So, as I said in a previous post, I’ve been playing a lot of the Elite: Dangerous (ED) beta, the upcoming space sim from Frontier Developments (FD). The beta will be closing on 22 November (when FD will be staging a “Premiere Event“), so I thought this would a good time to do a kind of detailed review of the beta and an introduction to some of the game mechanics. The final game is now due to release for PC on 16 December and between then and the end of the beta there will be a pre-release “preview” version (gamma) available to all beta backers. A Mac version is now available to pre-order, but it won’t be released until next year (and there will be a beta stage first); there has been no confirmation on whether ED will also be ported to Linux or consoles.
If you find this article too long (and it is long), you might just want to look at the pretty pictures and the gameplay videos I’ve embedded. Otherwise, grab a coffee…
A brief history
ED is the forth in a series of games by David Braben that started with the simple wire-frame graphics of Elite, released way back in 1984 (the 30th anniversary was celebrated in September) for the BBC Micro and subsequently ported to multiple formats including the ZX Spectrum and Commodore 64. Since then two sequels have been released, Frontier: Elite 2 (give me back my teenage years damn it!), released in 1993, and the ill-fated Frontier: First Encounters, released in 1995.
In a nutshell, the Elite titles are sandbox spaceship sims based around trading, combat and exploration; “Elite” referring to the highest of the combat rankings attainable. The games are fondly regarded in the gaming world and generally considered to have inspired modern open world games such the GTA series.
After more than a decade of rumours, the long-anticipated fourth incarnation of Elite finally began life on Kickstarter in November 2012. Backers (£30 level) got a digital copy of the final game and access to the gamma testing stage, and increased rewards were available for larger pledges including access to alpha (£200 level), premium beta (£100 level) and standard beta testing stages (£50 level).
I bought into the more modestly-priced standard beta phase, which started on 29 July. Later I additionally purchased the lifetime expansion pass (an extra £35), which unsurprisingly provides free access to all future paid-for expansions. Planned content will introduce new game mechanics such as planetary landings and the ability to walk around your ship, and explore space stations and planetary surfaces on foot. There is even talk of eventually being able to board other ships in space and take them by force (yaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaarrrrrr!).
When beta 1 began on 29 July it comprised 55 star systems and 8 ships – the humble Sidewinder, the Hauler, the Eagle, the Viper, the Cobra, the Lakon type 6 and type 9 transporters and the formidable Anaconda. Beta 2 launched on 30 September, which increased the universe to 570 systems and introduced the Asp, as well as outposts (essentially mini starports where you land on an exterior platform), Pilot Federation ranks, various graphics and interface improvements, a host of new music, a more fleshed-out ship upgrade system and some tweaks to the stealth mechanics. Beta 3 arrived on 28 October, expanding the universe to 2406 explorable systems (a staggering 869,000 cubic light years of space including 4,181 stars and 24,918 planets!). It also introduced the impressive Federal Drop Ship and the elegant-looking Imperial Clipper, multiple ship ownership, faction reputations, new game mechanics and ship upgrades, and improved planetary surfaces.
Beta 3.9 will launch on 20 Nov in preparation for the gamma release. Though it is not yet clear what changes or new content this will introduce.
General game play
So what do you actually do in ED? Well, pretty much the same as the previous games. Commanders (as all human players are known) start off in the year 3300 at a starport in Eranin, with only a humble sidewinder and 1000 credits. Money can be made from trading commodities between star ports, taking on missions/contracts (variations on couriering, assassination, mercenary work and supplying in-demand goods), bounty hunting and pirating. Beta 2 introduced the ability to make money from exploration (i.e. mapping uncharted regions of space and selling the data to cartographers) and beta 3 added asteroid mining. And if none of that appeals, you can always go down the route of blood thirsty psycho – as long as you don’t mind being persona non grata in many star systems and having cops and bounty hunters in pursuit (you can always take refuge in one of the anarchy systems).
Most systems contain a starport where players can dock, refuel/rearm/repair, visit the commodities market (and sometimes a black market for selling stolen and salvaged goods) and bulletin board, collect bounties, pay off fines, read the news, buy new ships and upgrade current ones.
