I’m not sure I was ever going to be able to be stubborn about launch dates when it came to Elite: Dangerous, and sure enough, I grabbed it on day one. This turned out to be much later than many people who were interested, who being hopelessly nostalgic sorts, have been waiting patiently for the thing for the last thirty years give or take, so can grudgingly be forgiven for jumping the “beta test” gun a bit.
I am indeed also one of those tiresome gentlemen of a certain age who has fond childhood memories of enduring hypnotic screen borders and high-pitched data-shrieking for two minutes at a time so that I could fling myself into the stars and explore several white-lined objects drawn quite slowly and repeatedly on a black TV screen and pretend it was space exploration. Like this!
You had to make your own entertainment in those heady days, although nine-year old mini-Hemlock had never come across the term ‘sandbox’ applied to what was clearly a game about space, it seems that the modern remake is true to the original in many ways. I was there in the first few weeks of Eve Online, long before it became the modern-day alternate reality opt-in lifstyle choice it is now, and even then, it probably had more rigidly defined structured hand-holding than Elite: Dangerous does. The new Elite basically just gives you a spaceship and tells you to hop it. You get a Sidewinder with low-end gear, 1000 Credits, and no further guidance, structure, narrative or purpose than that. Go! Fly Someplace! Do a Thing! Or Dont! Why are you still here!
Which is fine for some folks, (especially those with the rose-tinted eighties spacehelmets, like me), but seems to have left the more contemporary demographic quite split. The official forums abound with “I’m bored, I quit!” type posts, which are unusual this early after an MMO launch in my experience; clearly folks with a much more modern sensibility of what computer games should be than these old BBC Model B Gaffers. Elite: Dangerous has no rousing opening cut-scene, no celebrity voice acting, no Nolan North, no stirring plot about corporate espionage, your murdered father (who you never got on with since mom died) and a sinister shadowy conspiracy menace masquerading as your sassy female copilot, who constantly tells you which waypoint to fly at next. I’m not even sure that 12 hours in, it turns out that you were the main villain all along, but had memory wiped yourself! (Or perhaps it did. I forget.) It’s all a bit of a departure from today’s style of game design, although I remain hopeful I still get to sacrifice myself at the end to save the galaxy!
Assuming they had a basic design goal of “remake Elite using colours, modern graphics and noises”, what they’ve released is indeed very good. It fundamentally works, and as far as the original went, is all there and then some. I find myself using the word ‘iconic’ a lot, like some gibbering media arts wonk, but it really all is. The station and ship designs could have come from nowhere else, and trying to pilot the Sidewinder through the unhelpfully spinning letterbox slot in the face of a Coriolis Starport literally sent shivers down my spine the first time. Old favourites abound; the Anaconda, the Viper, the Asp and of course the Cobra Mk III, all instantly recognisable by their clean, minimalist, eighties polygons, yet given a brush of modern-day twiddley bits and shinyness. In some ways, I think its how I’d imagined the ships to look, all along.
Again the nostalgia forgives many sins. For the newer player, its hard to say what they make of this curious retro styling that seems to be everywhere. There are many modern touches though; UI, interface, all sorts of advanced controller, head-tracking and VR gubbins, impressive sound-design, and of course, the bit we schoolyard nerds had wanted all along; persistent large-scale multiplayer.
Nowadays, I wonder if we really knew what we wanted. A significant proportion of the other sorts of forum complaints are familiar from the launch of EVE Online too; “PvE Only Server Plz!”. I think the main problem is the multiplayer aspects of the game just about support one lone pilot asymmetrically and unconsentually ganking another, but seems to have trouble with anything more elaborate. We’ve tried various typically MMO-ish scenarios and had trouble with most of it. NPC Kill Bounties go to whoever gets the last hit in, there are no wings, squads, guilds, or any of that. It has groups, but that’s used to effectively run a private server mode of the game, and does nothing inside the game itself. It once took two of us 20 minutes to arrive in the same open space location, and that was when the instancing was behaving. Another occasion saw myself, Friend A and Friend B all outside the same starbase. I could see them both and they could see me, but neither of them could see each other. Creepy Spacetime Voodoo, or some broken overlapping instance nonsense. It does have a friends list, but seems fickle on who it will allow to talk to whom – it refuses to deliver messages to two of my friends, and I don’t know why.
