Space Games Part 4: Elite Dangerous


The fall Steam deal convinced me (along with probably a lot of other people) to finally check out Elite Dangerous, sort of ending my trek through the series all the way from the 1984 original. I haven’t accomplished a whole lot in this game yet so this is probably gonna be part one of some kind of chronicle. I have to say though, this game is pulling me in probably more than Fallout 4.

Elite Dangerous is the first remotely “modern” one of these sandbox space simulator games I’ve played — the ones coined “explore, trade, fight” if I’m not mistaken. By “modern” I mean “made after 1993.” As of this writing I think I’m just coming out of the adjustment phase, which was undoubtedly helped by my having played the original Elite and Elite II. After getting the hang of it though I think I’ve at least managed to find my own personal fun in the game. Part of the point is that this “fun” might be different for every player. That’s why so many people can’t figure out what No Man’s Sky is all about.

Part of the reason I hopped in is because I’m attracted to the idea of a “pure” space simulator. Back in the day when I would see videos and screenshots of these kinds of games all I noticed were complex menu screens and people talking about economy simulations which just sounded really dry. What games like Elite really present are open settings where you can try to live out your Han Solo or Boba Fett fantasy, figuring out the next star system you’re going to chart a course for on the way to smuggle some spice or track your current bounty. I’ve personally decided to be an explorer for now.

Exploration — finding planets and selling the information at space ports, is apparently the slowest way to make money in Elite Dangerous, but it’s also the least risky, as you’ll almost never encounter hostiles in unexplored space. For me though it’s also an extension of my experience messing around with Space Engine.

Space Engine doesn’t even have a real game attached to it (yet) — you just mess around with a planetarium looking at systems and planets, and I was still able to get hours of enjoyment out of it. Eventually I started searching for Earth-like planets by using the game’s internal search engine or just looking through the map screen. Exploration in Elite Dangerous is kind of like that but with actual rewards tied to it.

If you haven’t played it, you get different amounts of money depending on what you scan, Earth-like planets generally being the most valuable finds. Those are rare too in my experience. So far I haven’t found a single one, but I’ve found a few water worlds, and each one felt like I’d hit paydirt. Actually finding anything presents its own unique set of challenges that I imagine you won’t find in many other video games.

Right now my equipment is still pretty basic — my scanners won’t find everything in a star system on the first try so I have to fly around a bit aimlessly to find some planets, but came up with some techniques to help. My basic discovery scanner has a range of about one astronomical unit — the distance between Earth and the sun, so right now I’m sticking to main sequence stars of around the same size as our sun since their habitable zones will be in a similar spot and I can more easily catch them in my initial scans. Another technique for picking planets out of the darkness of space is to fly around at hyperspace speeds and see if any of the dots in the background start moving relative to you.

I suspect that part of the reason I’m enjoying playing Elite this way is because I already have some interest in astronomy — the same reason I was able to enjoy Space Engine. I’ve gotten into examining planets by looking at their ages, semimajor axes, atmospheric pressure, and knowing what all that means. You could say the exploration route turns Elite into the astronomer’s video game, if only in a relatively simple sense.

I will admit though that I sought out some help starting out. I got suggestions on what kind of ship I should buy and upgrade as well as some preliminary tips on finding and scanning planets. Without that help I imagine it would have taken me much longer to get my feet under me in this game, which might end up being the case for others who try out Elite Dangerous.

By the way, I didn’t get the new expansion: Horizons, so I have no idea how planetary landings are going to figure into exploration. Maybe some of the points of interest you find on planets will have discovery value. I think that’s what No Man’s Sky will do. The developers of that game have already talked a lot about discovering new species and selling the data.

I might think about hopping into another line of work in Elite Dangerous once I’ve made enough money exploring, but I don’t know if or when I’ll get bored of exploring. Exploration in this game has you constantly moving to new systems, so there’s this constant sense of anticipation with each one. Since it’s procedurally-generated you’ll also basically never run out of star systems to explore. Exploration is my favorite thing to do in video games so this is almost a perfect mix for me. Can you say that about bounty hunting or trading?


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