Thirty years ago, Elite was released for the BBC Micro. It would change the course of video games forever.
Elite wasn’t the first open world game, that was probably Ultima in 1981. It wasn’t the first space trading game, that honour seems to fall to Star Trader a full ten years before Elite’s release. It wasn’t even the first space combat game with the Atari’s Starship 1 generally being credited with that distinction. But Elite was the almost perfect culmination of all of these ideas into one immersive, expansive universe of seemingly endless possibilities.
Without Elite, it could be argued, we wouldn’t have some of the games that define this industry. Games like Grand Theft Auto and EVE Online readily admit to taking some inspiration from Braben and Bell’s seminal space game. Those two gaming cornerstones will leave their own indelible marks on the history of gaming and they’ve each spawned their own pantheon of titles that borrow from and build upon their successes to create the next stage in the ongoing evolution of interactive entertainment.
Elite’s influence is still strong enough, thirty years after its initial release, to be responsible for some of the most exciting stories of the past few years in the games industry. Crowdfunding records are being smashed by Star Citizen – another game that enthusiastically plunders the legacy left behind by Elite. No Man’s Sky is perhaps one of the most anticipated games known to be in development at the moment and it is quite clearly taking plenty of cues from this grandfather of space games.
Elite is almost unfathomably important in the history of video games. Anyone making a direct sequel will be under intense scrutiny. Anyone brave enough to invoke that legendary name again is going to have to make sure they do everything right or risk dishonouring that almost sacred legacy. Luckily, for Frontier Developments, it seems like Elite Dangerous is going to be something truly special.
This early beta program is limited but it’s limited in a way that still makes it larger than most fully realised, released games. There are only 55 star systems to fly between, explore and trade with. To give that figure a sense of scale, in my first five or six hours with the game I managed to fly between four of them. Of course, that’s not simply flight time, there’s plenty to do in the game’s trading system.
I started, as all new commanders will, in a borrowed Sidewinder with two loaned pulse lasers and a basic shield for defence. The Sidewinder is a small ship with a tiny cargo hold that has enough space for just four units of cargo. It’s good enough to get you started and let you earn your way to trading up for the larger, more militarily capable ships on offer.
That offering is limited to a handful of ships in the ongoing beta but there will doubtless be many more in the full game and even the limited selection on offer now shows the range you might want to take with how you play the game. Some ships, for example, have huge cargo holds, allowing for much more profit with each trade run. Others might have smaller holds but a better range of options for fitting weaponry, or a more easily manoeuvred hull.
When the game loaded up, my view was filled with the familiar rotating shape of a Coriolis space station (it’s a cuboctahedron, if you’re interested). The shape is instantly familiar to anyone who played the older Elite games but the visual appearance is obviously much improved. That old wireframe model is now a fully realised, beautifully textured and lit celestial body. One of the first things you might note about Elite Dangerous is that it is an incredibly good looking game.
The way the light dances across your cockpit as you pass a system’s star and the lens flare it creates, coupled with the distant nebula and starscapes are stunning. The intricate textures and pylons of the space stations and other spacefaring vessels and the swirling cloudscapes and crisp rings around nearby planets entice you in for a closer look.
The first task at hand is docking. In the original Elite, this was always a difficult accomplishment until you’d made enough money to fit a docking computer. You have to line yourself up with the docking slot on the face of the space station, request docking permission and – once granted – match your ships rotation to that of the ever-moving station so that you pass smoothly through the hole and into the interior where you’ll have to find your landing pad by number, deploy landing gear and gently but quickly set your bird down.
Once docked, I rushed straight to the commodities market to see what goods I could get into my cargo hold with my initial bank account of 1000 credits. The trading interface is set in columns and handily presents the most pertinent information on the goods available. You get the buy and sell prices for each commodity as well as how many the station has available and the galactic average price to help you judge if you’re going to be able to shift them on at a profit.
I knew enough to resist buying anything until I’d checked out the galactic map and trade routes though. That’s back out in the ship’s computers and it allows you to see what systems are close enough to jump to, along with the trade routes for every kind of commodity. There was a system that bought fruit and vegetables within jumping distance and I knew from my market perusal that I could get a cargo hold full of those so I set my destination and returned to the market to fill up.
After topping off my fuel, I launched from the station – a much simpler task than docking – and jumped to my destination system. The hyperdrive system requires a little bit of charging and for you to be facing in the correct direction and then it dazzles you with some fancy screen effects, presumably while it loads in the new star system for you to arrive in.
Once you’re there, you’ll continue in Supercruise mode during which you need to manage your heading and speed so that you approach the destination space station in a manageable way that allows you to safely drop out of hyperspace without overshooting your destination by thousands of kilometres. This way, the game allows you to traverse vast tracts of space before slowing down and managing the last leg of your trip – the more interesting portion – more precisely. It also allows some nicely hidden loading behind the two stages of slowing down to approach other systems and stations.
I sold my cargo for a healthy profit and loaded up on some slightly more high tech items for another trading run. Within a couple of jumps, I’d traded fish, computer components and machinery before filling up with metals for a return to my initial destination. I’d also managed to turn my initial 1000 credits into around 5000 by trading slightly more expensive items with a larger margin of profit each time I picked up.
It’s not all simple space haulage though. As your cargo becomes more valuable and you risk encroachments into less well policed space, you’ll likely come under attack from time to time (or maybe you want to play as a pirate, ripping off honest traders and scooping up their cargo?). I was attacked once, as I approached a station to dock but I was close enough that I could simply duck inside and let the station security blow my assailant out of the sky. The only other combat I’ve faced so far was with a similar sized ship that provided a fun five minutes of dogfighting before he jumped away. But there’s danger in this universe too.
Quite often, you’ll encounter other space traffic that is obviously not getting along and several times I’ve witnessed multiple ships firing lasers at each other as they try to settle some dispute or other. It doesn’t make sense to get too involved until my ship has some more meaningful weaponry on it but once I’ve managed to increase my firepower a little bit, I’m planning a look at the bulletin board with a view to picking up a few missions that take me closer to the action.
That’s the thing that Elite always managed to do so well: it balances the need to defend yourself with the thrill of the dogfight and the potential for larger profits from the bigger cargo holds of the less manoeuvrable ships. You’ll need to do some trading in order to make a bit of spending money but you would be unwise to ignore your weaponry for too long because even if you don’t want to look for a fight, a fight will often find you anyway.
Judging from the time I’ve spent with this beta version, Elite Dangerous is a near perfect recreation of that finely balanced universe its seminal predecessor introduced us to thirty years ago. It’s poised to become just as immersive, just as encompassing and just as enjoyable as the game that started it all.