Exploration So Far In Elite Dangerous

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I just crossed the 60-hour mark in Elite Dangerous and even though I don’t consider myself qualified to fully critique it or games like it, I think it’s time I at least put down some observations and general things I’d like to see Frontier Developments improve or change. If you’re one of those people who are still curious or pessimistic about No Man’s Sky, this post might help better inform your expectations of that game.

Even though I’ve done a few posts in the past on PC space flight games, I’m still not really “in-tune” with that genre. I don’t have a great idea of what fans of the “Fight, Trade, Explore” style space game expect from Elite Dangerous or games like it. I don’t know how it scales up compared to games of the past or similar games being made today. More importantly, I haven’t really interacted with other people playing this game so I don’t know what the common grievances have been. Elite Dangerous feels a lot like what I experienced in Frontier: Elite II but with more accessible controls I guess. Still, after 60 hours I find myself wishing for certain things in Dangerous. Consider this a critique with some suggestions from an average newcomer to the series and genre.

Everything I’m about to say has mainly to do with exploration in Elite Dangerous. I haven’t really done trading or bounty hunting at all so I have no idea how those aspects of the game have turned out. I’ve spent pretty much all my time exploring and scanning star systems, so I’m just critiquing what that experience feels like here.

Generally, I just want to see a deeper exploration experience in Elite Dangerous. Again, I don’t know what the other occupations feel like, but exploration kind of feels like it was an afterthought, or maybe it just feels light because it’s the newest thing Frontier added to the series, with trading, fighting, and mining being developed from all the previous games. When you explore in this game, all you really do is warp into a system, scan all the planets (that are worth scanning), and leave. Before you have an advanced scanner the challenge is in finding the planets once you reach a system — figuring out where the orbit plane is and looking for stellar objects with the naked eye. Aside from that the “challenge” the sense of reward is really in just finding the most valuable objects: Earth-like planets, water worlds, and black holes. If you’re interested in real-life astronomy you might get a bit enthusiastic about checking out a carbon star or investigating aspects of stars and planets like age, gravity, surface temperature, and atmospheric pressure. On a larger scale the goals explorers tend to set for themselves are things like “make enough money to afford an Asp Explorer,” or “make a long trip to this nebula or the black hole at the center of the galaxy.” And… that’s pretty much it. Because explorers really need to stay out of combat and usually don’t bother with cargo holds, they have to stay away from signal beacons or wreckages they find in deep space. Explorers find things and report their locations, and right now all you can do that for are stars and planets. So I’d really just like to have more to explore and report.

Firstly I’d like to have exploration-related reasons to land on planets. Scanning never requires you to get close to planets, so you really only ever scan a bunch of tiny dots before warping to the next system of tiny dots. Right now, people doing pure exploration have no reason to buy the first expansion pack: Horizons. As I currently understand, the things you find on the airless planets Horizons let’s you traverse include different kinds of combat-focused settlements, and some materials to mine. One material might temporarily extend your warp range. I would be more interested in getting Horizons if there were things on these planets to earn money for scanning. Maybe it could be derelict ships (I think those are in the game for other purposes) or geographical features. Exploring a canyon or mountain in itself might be pretty fun, but I’d feel like I was wasting my time if I didn’t get any money for finding it. Plus, that might be all you find outside of civilized space, which is where explorers spend most of their time. More objects to scan in space would be nice too, like comets, rogue planets, or ancient wreckages. I think the developers did recently hint that future expansions would involve discovering the whereabouts of ships and colonies that disappeared into deep space centuries before. Generally, a greater variety and greater sense of surprise a what you might find would be nice for exploration in this game.

I know Elite Dangerous is being developed on a very long-term plan with expansions similar to Horizons coming out every year, eventually adding things like the ability to land on planets with atmospheres. I’m hoping exploration get’s more varied and interesting in some of those later expansions but it could still be overshadowed by developments to fighting and trading.

What concerns me more though is that No Man’s Sky is promising a lot more on day one when it launches this year. A lot of what it’s promising that Elite Dangerous doesn’t have yet concerns exploration. You’ll already be able to land on any planet, atmosphere or not. There will already be life for you to earn rewards for discovering. There will also be various points of interest on each planet. Basically, No Man’s Sky will come out of the gate with reasons for explorers to actually come within orbit of and land on planets. Of course Hello Games is being intentionally cagey about No Man’s Sky so we’ll see how it pans out.

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