Dying is not game over (man). You retain your credit balance, faction reputations, Pilot Federation rank and stored ships, and you are given the option to buy back the destroyed ship by paying an insurance cost, which works out at around 10% of your ship’s value (including the cost of all upgrades). A loan system was introduced with beta 2 that allows Commanders to borrow up to 200,000 credits in order to be able to pay the insurance cost. However, all cargo is lost – a hotly debated topic on the forums, but currently there are no plans to implement cargo. You then respawn back into the universe at the the last starport you docked at. If you choose not to pay the insurance cost then you respawn back in Eranin with a free Sidewinder.
Getting around: space is quite a big place
In ED there are three different modes of travel and all consume fuel. Not to worry, if you run out fuel you can send out a distress beacon and someone will be along to refuel you. Alternatively, you can buy a fuel scoop (introduced in beta 3) and refill at your nearest star (but don’t get too close!).
Travel between star systems is achieved using the frame shift drive (FSD), which uses a wormhole-type mechanism to travel huge distances in a matter of seconds. You emerge from hyperspace close to the nav beacon, which is always in very close orbit of the system’s main star. The distance you can jump is determined by ship type (smaller ships tend to have lower jump capability), current ship mass, the amount of fuel available and the class of FSD, which can upgraded (at significant cost) to increase jump range. Mass is increased by taking cargo onboard, installing weapon systems and other utilities, and upgrading current ship components; lowering mass increases possible jump distance. When you first spawn into ED you will be limited to travelling between the core systems until you are able to upgrade your ship and/or FSD.
Within star systems you travel between planets, starports and other points of interest by entering a flight mode called “super cruise” (SC), essentially an FTL mode (the previous games employed a time acceleration mechanic instead, but in ED all flight is in real time). Careful control of acceleration and deceleration is required in order not to overshoot your destination and to be able to safely disengage from SC. There are no speed limits in this mode of flight, but the computer will assist you in deceleration once you get closer to your targeted destination. Distance is measured in light seconds (Ls) and while most starports can be reached within a minute or so (once you get the hang of flying in SC), more remote locations can take up to 10 minutes.
Sub-light speed travel
The sub-light speed flight model is used for combat and when close to starports, planetary bodies, etc. In the previous two games flight obeyed Newtonian laws – your ship could accelerate indefinitely in open space and would continue at the same velocity if you ceased providing thrust; in order to decelerate you needed to provide thrust in the opposite direction to that which you were travelling. As a result, dogfighting could often be cumbersome and usually amounted to little more than a sequence of “jousts” with your opponent.
ED has maximum ship speeds, typically between 150 and 350 metres/second, and a limited form of yaw (something I believe that was “nerfed” in alpha testing phase). Maximum speed is determined by ship type, thruster/engine class (which can be upgraded), and power distribution. Power management is an important game mechanic, particularly during combat. You have six pips that can be distributed between systems (shield strength and regeneration), engines (max ship speed and boost recharge) and weapons (weapons drain power); you can place a maximum of four pips in any one category and minimum of none. The boost function, by the way, accelerates the ship very quickly and gives you a very temporary speed boost beyond your ships normal speed limit (up to 70%); obviously this function must recharge.
The artificially imposed speed limits means that dogfighting will more closely adhere to FD’s vision of WWII fighter planes in space, with ships relying heavily on roll and pitch for changing direction to engage their targets (think Star Wars). This design decision angered some fans who wanted a more realistic space flight model.
Currently, the default flying mode uses a mechanic called “flight assist” (FA), which ensures that your ship is always moving in the same direction as where the ship is pointed. The second flying mode, “flight assist off” (FAOff), is semi-Newtonian in nature and is trickier to control as there is no automatic thrust correction (you have to manually stabilise your rotation). Speed limits still apply, but the ship can be pointed in a direction different to that which it is travelling (essentially you can “turret” in three dimensions); deceleration does not occur if you cut the engines/thrust. In both flight modes you also have control of lateral, vertical and reverse thrusts, which allows you to strafe in three dimensions.
