Elite Dangerous is a spacefaring game released by Frontier Developments on PC in 2014. Later on it was also released on OS X and Xbox One and then, later still, on the PlayStation 4. It is the fourth title in the Elite series (which started with the titular Elite in 1984) and is by far the sequel with the longest gap between itself and the previous instalment; Frontier: First Encounters was released all the way back in 1995.
Though it came out nearly five years ago now, it is constantly receiving updates and is currently at version number 3.3. There is also one DLC pack for it called Horizons, which we’ll discuss in more detail later on.
The game is set, at present, in the year 3305, as the real-world calendar is used as a basis for the in-game one. If it is February 16th 2019 here, it will be February 16th 3305 in the game’s universe, etc.
So what do you actually do in ED? Well, the answer is simple; you make money. You can accrue income many ways: via missions from space stations or habitats, bounty hunting, trading goods, mining asteroids, selling cartographic data and even ferrying passengers about. As you become more proficient at these, you will increase your rank in three specialisations: Combat, Trade and Exploring. There is also a fourth rank, CQC, which can be increased by playing in a separate “arena” mode against other human players. The top rank in all of these specialisations is named “Elite”.
With this money you can upgrade your ship with various parts, weapons and gadgets, or eventually save up to buy a completely new ship. There are many different ships, each individually suited to the various roles. The Viper MkIII is a nifty combat fighter, for instance. In contrast, the Beluga is a luxury cruise ship. Some ships are “multi-role” and can be kitted out depending on how you plan to use them. The vessel I currently use, the Anaconda, is a very large ship that can be kitted out with lots of weapons to turn it into a kind of battlecruiser. However, I utilise its capacious cargo bay to make it into a profitable hauler. Tinkering with your ship’s components is a big part of the game and there are various websites and forums where people debate the optimal setup for the intended task.
To this end, the game has no real “goal”. You fly around, making money and spending it how you wish but there is no endgame to speak of. In this sense it is a true sandbox experience, as you are required to set your own tasks and make your own entertainment.
This open-endedness can prove divisive for some players. In a similar way that some criticism of No Man’s Sky (Elite Dangerous came out two years before that title, incidentally) centred on the question, “Is this all you do?”, ED initially received some flak for being a bit “hollow”. This is reflected in the lacklustre Metacritic score it currently holds. However, there are two rebuttals to this argument in my mind.
The first is that the game is, at heart, a flying simulator. Yes, there is combat and trading involved, but the real appeal of this game to me is creating a ship and soaring around the Milky Way. Secondly, Frontier Developments have been constantly adding content to the title and have started being more ambitious with the kind of things you can see and do in this universe. The DLC pack, Horizons, lets you land on most planets that do not have an atmosphere, as well as allow you to disembark your ship and drive around in a kind of “lunar buggy”.
At present, atmospheric landings are not available (apparently because generating cities on developed worlds is a serious undertaking for the the developers) but there are hints that this feature will one day be included. There is even talk of letting you leave your ship when docked and stroll around space stations. Watch out, Star Citizen!
There is also a constantly evolving lore to the game, that is influenced both by behind-the-scenes tinkering from the developers and the actions of the players themselves. Oh, did I forget to mention that this game has an online, MMO style element? Well, it does. It’s completely optional and you can choose to play the game without the risk of bumping into other humans if you wish (and can freely switch between modes if you like), and there is also a middle option where you can play in a private session with your friends. To be honest, even though you can bump into other players in particularly busy areas, it is very rare to actually interact with them and the Milky Way really is very large. I read one user’s experiences on Reddit where they said that in over four years of playing the game, they had been attacked by a real person maybe five times tops.
Every week there are community goals, two missions where everyone playing is encouraged to perform a certain task for a reward. The rewards are tiered, so the more you contribute, the bigger the payday. It’s a nice way of keeping things fresh and encouraging a bit of healthy competition, whilst also making some dollar at the same time.
In recent years, Frontier have been steadily upping the stakes by introducing a new, sinister element to the universe. At first, it was derelict ships that had been attacked by some strange, unknown weapon. Then panicked emergency broadcasts were being received from pilots in distress. And, finally, the curtain was lifted to reveal the instigators of these events. We are not alone out here, folks. The Thargoids have come to pay us a visit, and it doesn’t look like they’re coming in peace.
Except, it isn’t that simple. When the aliens initially appeared, you couldn’t really interact with them. They would power down your ship and just appear to do something benign, like refuel on a planet or scan your vessel and fly off. Eventually, Frontier decided to let the community meet them “up close and personal” and decide for themselves how this first contact was going to play out. Well, if you know anything about the Internet, video games or humanity in general, you can probably predict where this all went.
The first person to take down a Thargoid ship was a gamer by the name of Joshua ‘Harry Potter’ Chamberlain. Him and his clan, the Smiling Dog Crew, managed to destroy one in Autumn 2017 and after that, the Thargoids were plenty pissed.
But this game is not Mass Effect or Wing Commander. If you want to meet and kill strange new lifeforms, you will have to go looking for them. I have friends who’ve played this game for years and have never even seen one of these beasties. If you want a simple life of space-taxiing or mining gold, you need never be bothered by them.
And that, in summary, is the beauty of ED to me. You can play it how you want to, no matter how morally bankrupt or risk-averse you are. The community around the game is very loyal and they often set off on epic journeys across our galaxy, just to look at a star and say, “Well, there it is.” An actual “roadside” assistance service called The Fuel Rats exists, where you can go to their website and request help if you run out of gas. I’ve used them; they are real people, doing this in their spare time for the sheer altruism of it. They’ve become so iconic that Frontier have even added an in-game advertisement for them.
I enjoy ED a lot. I like playing it, I like talking about ED with other people who play it and I’m glad it exists in the form it does. This game will, most likely, go on for many more years in the same way other persistent world games like World of Warcraft or EVE Online have.
I think it’s frequently stunning to look at, too. I take *tons* of screenshots (anyone who’s seen me in the Open Threads can attest to this) and I’m still blown away by the beauty of stars, quasars, planet surfaces and epic space stations.
If any of this sounds appealing to you, then I recommend you give Elite Dangerous a try. The Horizons DLC isn’t essential, but it will let you do some cool stuff like land on planets or engineer upgrades for your ship, so maybe play the base game for a while before going all in.
Finally, I know quite a few Avocados play this game as well, so feel free to share your experiences of the game in the comments. As I mentioned before, I love talking about Elite so you are welcome to post as little or as much as you like.
Stay safe, Commanders.