When I was a kid, we used to play Star Wars in the playground of my primary school. This game was essentially the same as playing army, except that you made different noises when you were shooting your imaginary gun. I remember all the other boys used to argue over who got to be Luke Skywalker – he was, after all, the young, dashing hero. I never wanted to be Luke. I always wanted to be Han Solo.
Han was the rogue. The dashing, witty daredevil who had no time for hokey religions and ancient weapons. He had his blaster and he knew that the best way to use it was always to shoot first. Han was the real hero.
I inherited my love of Star Wars from my older brother, I grew up surrounded by his figures and plastic spaceships. I watched his VHS tapes of the trilogy every Saturday for about three years. Growing up in a house with older siblings meant that I was always around things that were a little too advanced for my age. I could barely toddle on my own two feet when I first loaded a game on the Spectrum and I saw plenty of crappy 1980s action and horror films when I was still old enough to know with one hundred per cent certainty that there were monsters under the bed. Having older siblings just meant I didn’t have to be scared of them.
Something else I stole the use of from my brother’s possessions was his copy of Elite on the family’s 48k ZX Spectrum. It was in a huge black box with that bright yellow eagle on the front and it had a thick manual I was incapable of reading. I learned by copying what I saw my brother do. I could dock a Cobra into a Coriolis space station with a Kempston joystick before I could write my home address. Lave was my second home and I was a majestic, soaring pilot who was feared throughout the galaxy.
Well, I might be embellishing that story a little bit but it’s okay, that’s how Han Solo would have told it.
In reality, although I developed the skill required to dock, I didn’t really play the game the way it was intended. I’d always try to trade enough so that I could afford the docking computer (I’d estimate that eight out of ten deaths were due to a space station wall) but half the time I’d end up picking a fight with a ship that had missiles and that never ended well. I knew enough to know that I loved it but I didn’t really know enough to get very far into the game.
Years later, I’d play a version of the game on an MS-DOS PC and even dabble with its sequels a little bit. I would get much further now, with my fully developed motor skills and my ability to read the instructions. It was always just a little bit old to me though. By the time I was capable of understanding most of its intricacies, it felt dated and clumsy in that way that most games feel after you’ve become accustomed to more modern systems and control schemes. No matter how much I enjoyed the time I spent with Elite, it never felt contemporary. Elite: Dangerous fixes that problem for me.
I’ve been playing since one of the early betas and I’ve seen them testing different aspects of the game in a relatively small area of the galaxy. I’ve seen it grow and improve until now, when the game is in “Gamma” stage prior to its release later this month. The latest version is essentially the finished game, although they’re still tweaking things and patching fairly regularly. It’s a fully realised, modern version of the game I stood behind my brother, eyes glazed in wonder, and watched. Docking is significantly simpler thanks to the expensive flight stick I bought to play the game with but picking fights with people who have missiles is still a very bad idea.
Elite: Dangerous is a mammoth undertaking. I’ve traded and mined and bounty-hunted my way up to a few modest ship upgrades and even a few different ships. I’ve explored, I’ve murdered and I’ve stolen. I’ve had a price on my head. I’ve run away from pirates and police. I’ve sold gold on the black market and I’ve invested my profits in weapons. I’ve smuggled contraband onto space stations and I’ve taken desperate missions from strangers in the far reaches of the galaxy. This is the sort of game you have to be cautious of: it makes hours feel like minutes.
Each one of those hours is well spent, though. You live and die by your own mistakes, each time respawning with the option of a freebie ship and very simple loaned weapons or the insurance payout on your old, hard earned, upgraded bird. More than once, I’ve sunk every penny I had into cargo for trade, only to see my fully laden ship destroyed by pirates because I wasn’t smart enough to fit better weapons first or hold something back to pay the insurance. In a game that takes a few hours before you even start to feel like you’re achieving anything meaningful, each death and the loss you incur because of it feels meaningful.
For some, the sheer size of Elite: Dangerous will be daunting. You’ll play for many hours before you can feel powerful in battle and even then, you’ll need to stay cautious. There’s always someone with bigger guns. The range of options is what makes me adore this game though. I can play it however I want and I can change my mind as and when I earn the right. My small trading ship can easily be traded in if I fancy trying my hand as a miner for a few days. If I earn enough money from that, I might switch careers and play as a bounty hunter with a faster ship and better weapons.
Each way of playing is equally as feasible as the other and each time you’re making the decision yourself. You’re not playing someone else’s missions, you’re playing as yourself. There’s no protagonist to identify with, you’re not pretending to be anyone else. Well, except for me: I’m still pretending to be Han Solo.