Controversially, these mechanics were tweaked in beta 2 as FD wanted to encourage forward-facing flight during dogfights. They implemented reduced maximum speeds in non-forward directions for both modes of flight (40% reverse and 60% transverse). With FAOff this meant that speed would slowly bleed off if you rotated the ship in a direction away from that which you are travelling – for example, if you pointed the nose of your ship 180° away from the direction of travel (i.e. facing backwards), you would be automatically decelerated to 40% of your ship’s maximum speed. Hope that makes sense.
These changes to the flight model caused an outrage on the ED forums (it got a bit “passionate”, if you know what I mean), with the developers having to come out in force to defend and explain their decision (e.g. http://forums.frontier.co.uk/showthread.php?p=804025). Arguably, this did make FAOff much less useful and the previous FAOff mechanics had managed to appease some of the players keen on a more realistic flight model.
For beta 3, FD relented and reversed some of the flight model changes made in beta 2. The reverse and transverse speed caps were increased to 60 and 80% respectively (this only now affects FA), and the speed bleed off for FAOff was removed completely (unless you exceed the maximum speed limit for the ship and engine type, e.g. from boosting). So once again FAOff allows you to turret away from your direction of travel without deceleration, allowing for more interesting manoeuvres during dogfights.
ED brings multiplayer gameplay to the Elite series for the first time and during the beta there have been three “game modes”: open play, private group and solo. These modes are all online and everyone plays within the same universe. Open play “instances” you with up to 32 other players who happen to be present within the same solar system. Other Commanders in your instance can be communicated with via text chat and voice comms. Private group only instances you with members of a specific group. In solo you never will be instanced with other human players. Controversially, you can freely move your character between the different game modes.
However, given the proposed size of the ED universe in the final release, a staggering 400 billion star systems (although around 99% will be unexplored/uninhabited and procedurally generated), bumping into other players will be relatively infrequent outside of the core systems (i.e. the systems around Eranin, where players spawn into the universe) or event locations (FD will stage in-game events from time to time, such as the Eranin-Federation war that occurred at the end of beta 1); this is another contentious issue on the ED forums with many commentators concerned that PvP (player vs player) and human interaction will be almost non-existent, making the game multiplayer in name only.
In contrast, other players are concerned that non-consensual PvP will be forced upon them if they choose to play in the open mode (a strange attitude given the option to play solo or in a group). Another issue is that it is currently possible to simply disconnect if you are losing a dogfight (known as “combat logging”). In other games this phenomenon has been addressed by adding in a disconnect timer – your character remains in the world and can be killed for a specified time following disconnection (e.g. 30 seconds).
An offline mode is planned for the final release, but this profile/character will not be able to enter any of the online game modes (UPDATE: FD have announced that they will no longer be implementing an offline mode). FD also plan to introduce a permadeath mode know as Ironman, where death will result in the loss of all progress. This will be multiplayer but your Ironman Commander will not be able to enter the other online game modes and will never be instanced with non-Ironman Commanders.
Unfortunately, multiplayer in ED relies upon a peer to peer (P2P) network rather than dedicated servers (presumably for cost reasons), and lag and netcode have been significant issues in the beta. However, FD have been releasing frequent server- and client-side patches to address reported issues, and hopefully they can iron out most of the wrinkles before final release.
Combat: the fun bit
For me this is the fun part of the game, and earning credits through less violent pursuits is simply a means to end (although I do enjoy a bit of exploring). However, space is full of unsavoury characters and even those who choose a more peaceful path will be regularly forced to defend themselves against murderous psychos, pirates and, if you get on the wrong side of the law, bounty hunters and police. There are even conflicts zones that players can visit for a bit of guaranteed action (or a spot of mercenary work).
Beta 3 introduced the ability to “interdict” other ships while in SC – prior to this only NPCs (non-playable characters, i.e. AI ships) could interdict. This allows you to attempt to force NPCs and other Commanders out of SC and is essential for pirating, bounty hunting, assassination and general malevolence.