The original game wasn’t designed for multiple players and neither is this, at least not so far. Even if all the above technical problems were fixed, there isn’t really much ‘group content’ in the usual sense. I wonder if there ought to be or not. Roadmaps and things lie ahead and apparently Wings is a Soon thing, but it seems remarkable it wasn’t there to begin with. Have they ever played an MMO before?
Anyway, all that seems academic, and here is some SCIENCE to explain why!
After some bollocksed attempts at Trading, I discovered that you could get paid for just Staring At Stars, and since then, I’ve been hooked. There’s a Youtube video somewhere further down on the site, where I gabble on about parallax and am awfully pleased with myself for working out how to Explore. And now I just do this. Out went the cargo bay, in went a fuel scoop, and I’m off to infinity and beyond! Of course to really explore, you have to Boldy Go some place none else has Boldly Gotten At, and so I find myself staring at the Galaxy Map more and more, making Plans.
Aside from being beautiful in its own right, it provides all sorts of fascinating numbers. Elite: Dangerous’s Milky Way is very similar to ours; spiral, weighs about the same and smells similar but is different in two key ways. Firstly, there’s a star called “Sol” where the sun should be, and more importantly, almost all of it is made up. They’ve taken some time to fill in obvious known stars; the big ones with names like Castor, Mizar, Archenar, Button Moon, Unicron and such, and also filled in a few hundred thousand or so from actual stellar catalogues; Hipparcos Catalogue (Sidebar ‘HIP’ numbers) and Henry Draper Catalogue (HD numbers). The rest of the 400 billion or so were surprisingly, not added by hand during the beta by volunteers, but have been auto-generated, which itself must have been no small task!
Obviously I’m going to visit them all, but after sitting down and doing some very shaky maths, it seems to be quite a task I’ve set myself! My current ship can do about 11 LY per jump, although with the right fitting, some of the better ones can do up to 30 LY a hop. Making some pretty dubious assumptions about star density, I came up with an average distance between stars of about 8 LY, based on the bit we all started in. Equipped with the Fuel Scoop (ahh…iconic…), it takes about four minutes to complete one cycle of orientate, charge up, hyperjump, arrive, reorientate, refuel, pick out the next target from the map, and jump again.
The scooping is important, because the jump uses consumable fuel and the alternative is to buy it from a starbase. There seems to only be starbases inside a 400 LY diameter sphere of ‘known space’ centered on this ‘Sol’ planet, which I am apparently not allowed to visit without a permit. Damned bureaucratic Solarians and their nasty damp eyes! This Known Sphere seems to be the bit with everything in, including fellow players, but it’s the bit outside the sphere I am interested in. Here are some interesting travel destinations I seek!
HYPUAE EUQ EI-B D13-0: This snappily named star system sits on the planar rim of the galaxy nearest to the Known Sphere, and is 15,177.63 light years away. I reckon that’s about 1898 jumps, which will take me about 127 hours of continuous play, or 64 days if I put in two hours of solid jumping a day and then sleep, eat and go to work. I should be there by 12th March 2015, if I start now!
STUEMEAE BC-D C12-4612: Reminds me of a Windows 95 Activation Key I used to date. This star system is about as near to the centre of the galaxy as I could pick out. It really is dense in there, and the stars are often less than a light year apart. Knowing my luck, its the supermassive blackhole that powers the whole damned thing and I’ll get all spaghettified as soon as I arrive! It’s 26,419.20 LY away, so that date with the scary angry devil-robot with the egg-whisk hands will not happen until 27th April, so there’s something!
IORADY EI-B D13-0: Ah…
And therefore as a stranger give it welcome.
There are more things in IORADY EI-B D13-0 and earth, Horatio,
Than are dreamt of in your philosophy.
This Elysian paradise sits at the far opposite end of the galaxy and at 65,444.96LY, is about the furthest away one can get from Lave and still hear the whining about PvP. It will take me until 7th October 2015 to get there, but in fact it might take longer than that, as it is 120LY from it’s nearest neighbour, and I’m not sure anything in the game has that jump range. I expect I’ll meet the Battlestar Galactica coming the other way, in some distress.
I probably need to upgrade to the 30LY/jump ships.
Anyway, all this immensity means that really, the game doesn’t need an Open Play mode at all, because once I get about 25 jumps out from the starting system, I’ll likely never see another player again!
Watch out for progress updates from the back of beyond soon, but in the unlikely event I don’t make it, check out this more organised effort to do broadly the same silliness: