by Marko Susimetsä
previewed on PC
Hands-on with Elite: Dangerous
The first alpha build of Elite: Dangerous has been available for a week now and it has taken the world of space sims by storm. Where everyone expected a half-finished product with lots to fix and comment on, Frontier Developments delivered something that is almost a small game in itself: 9 short combat scenarios featuring different kinds of weapons and enemies and tactics to be tried. Let’s take a closer look at what makes this build so great and how it won over the heart of a reviewer who usually loves realism in his space sims.
Graphics and sounds
As the above in-game footage of the alpha build shows, the cockpit of the ship that you fly in is very immersive. Details like the pilot’s head turning to follow the course adjustments of the ship (although perhaps a bit too exaggeratedly) and the sounds of the weapons being activated and hull plates moving aside echoing within the ship all add up to the immersion. Smaller details like the emergency air mask that covers your face when the cockpit canopy is blown off only increase the feeling that it is actually you who is flying the ship.
There are certainly aspects that still need improving: the sound of enemy fire hitting your shields being one of them. At the moment, it is difficult for the pilot to tell when his shields are being depleted and you first realise that you are in danger when the shields are already down and the hull begins to take damage. Also the sparks flying off the console when your ship is close to dying still need work. But these are both very minor fixes when one considers that this is only the first alpha.
Conflicts with realism
There are certainly aspects in the footage that a realism-enthusiast will notice: sounds of explosions that should not be heard, apparent top speed for the ship and a non-Newtonian flight model. The first is being explained by computer systems that produce the needed sounds to make the fighting more immersive for the pilot – and in the final game the players can actually turn off these sound effect simulations if they wish. The non-Newtonian flight model is being explained as a flight assist system. It can be turned off, allowing you to attempt to fly without the flight assist and requiring you to use counter thrust to stop your movement to unwanted directions by yourself. This is a very difficult flight method to master, but skilled players will certainly want to take advantage of the possibility as their piloting experience accumulates.
The third aspect mentioned above – the speed limit – is perhaps the most difficult to swallow. It is certainly a trope that exists in many other space sims, but both Frontier: Elite 2 and Frontier First Encounters allowed you much more realistic space travel. The developers, however, wanted to go back to the roots and find some compromise between the original Elite and its sequels. And, in order to bring enjoyable dogfighting back – however unrealistic it is – they did what they had to do. Hence, the World War II style dogfights where you might almost imagine that you are flying a Hurricane or a Spitfire over the English Channel...
Despite all the fears that I had about the game – coming from my love of realism – I still quickly fell in love with the alpha. And the main reason for that is the very content that the alpha offers: the combat. It is not quite like the combat in the original Elite, nor does it hearken back to the second and third game in the series. This is familiar, but at the same time something completely new: Elite style combat transferred to a Newtonian context with the help of a carefully balanced flight assist system. The combat relies heavily on roll/pitch technique familiar from any aircraft simulation or game. And while it allows for yaw control, it is as slow as it is in traditional aircraft simulations: only useful for minor adjustments. This throws realism right out the window, but makes the dogfights more intense, as they require more input from the player. You are not simply pointing the ship to the right direction: you have to turn it there yourself.
Perhaps an even more interesting detail is how the maneuverability of the ship changes with its velocity. If you fly too slow or too fast, the ship’s turn rate slows down. While this seems plausible with high speeds, as the flight assist system will have to work harder to change your heading, it is complete fantasy when it comes to ships travelling at slow speeds. The decision was made simply to stop people from merely sitting still and shooting at enemies from a stand-still position. That is, it is a design decision based on a wish to make the combat exciting, rather than realistic.
And, despite my reservations and love for realism, I find the combat system very entertaining. Furthermore, many of my reservations are appeased by the fact that there is the option to turn the flight assist off. I trust that when the developers hone this flight method a bit further, it will greatly increase the options available to the more experienced pilots and increase the longevity and challenge of the game.
Is it all combat?
Combat was definitely a major part of the original Elite, but it was a sideshow in its sequels where the focus was more on exploration and simple enjoyment of the vastness of space (alongside of trading and various sorts of missions). Elite: Dangerous promises to take this even further and include a vast array of career options that you can try out from trading to exploration to goodwill work. Thus, combat will not be all that the game offers, but it seems that it will be more central – or at least more fun – than it was in the two previous games in the series.
If Frontier Developments invests as much attention to the other aspects of the game as they have on the combat, I have little doubt that Elite: Dangerous will lure a fair deal of the gaming population away from their families for a good while. The next steps in the alpha process and especially the upcoming beta of the full game will tell us a lot more of what we can expect!