Good power management is key to winning dogfights – knowing when to put your pips into weapons, systems and engines. Weapons use power and will stop firing if not enough energy is available, so for sustained firing you will need to put more pips into weapons. If you’re under fire or your shields are low you will need to put more pips into systems – this both strengthens your shields and increases their recharge rate. If you’re in pursuit or trying to make a hasty retreat you will need to put more pips into engines – this increases your maximum speed and the recharge rate of your engine boost.
But it’s also important to know when to flee – usually when your ship is totally outclassed or you are heavily outnumbered. Traders will generally want to avoid combat due to the limited combat capability and poor manoeuvrability of heavy transport ships. Your best bet is to stick max pips into engines, start charging your FSD and perform evasive manoeuvres (i.e. don’t fly in straight line!). If the aggressors are pirates, you may be able to placate them by jettisoning some cargo. Be warned though, frame shift wake scanners allow pursers to follow you through hyperspace.
The AI in beta 1 was a bit pants, so dogfighting NPCs was like shooting fish in a barrel, but tweaks in beta 2 and beta 3 have made combat a lot more challenging and fun. Though further improvements would still be very welcome.
Weapons are fitted into your ship’s hardpoints, which come in different sizes – larger hardpoints (higher class) can accommodate more powerful weapons. Weapons rating, A being the best, is also another factor in their damage output.
Weapon systems come in two main flavours: energy based and projectile based. Energy-based weapons tend to be better at taking down shields and currently include pulse, burst and beam lasers, and plasma accelerators. They don’t require ammunition but they drain more energy and generate more heat.
Projectile weapons do more hull damage, but are less effective at taking down shields, and currently include single-shot canons (high damage but low rate of fire), multicanons (essentially Gatling-type guns) and fragment canons (a bit like a shotgun). These all use ammunition (which can be costly) and the projectiles have a flight time so require you to lead the target, making them less effective at range. They tend to use less power and have a lower heat output. Rail guns are kind of hybrid of the two – they fire an energy-based projectile and require ammunition, which is expensive and you can only carry 30 rounds per gun. They do a lot of damage, but they are difficult to use against smaller ships and generate a lot of heat.
In addition to this you can purchase “gimballed” varieties of many of the weapon types. These are more expensive and do a little less damage than their “fixed” counterparts, but they autotrack targets within a limited radius in front of you (about 40 degrees I think). The downside is the tracking is poor at range, but these are very effective up close and are a good choice if you have trouble hitting with multicanons. Turret versions of many of the weapons types are also available and these are fully automated, but do less damage and lack accuracy; realistically these are only really an option for large ships with numerous hardpoints. The autotracking of gimballed weapons and turrets can be disrupted using chaff.
You can also equip missiles, torpedoes and mines. The first two are lock on weapons and all can do a lot of damage, but they are very expensive to use and you can only carry a very limited number (only 1 torpedo per pylon). They also take up a hardpoint, so are really only an option for larger ships. Also countermeasure systems can be installed to help evade missiles and torpedoes.
Personally I prefer to use a combination of weapons. On the Viper and Cobra I’ve mostly been running two C2 fixed multicanons and two c1 gimballed burst lasers. This way, I can take down shields quickly with the burst lasers and then wreck the scumbag’s hull using my multicanons.
Draconian laws and stealth mechanics
It’s not very difficult to get on the wrong side of the law in ED. You can receive a fine for simply loitering inside starports or discharging your weapons just outside of them. You have 24 hours (real time) to pay off fines before they turn into a bounty and you attain a wanted status. More serious crimes (e.g. attacking another ship with a clean status) result in a instant bounty being placed on you. Your criminal status is subject to the jurisdiction you are currently travelling in; so a bounty gained in an independent system will not count in another system, but a bounty gained in a system aligned to the Federation or Imperium will count in all systems under those jurisdictions.
Fortunately, all bounties can be cleared, but this means docking at a starport in the relevant jurisdiction and paying off your fine. However, random scans are performed by the local authorities on ships entering and leaving starports. If you are caught with a bounty on your head or carrying contraband (e.g. illegal narcotics) or stolen cargo (i.e. all salvaged cargo is considered stolen), you will be vaporised in a matter of seconds.
