December 1, 2020

Elite: Dangerous review – in space, no-one can hear you yawn

Space. The vast, empty vacuum. The final frontier. Anything could happen out here. There are endless ways to meet your end, but by far the most common? Boredom. Simple, old-fashioned boredom. Elite Dangerous is the first game we’ve played in a long time capable of boring you to death.

It all starts off so promisingly. This is the first Elite game since 1995’s ambitious but deeply flawed First Encounters and, backed by an enormous barrel of Kickstarter cash, promises to let you live out your dreams of being a spacefaring commander in a galaxy of limitless possibility. An entertaining sequence of training missions takes you through the basics of space flight and combat, and by the end you’re itching to stock up on multicannon ammo and live the kind of adventure only an infinite universe can provide.

This is an Elite game, so how your career as a space privateer unfolds is completely up to you. You can be a trader, courier, mercenary, miner or pirate, among other things. Land at a space station, fish through the bulletin board courier missions, assassinations or requests to source rare materials, and take off into the great beyond in search of thrills and profit.

And that’s where it all grinds to a halt.

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Assassinations and mercenary work will be beyond your ship’s modest capabilities at first, so you’ll have to stick with courier missions and trading, but this isn’t as much fun as it sounds. Your hitherto exciting courier job to destabilise the government of Zeta Lupi essentially boils down to performing a quick frame shift drive jump, then taking your hands off the controls in Supercruise and watching the distance to your next spaceport count down until you can safely disengage. You then need to ask for permission to land and carefully dock your ship on the appropriate landing pad. After this you consult the bulletin board to find another mission, or stock up on goods to trade, plot your course on the Galaxy Map and take off again; the brief excitement of the jump to faster-than-light speeds once again overshadowed by the long slog across the next solar system.

The main problem is that Elite: Dangerous insists you do most things manually. First Encounters was all about the autopilot and time acceleration buttons; lock on to a spaceport, hit the auto button, engage maximum time speed and before you knew it you’d have landed and would be hitting the boards for new jobs. Dangerous gives you the minimum of assistance; you have to manage your frame drive speed carefully to strike a balance between spending 10 minutes flying through endless empty space, or wildly overshooting your target. Once you get close enough you can use Safe Disengage to drop you around 1km from a space station, but you then have to go through the rigmarole of landing again.

This wouldn’t be such a problem if making money wasn’t so difficult. We started off trying to trade, but even following trading common sense, such as buying food from an agricultural economy with a glut of grain and taking it to an industrial spaceport, or shipping raw minerals from an extraction planet to a refinery, led us to make only around a thousand credits per run. Each one of these runs, once you take into account all the flying through space, taking off and landing, takes the best part of 20 minutes, and a good third of your profit is swallowed up in fuel costs.

Switching to bulletin board missions improved matters, but you’re never going to get rich delivering seditious messages for the Federation for 700 credits a pop. We started off in the default Sidewinder ship, but after several hours trying to make any kind of decent cash we gave up and started a new game with a larger Cobra MK III. Even with this bigger ship, it took us four hours of shuttle runs, without even a pirate attack to liven things up, to scrape together 10,000 credits.

The biggest scores seem to be from getting hold of certain kinds of goods at short notice. We were offered a career-changing 45,000 credits – enough to buy a Frame Shift Drive Interdictor to pull other ships out of Supercruise to indulge in some good old-fashioned piracy/mercenary work/defending the Federation. Unfortunately, to complete the job we needed to deliver 20,000 credits’ worth of aluminium, and to accumulate the necessary capital would have taken another four hours of grinding.

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We were happy to put in the necessary effort, but real life kept getting in the way. Missions are all time-limited, and the game’s clock is in real-time. Even if you play in Solo mode, where you don’t have to deal with other human players clogging up the landing pads, the game still connects to the Elite servers (you’re booted out of the game if the connection is lost), and the universe continues as you left it. This means that you can take on a potentially lucrative job with what you think is plenty of time remaining, but then have to answer the phone/drive to the shops/discuss gutter clearance with your neighbour and by the time you get back to the game, you don’t have enough time to complete the mission. The pause function has no effect, and the game timer keeps on ticking even after you’ve quit.

This not only damages your reputation, but in many cases you get slapped with a fine, payment of which will set you back another couple of hours of grinding. It’s all a far cry from the laughably overblown dogfight-tastic launch trailer. This is one of those titles, like Postal and Grand Theft Auto 4, which wear you down with the mundane slog of life until you snap and start murdering people. I finally snapped on one courier run and murdered a space-borne wedding party. The difference is that in Postal and GTA 4 the effect is intentional.

Some missions seem pointlessly hard, too. In one we needed to find some mineral extractors and deliver them to a starport for a fat reward. We headed out to a system with three planets and an economy based entirely around manufacturing and mineral extraction, but there were no mineral extractors available to buy. Also, despite none of the planets having an atmosphere or any water, there was an abundance of atmospheric processors and marine equipment. We could have tried another system, but that would have taken another 20 minutes and it was time to go to bed. Mission failed.

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There are various fan-made websites that can help, such as www.elitetradingtool.co.uk, which tells you where to find goods relative to your position. The website states that Elite’s developers don’t want the tool plugging directly into the game’s servers, so all the information about goods, quantities and pricing is entered by volunteers. By hand. As if the game itself wasn’t enough like hard work.

This is a shame, as Elite: Dangerous has plenty to admire. The game is very pretty: space stations look spectacular as you swoop around them and cockpit designs are impressive, with your displays flickering into life as you look around – sometimes it can feel as if you really have your own spaceship. The sound design is also rather special, particularly the roar of your engines as you accelerate, the cockpit shaking in reaction to your frame shift drive’s power. The game is designed to be used with the Oculus Rift, too, so could be even more immersive when the virtual reality headset finally arrives.

Unfortunately, none of this attention to detail and design is enough to give the game back what it lacks: fun. Some say the title really opens up after the first 100,000 credits, but based on our progress that would require around 40 hours of relentless grind and, for us at least, life is simply too short.

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