On 16 December nerd-god David Braben pushed the big red button (literally – see video below) and after a 20 year wait Elite: Dangerous (ED), the forth game of the legendary space combat/trading series, was finally released. To be honest, I’m still pinching myself – after well over a decade of seemingly foundationless rumours I’d completely given up hope on seeing another Elite game. Anyway, it’s nice to be proven wrong.
This post directly follows on from my previous one on ED, where I discussed at the some length the background to the game along with the core mechanics and my own experience from participating in the beta. So I strongly recommend reading that first if you’re unfamiliar with ED. Here I’ll be looking at what’s changed since the beta and how the game is faring post-release. I also plan on doing a guide for new players in the near future.
So what’s new?
Smoothing out the creases
The gamma phase started on 22 November and was essentially a pre-release phase available to all beta-backers, and as an added bonus FD have allowed player progress made during this phase to carry through to the retail release (ED 1.00). The gamma saw FD focussing more on the “work under the hood” in order to “get the game ‘shippable’ with countless fixes, polish and tweaking and fewer features” (ED Newsletter #49). However, FD have promised to continue adding more features/content post-release as outlined in their kickstarter campaign and in the Developer Discussion forums.
FD came under some criticism for this among those who wanted to see more features/content at launch, but I personally feel that it was shrewd decision and one we’ve really seen the benefits of. This past month or so FD have worked round the clock to bring about a whole multitude of bugs fixes and performance enhancements through numerous client- and server-side updates. Crashes, freezes and server disconnects seem uncommon now (I don’t recall having one since version 1.02) and the game feels much more stable and responsive, particularly in the Open Play mode and in those star systems heavily-frequented by other Commanders (i.e. human players). Certainly, the transitions in and out of super cruise (SC) feel much smoother and look more natural thanks to faster “instancing” (i.e. the process of being matchmaked with other online players). And stuttering and lag have noticeably improved; hit detection against other players generally feels on the money.
That said, I still occasionally come across players who rubber band/teleport or their presence causes NPC ships to do this, and there are still a significant number of minor bugs/glitches that need addressing (e.g. a few sounds bugs, vanishing landing pad numbers, the occasional mission glitch, anti-aliasing not working for everyone, etc).
Content, features and tweeks
In addition to a comprehensive game manual, quick-start guide and a series of video tutorials aimed at newcomers (all available from here), ED has seen a variety of improvements, additions and tweaks. For starters, four new playable ships have been added since the beta, bringing the total to 15, and FD have stated that there will eventually be 30 ships available to fly. A desperately-needed combat disconnection timer has also been introduced. You now have to wait 15 seconds before you can disconnect from the game if hostile ships are nearby – so more no more quitting just prior to destruction.
The galaxy map has also received a bit of love – you are now able to plot multi-jump routes, buy exploration data directly through the map interface and additional filters have been added for ease of use. However, trade route information can now only be viewed for systems you’ve docked in within the last 24 hours (all times in the game are real time); otherwise you will need to purchase 24-hour access to trade data from the systems you’re interested in. Other small but welcome changes include the ability to swap ship modules between compatible mount points, a frame shift drive (FSD) cooldown timer on the HUD and the much-requested option to turn off orbit lines during SC.
Both unidentified signal sources (USSs) and bulletin board missions have become more interesting. At USSs you now also come across wedding and funeral parties, military convoys and ship wrecks where you can find rare items like artwork, black boxes, prototype tech, rebel transmissions, ancient artefacts, etc that can be used to fulfil certain missions or be sold on the black market for a tidy profit. Plus you also encounter pilots at USSs offering you alternative proposals to current missions or information on where to find assassination targets. And FD have implemented rare commodities. Each of these is specific to a single system – the further you transport them from the originating system the more profit you will make from selling them.
We also now have three separate ranking systems in which to progress: combat, trading and exploration. Excitingly, FD have announced a £10,000 ($15,000/€12,000) prize for the first person to reach triple elite status (see here for full details). Though it’s hard to imagine anyone in full-time employment winning this – time to grab a shit bucket and quit your job.
Universe expansion, factions and reputation
Most impressively, the universe has been expanded to encompass an inconceivable 400 billion star systems, all of which are explorable though obviously >99% of these are uninhabited by man. This makes ED the biggest space game ever made – it’s a 1:1 scale recreation of the Milky Way galaxy apparently based on “sophisticated ‘hard’ science algorithms that go far beyond random procedural generation to offer incredible scientific insights that are backed up by astronomical observation” (ED Newsletter #54).
And for the first time in ED it is possible to visit the Sol system and Mother Earth itself. You’ll need a permit to travel there (beta backers received this as one of their rewards), acquired by improving your standing with the Federation, but it’s worth the effort as Sol is the only hand-crafted system in the game and the attention to detail is astounding, right down to being able to find the Voyager 1 space probe on the far edge of the system (some 2 million plus light seconds from the sun).
This expansion means that it’s finally possible to travel to Alliance- and Empire-controlled star systems, whereas previously you were limited to Federation (and independent) space. Most inhabited systems are controlled by one of the three main factions, though there are numerous independent and anarchy systems (i.e. no rule of law). This is where the reputation system comes into play. You have a rank and a reputation with both the Federation and Empire, though currently only reputation with the Alliance.
If your reputation and rank improve, you will be offered more attractive missions and even permits to restricted star systems. Within most systems there are a variety of smaller factions with whom you also have a reputation with. Your reputation with both the main and system-specific factions is affected by everything you do – trading and selling exploration data in those systems, vaporising wanted pilots, criminal activity detected in relevant jurisdictions, and obviously failing or completing missions. By working for one faction it is possible to negatively affect your reputation with another, so it’s important to select bulletin board missions carefully.