This is where stealth mechanics come in. By switching to “silent running” you become vague on the scanners of other ships and the starports. This means they can’t lock onto you to perform a scan (unless very close). The downside is that your shields go offline and the ship vents are closed off so the cockpit slowly heats up. If it gets too hot, equipment starts to take damage and malfunction (you’re fine up to around 150% on the temperature gauge). There are two ways to deal with this. Firstly, you can turn off non-essential ship modules to reduce total heat output, which will give you more time before overheating. Secondly, you can deploy a heat sink (of which you can carry a very limited number). These instantly draw all the heat from the ship, reducing the temperature to 0%, but only last a few seconds. Also, the colder your ship the harder you become to detect; at 0% you become invisible to scanners unless very close by.
Pirating: it’s a hard life
Pirating (yaaaaaaaaaaaaaaarrrrrrrrrrrr!) is potentially the most exciting career path in ED, but at present it’s simply not very rewarding. This is because you can’t yet make demands to NPCs and completely destroying a ship yields no cargo. Shooting off your victim’s cargo hatch will vomit all their cargo into space, but it’s tricky to do without also destroying the ship in the process. Beta 2 introduced a special mine (the hatchet breaker) that when fired homes in onto the cargo hatch of an unshielded ship and attempts to liberate some of their cargo. Unfortunately it’s incredibly underwhelming – this success rate is low, each mine only yields a small fraction of their cargo (and it’s pot luck which cargo it liberates) and carrying the mines takes up precious cargo space on your ship.
This leaves you with targeting human players and using text or voice comms to demand that they drop some of their cargo (a cargo scanner will tell you what they have onboard). Most are not receptive to being pirated – the ED forums are awash with anti-pirating sentiment, with some posters equating it to griefing (despite David Braben stating that pirating is an important part of the game and legitimate career choice). Most will try to flee, some will try to fight back and you will end up having to destroy them to make good on your threats.
On top of this pirating is risky and requires a fast and well kitted-out combat ship with a reasonable amount of cargo space to store your booty (so not cheap). Plus any cargo you pick up is classed as stolen and can only be sold at stations with black markets, at a significantly reduced price, or used to fulfil certain bulletin board missions. This limits pirating to the lawless anarchy systems, unless you wish to have outlaw status and all the risk that comes with that.
Summing up and final thoughts
Overall I’ve really enjoyed playing the beta. ED is gorgeous to look at – it really gives you a sense of being in space, and the vastness and wonder of the universe. The attention to detail is verging on fanatic – from the unique personality of each ship type’s cockpit, to the detailed ship exteriors, bustling starport interiors and the stunning and varied planetary and stellar surfaces, a lot of love has gone into designing the visuals of this game. The sound is also fantastic and incredibly immersive – each ship creaks and groans in a unique manner, the engines roar and thunder, the cockpit instruments beep and whir, the starports are alive with distant clattering and PA announcements, and the classical-inspired music really fits in with the overall atmosphere of the game. It really is a labour of love.
Admittedly I haven’t tried some of the newer ships (some of these are seriously expensive and I haven’t been motivated enough to undergo the grind with a full progress wipe on the horizon). However, the ships I have played with all fit a defined role and appear to be well thought out (and they all look really cool). The Sidewinder eases the player into the game and is perhaps a little under-appreciated, the Hauler is a small trader for beginners (useful for building up enough cash for a Viper or Cobra), the Eagle is a small but highly-manoeuvrable long-range fighter, the Viper is a speed demon and heavy fighter, the Cobra is a great all-rounder, the massive Lakon Type 6 and Type 9 pack serious cargo space for hardcore traders, the Asp is perfect for exploration and the Anaconda is a huge and formidable weapons platform (and a lot of fun). FD have recently stated (ED Newsletter #49) that there will eventually be 30 playable ships in ED.
