Elite: Dangerous

Like space, Elite: Dangerous is currently defined as much by what’s not there as what is. While the promise of planetary landings, first person exploration and ships with multiple crew members are all on the to do list, they’re still a way off. Instead, Frontier is taking smaller steps, building out from ship to ship combat in painstaking detail and with remarkable self discipline.

“Making a game with all this complexity is a huge challenge,” Frontier CEO David Braben tells us. “We’ve got 100 people working very hard and working long hours to make this game possible. You can see just how much we’ve put in over a short period of time, and that’s a testament to all those people.”

The second beta, launched at the end of September, introduces yet another raft of new features. The most familiar of these is combat ratings, which start at Harmless and top out, naturally, at Elite. But there are also now per system and per-faction reputations that will influence local law enforcement’s attitude towards you as well as the prices you’ll pay for goods or weapons. And there’s an in game news feed, GalNet, which reports on events from around the galaxy.

All of this would be useless without the ability to explore, and so Beta 2 opens up 570 star systems (which, according to Frontier, occupy a daunting 381,033 cubic light years)

for players to seek out, discover and chart, and any potentially valuable data they collect can then be sold on for profit. The game’s scope has grown exponentially from the combat scenarios that made up its alpha, and it continues to expand at pace.

Despite the sheer scale of the project, Braben maintains the air of a man with a watertight plan of action. “The main thing is choosing what to put in the game, and doing it in the right order,” he says. “For some things, it doesn't make sense to do them before others. Obviously, you can’t have exploration without something to explore! So even though we have known that a lot of people want to do that, we waited.”

The plan is opening up the game piece by piece, leading to all manner of unexpected occurrences. “As we layer on more and more richness, we see more emergent behaviours, even at this early stage,” Braben says. “We hadn't necessarily anticipated the off the wall ways that people are using each new system we put in.”

One example is smuggling, which has been enabled by the game’s stealth mechanics, despite not being an intended part of the design yet. The ability to close your ship’s vents and jettison a heat sink in order to disappear from the radar has been in from the start, but some enterprising players are taking advantage of it to trick the game’s AI.

“There’s this wonderful video where someone is caught smuggling outside a station and gets stopped and searched, and then attacked,” Braben says. “They end up in a fight and their contraband goes all over the place. This other guy just waits, goes super cool so you can see all the ice on his screen and then, flying with flight control off, gradually, slowly scoops the cargo. The police are a long way away at this point, so he’s doing this right in front of a space station!  He manages to get all this cargo and then just gradually drifts off away from the station. And then he turns, does a burn aiming precisely at the entrance slot, and turns his engines off again. He just flies in and they don’t spot him. And it’s just great, because it’s quite hard to do, and I’d never imagined someone could dock without being detected.”

A more forceful way to acquire others’ items is by using the newly introduced Hatch Breaker limpet missile. Once deployed, this homes in on an unshielded ship’s cargo hatch and forces it wide open. Braben compares it a highwayman encounter, as opposed to the all out piratical slaughter of a space battle.

“It’s unashamedly a game mechanic,” he says, “but it’s also quite fun, because it extends the battle. You get very attached to your ship, but you’re not generally attached to your cargo, and so you go, ‘Oh, bugger, they’ve got that. I’m just going to head off.’ And then the pirates have the choice: if they follow you, finding the canisters that have been released already will be quite difficult the farther away they get. So there’s a nice balance for both sides. One of my concerns at the start of this was PVP versus PVE. In my view, PVE is great gameplay, and the  threat  of PVP is really exciting. But you don’t want a big percentage of the game to be PVP, because it ends up being a fairly miserable experience. So what we’re trying to do is to get a little bit of PVP, and make it interesting and often nonfatal.”
Once deployed, it homes in on an unshielded ship’s cargo hatch and forces it wide open
While space stations won't necessarily protect you from wily players, they do at least provide refuge from the dangers of deep space. The huge construction used in the docking tutorial has now been joined by two smaller classes of port. The Ocellus is built from the same modular parts as its larger cousin, and will turn up in new systems as their populations grow. Before that, though, Outposts (“like those fuel stations you see in the middle of the desert in the States, where there’s one guy who’s probably been sitting there and you’re the first person he’s seen all day”) will appear to refuel and service ships exploring the outer reaches of the charted galaxy. Their small size will mean that larger ships won’t be able to use them, however.

And that could be a problem if you haven’t seen a place to stop in some time, because ships now suffer from wear and tear. Though predominantly the degradation will be visual, unloved ships will eventually start to suffer in performance terms too, as systems become less efficient or begin to outright malfunction. You can carry a repair kit with you for just such an occasion, but that will take up valuable cargo space a good reason to bring a friend along on deep-space ventures and to
share the spoils of whatever you discover.

Although it was hardly needed, there’s even more motivation to explore this universe thanks to a new graphics pass that’s improved almost every aspect of the game, upgrading ships’ cockpits and shimmering icy comets alike. “There are a couple more tweaks we want to do,” producer Eddie Symons tells us, “but for the most part the visual quality is pretty much where we want it now. If you look back at some of the older builds, the quality of the visuals in the night skies and planets have moved on so much. I wouldn't know how we could make it much better, really.”

It looks remarkable on the 4K TV we play it on, but all of that beauty is compromised by low resolution when we slip on an Oculus Rift. Frontier has yet to get its hands on a Crescent Bay unit, however, so the VR presentation will hopefully catch up before long. But that, like so much else here, is just one part of a dazzlingly ambitious plan.

Terra incognita
While Frontier is keeping Beta 3, due in late October, under wraps, Braben tells us that it will introduce the ability to own multiple ships and add mining. But beyond that, there are even greater plans. “If a planet’s got life on it, what are we going to do? Implement GTA with cities and that sort of thing? It’s not something that’s going to come instantaneously, but the various things in our armoury are landing on the surface of a planet, being able to deploy a wheeled vehicle and drive around, to drop cargo on a planetary surface for later retrieval, getting out of your ship and walking around in firstperson, and interacting with other players. You’ll see another ship and, theoretically, be able to run up the ramp and take it.”

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