Elite Dangerous: It’s a big world out there.

I’m rather confident that Elite: Dangerous (E: D) is set in the largest virtual universe ever created. As of the official launch, the entire Milky Way has been modelled in the game. Yes, all of it. I didn’t realise just how big the Milky Way is until I fired up the in-game star map; it turns out there are over 400 billion star systems modelled in the game. Each of these is a unique solar system, comprised of one or more stars, planets, moons, asteroid belts, space stations and other assorted planety bits. I’ll say it again, just because it’s so incredible Four. Hundred. Billion. Insane eh?

Obviously these aren’t all hand-crafted, as it would take a billion underpaid 3D modellers working on a billion workstations a year to pump out this much content. Procedural generation has been done instead, but the tools are all based on Newtonian physics and our modern scientific understanding of how galaxies formed. Our own Solar System has been hand-rolled though, along with the basis of 160,000 commonly recognised constellations that you can see in our night sky. Regardless of whether a system is tailor-made or not, they’re all stunning environments thanks to a healthy variety of planet and star types. The first time I encountered a Binary star system, with its two giant orbs of burning plasma entangled in an eternal lover’s dance, was breathtaking. As you’d expect, every object in each star system has a scientifically accurate orbit, which is displayed on the HUD. Apparently the game
also includes Black Holes, supernovae and other cosmic rarities, but I haven’t stumbled into one of these during my lengthy play time.

Given that each star system is accurately modelled in terms of distance, and star systems are several light years apart from each other, travelling this expanse could have been a daunting affair. E: D’s solution is as unique as it is clever, breaking the game down into three “modes” of play, each represented by a different instanced environment. The first is a close ranged instance, where distances are measured in metres and kilometres, where players do the important stuff like combat, docking and mining.

When flying in this mode, you’ll be zipping around at several hundred kilometres per hour, and you’re in an instanced part of space with other players and objects. It’s here that your spacecraft’s amazing manoeuvrability comes into play. As well as the usual directions an aircraft flies, each ship can also strafe vertically and horizontally. Control via a joystick/throttle combination feels fluid and fast, but mouse and keyboard controls are more than serviceable. Mastering flying with flight assist on is pretty simple, but flick this to off and you can pull off outrageous moves. Got a bogey on your six who you can’t shake? Light the booster engine, hit top speed, disable flight assist off and then rotate 180 degrees to shoot at the bad guy while still travelling in the opposite direction. Cool.

The next mode of travel is the solar range instance, with speeds measured in millions of meters per second, and distances in light seconds, used to travel between planets and stars within a given solar system. You do so by using the engine’s Supercruise mode, and it’s as easy as locking onto your destination before hitting the Frameshift drive button. It takes a few seconds to warm up, and won’t work if you’re caught in the gravity well of a large mass. When it does kick in, a brief animation seamlessly pops you into an instanced version of the star system, allowing you to fl it between planets in a matter of minutes rather than months. Watching a cluster of glowing dots in the distance slowly grow to become a star and its children is a breathtaking view. Exiting Supercruise is quite challenging, as you need to start decelerating at just the right moment. Get it wrong and you can spend several minutes looping around your destination, speeding up and slowing down until you find the sweet spot that allows you to drop back into the close range instance next to your target. Other players are still visible in Supercruise mode, but because of the high speed they look like small shooting stars rather than the detailed spacecraft models seen in the close range mode. You can’t shoot them, but if you’ve got the right equipment you can pull them out of Supercruise mode, allowing you to then engage in combat.

Apparently it’s possible to use Supercruise mode to travel between star systems, but it would take weeks. The preferred method of interstellar travel is Hyperspace, the third mode of travel where distance is measured in light years. Your ship’s engine causes space to fold, so travelling six or seven light years only takes around 15 seconds. There are no other players when in this mode it’s a solo instance.

These three modes of the gameplay merge almost seamlessly, though there can be a brief pause as a system loads when you leave Hyperspace. Travelling within star systems is simple, but navigating the vast distances between systems using Hyperspace can be a very confusing affair. Your ship can only jump a certain distance based on its engines, power source, mass and amount of cargo in the hold. I got stuck on one mission when I jumped to the very edge of my ship’s limit to grab some cargo. The added mass of the cargo meant my maximum jump distance dropped, and I couldn’t return to the mission drop-off point without jettisoning my precious cargo. Thankfully the Navigation map is an incredibly powerful tool, which should make situations like this the exception to the rule provided you learn how to use it.

Equally as powerful as the navigation system is the intuitive Heads Up Display (HUD). It’s best used with a head tracking unit like the TrackIR (or the Oculus Rift, which is natively supported), as some weapons can be aimed simply by looking at the target. When combined with a H.O.T.A.S. joystick, it’s possible to trigger every action imaginable without taking your hands off the controls, as everything is neatly arranged and easy to find. If only the missions were the same.
Travelling six or seven light years only takes around 15 seconds
You can see the four major professions found in the box outs on these pages, but the game also serves up ad-hoc missions, which are collected at space stations, as well as from NPCs. These range from simple cargo ferrying runs, to killing several pirates in a given area, to stealing goods off other players. The problem with many of these missions is how vague their instructions are. For example, one mission tasked me with killing two pirates in a nearby system. After making the jump, I couldn’t find a single pirate for over an hour. It turns out that I had to look for “Unknown Signal Sources” on my scanner to find pirates, but nobody bothered to tell me that. Even after reading about the signal sources on the official forums, I still couldn’t find a second pirate before the mission timer expired. This lack of information pervades most of E: D it’s the Dark Souls 2 of space simulators. A handful of tutorials introduce players to the absolute basics, but misses so much more. Thankfully the simming community seems to enjoy writing about their games as much as they do playing them, and there’s a voluminous 200 page community-created manual floating around the Internet that fills in many of the gaps.

Sadly the other problem is to do with gaps of a different kind gaps in content. With such a huge play area, it’s often hard to find things to do. It feels like there’s a bare minimum amount of content to keep players busy for the first few dozen hours before repetition sets in; there’s only so many times mining another potato-looking asteroid is enjoyable. There’s the skeleton of a political system in place, with star systems and stations allied to one of several factions, and this apparently ties into story-based missions. Yet in over thirty hours of play time I don’t think I encountered any of this content; whether I was looking in the wrong places or it just wasn’t obvious to me is hard to tell.

Despite these qualms, the foundation is here for an incredible space simulator. The core technology and design is pure genius, and it’s a joy to explore for the first few days. Now that the team has overcome the seemingly impossible challenge of building a virtual Milky Way, they can focus on crafting the content that will give players something to do. Based on what they’ve delivered already over such a short period of time, as opposed to a certain other developer who only knows how to deliver adverts, I’ve got total faith that this is the start of something amazing. With plans for more spaceships that can be walked around on, as well as planetary landings, the initial release of Elite: Dangerous is much like the Big Bang, with a wonderful universe slowly coming into form over time.

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