Learning curve and controls
ED does involve a moderately-steep learning curve, which may put some off, though those who have played other space and flight sims should easily get to grips with the flight mechanics. There are some basic flight (including docking) and combat tutorials (plus the slightly outdated Sidewinder manual that can be found on the forums), but most other game mechanics are a case of learning by trial and error, or reading the ED forums and watching YouTube tutorials (of which there are many). But I find this much more rewarding than being spoon fed by the developers. Perhaps FD will provide more instruction on final release.
Personally, I’ve had no trouble playing the game on keyboard and mouse (kb/m), despite many forum posters complaining that flight is too difficult with this set-up. Then again I have a lot of experience from flying the jets and helicopters in Battlefield 3 and 4 and I played Frontier: Elite extensively in my younger days. I’d strongly recommend setting pitch/yaw to mouse and roll to A and D – you’ll definitely want to customise the key bindings to your own taste. I’d also advise trying both relative mouse control on and off (I prefer off, though on makes FAOff a little easier), experimenting with mouse sensitivity/deadzone, and binding spacebar to pitch up (a neat trick I learnt from flying jets in Battlefield).
Those unable to get to grips with kb/m will need to consider using an Xbox controller or similar, or investing in a HOTAS (Hands On Throttle-And-Stick) joystick – these start at around £40 (e.g. the Thrustmaster T-Flight Hotas X), but the better ones can set you back nearly £350, a pretty serious investment. It’s worth mentioning that ED is also compatible with the Oculus Rift VR headset (currently available as a developers kit), headtrackers and a multimonitor set-up.
Whether you use kb/m or a dedicated controller, I’d also recommend getting Voice Attack, a piece of software that allows you to bind keys to voice commands – particularly useful for power management during dogfights. It’s works surprisingly well (it uses the voice recognition software built into Windows Vista, 7 and 8, which can be trained for improved accuracy). Plus it only costs a measly $8 and there’s a 21 day free trial available. Obviously you will need a microphone and ideally a headset.
Thoughts on gameplay
The beauty of ED is that it truly is a sandbox game and a whole variety of career paths are available to play as, and with multiple ship ownership you can have a go at everything – there is plenty of scope for roleplay. The only restraint is how much time you have to invest in the game.
However, I am concerned about pirating because in its current state it’s simply not very rewarding, but hopefully FD will make tweaks in order to address the risk:reward balance and make this a more viable and fulfilling career option. This is crucial because human pirates will add a lot of flavour and an element of danger to the multiplayer universe for everyone, including all the traders, miners, explorers and bounty hunters. And at some point in the future it will be possible for Commanders to place assassination contracts on other players, so I’m guessing this will be mostly focussed on those pesky pirates.
That said, ED will primarily be PvE (player vs environment), with PvP being a small but hopefully significant part of the game. No doubt outside the core systems and event zones you will need to actively seek out PvP. This does bother me a little because I feel human interaction will brings variety and spontaneity to the game (people are far more unpredictable than AI) and I do feel that being able to freely move your character between the open, group and solo modes was not a good decision and will only reduce human interaction. However, it is something I can live with, but those wanting constant PvP action will be disappointed and probably should look to titles like the well-established EVE Online or the upcoming Star Citizen.
I also find mining a bit tedious at present – scooping up dozens of ore fragments that spin off in multiple directions while trying not to collide with the asteroid from which they were liberated is not my idea of fun. Perhaps a reflection on me, but it’s possible that FD will tweak the mechanics a little. And maybe the bulletin board missions could do with a little more spice and variety, though I strongly suspect FD will flesh them out further in the gamma and final releases.
My only other serious worry is the netcode, but this has been steadily improving with regular patches and I have faith that FD will getting this work as well as P2P permits.
I would seriously recommend ED to fans of the original games or anyone who enjoys space and flight sims. I’ve been waiting 20 years for this sequel and I’m not disappointed, and I still have the final release to look forward to. Plus with more content to be added to ED over the next few years, the game will continue to evolve (see the Developer Discussion Archive on the ED forums). I fully expect to be spending a lot of time playing the final release; preferably with the curtains closed and the lights down low, so it feels more like I’m in a real spaceship 🙂
See follow post on how the game is faring post-release here.