Some of these system-specific factions are aligned with one of the three main factions, while others are independent. The faction with the largest influence will govern that solar system. By working for one faction and not for competing factions, you can sway this influence and so player actions have the potential to precipitate starport ownership changes, government coups and even civil wars, which should hopefully make for a dynamic universe.
At launch FD also introduced some story events to add some colour and to create some focal points within the ED universe and they are promising such events throughout the life of the game. These are ongoing narratives reported on by the Galnet news service, accessed at all starports or through the official Galnet website, with the overall outcome directly determined by the actions of the player base.
Currently there are two main storylines. Firstly, there is the Federation blockade of the Kappa Fornacis system in an attempt to prevent the trafficking of the rare narcotic onionhead, which they recently declared illegal. The Federal Navy have set up military checkpoints throughout the system and are said to be bombing the farms on Panem.
Secondly, there is the Imperial succession narrative that has so far featured two civil wars related to senators attempting to strengthen their claim to the Imperial throne – the slave revolt in Empire-controlled Sorbago and the rebellion in the independent system Jera, both of which have already been decided by player actions (both uprisings were crushed).
Like the faction reputation system, you can influence these stories (and make some credits) by working for one of the rival factions or fighting for them in the conflict zones (when you first arrive at a conflict zone you must choose a faction to side with in the functions tab of the systems panel – you’ll receive a 3000cr combat bond for each kill). The conflict zones are definitely a fun distraction and currently feature the most intense combat you’ll find in the game, and they even throw in some overblown epic music to get the adrenaline flowing. They’re also you’re best bet for finding some PvP action. Personally I’ve had a lot of fun both fighting alongside and against other Commanders in the Sorbago civil war.
Interestingly, onionhead can actually be bought in Kappa Fornacis and behaves the same as a rare commodity. It’s in short supply at the moment but you can make a very tasty profit by transporting it 100 light years or more from the source.
Offline mode controversy
By far the most controversial decision to date, just prior to the start of the gamma phase ED announced (in a rather fluffy and ambiguous manner) that they would be dropping the offline mode. In a subsequent Q&A David Braben explained:
We have developed a multi-player game with an unfolding story involving the players, and groups collaborating with specific objectives and taking account of all player’s behaviour. This is what the game is about. Without this it would not be the rich gaming experience that we will deliver, and would be a great disappointment to all players. Any offline experience would be fundamentally empty. We could write a separate mission system to allow a limited series of fixed missions, but that would still not be a compelling game, and is just the first step in the mountain of work that would be required.
Predictably, this caused outrage on the forums. There were accusations of being lied to, refund requests, misinformed rants about being forced to play with griefers, and the general nastiness/overreaction typical of the internet. Perhaps justifiably some criticised the manner in which the it was announced (i.e. half buried in one of the newsletters) and questioned why the decision came so late in the day. However, this does not mean that you are forced to play multiplayer. By choosing the Solo game mode you will participate in the same shared online universe but you will never encounter another Commander – it’s essentially a single-player mode. Yes an internet connection is necessary, but Solo requires significantly less bandwidth than the Open Play and Private Group modes.
A great start but there is much room for improvement
Despite all the doom and gloom merchants on the official forums predicting a disastrous launch and a poor reception, ED has been released in pretty good shape and to generally positive reviews from critics and gamers alike (see the ED metacritic entry). ED may lack polish and features in some areas, but it’s ambitious and intelligent, beautiful to look at, and most importantly fun to play with plenty to keep you occupied for now. This is a game very much in its infancy and FD have laid a very solid foundation to build upon. The developers have repeatedly stated that they are committed to ED for the long term and this is a game that will expand and evolve over the coming months and years. Personally, I’m very excited.
Obviously there is still much room for improvement. As mentioned earlier further work is required on improving the netcode and there are numerous minor bugs that must be addressed. On top of this the in-game comms system is very clumsy and desperately needs some attention, mining is still tedious and feels like a placeholder, pirating needs further balancing to make it more viable, bounty hunting payments don’t scale enough with character progression, and currently the only feasible way of earning big money is from high-volume trading and procurement contracts.
But my biggest concern is that the game is not challenging enough at the moment. Once you have a well-equipped Viper or Cobra, combat starts to become a bit of a chore – it’s far too easy to take on multiple opponents or even an elite-status Anaconda. It’s a problem exacerbated by how incredibly overpowered the shield cell bank module is. Shields are getting low? No problem, hit the hotkey to replenish your shields almost instantly. And not only do you get multiple recharges (up to 9 with some versions), but you can install as many cell bank modules as you have free mount points on your ship, so you can potentially have up to 30 or 40 instant recharges available. It’s basically an I-win button.
Trading is also virtually risk free. Interdictions may have been too frequent during some stages of the gamma, but since the launch you rarely get attacked by pirates (yaaaaaaaaarrrr!) and when you do it’s a cinch to escape. Simply submit to the interdiction, stick four pips to the engines and keep boosting until you’re able to frameshift. In fact I removed the weapons on my Type 6 as I have no need for them.
So at the moment, whether I’m trading, pirating, bounty hunting or being a hitman, the only time I feel in any danger is when coming up against other Commanders or docking while tipsy.
If FD can address these issues as well as continue to expand the game with new content and features, I believe ED will be an outstanding game and one that will be played for many years to come.
Anyway, here are some more pretty pictures to look at…