines, their cargo bay, etc.
When you start playing the game, the systems inside your ship are on loan and you can replace them with your own once you run up enough money. This isn't the case when you buy the Anaconda - it comes completely dead, so with a general more-money-than-brains attitude, I outfitted this ship with the biggest, most expensive, most hard-hitting damage guns you can find: 360-degree turrets. Which auto-track and are effectively completely autonomous. They don't give a damn about where you actually want them to shoot.
I settled for the Python instead - a baby Anaconda that was smaller, faster, and much more nimble - and went merrily about my way. There is definitely something for everyone.
I have heard it said that Elite: Dangerous is a mile wide but an inch deep - and I feel that's fairly accurate for describing how the game stands now. The sense of promise is almost tangible, but it feels like it is still not quite finished. I have never see-sawed between a 7 and an 8 star rating for a game as much as I did for this one because it has the potential for so much more.
I look forward to seeing how this game will continue to develop, but at the moment the $59.99 USD price hits hard for a game that still feels fresh out of beta.
(Many thanks to AetherDryth for our discussions on this one!)