Elite is one of those games that defined the earliest years of gaming at home. An experience that drew you into a world of space exploration, trading and combat that made you feel like you were Han Solo, Dr. David Bowman and The Last Starfighter all rolled into one, despite what we might now consider incredibly rudimentary graphics. I still remember playing an enhanced version of the game on our BBC A3000, and how overwhelmed and enthralled I was by the functional universe it contained.
Bringing the space exploration sim to the current generation, Elite: Dangerous is officially the fourth entry in the Elite series. After years of failing to find a publishing deal for a new entry, creator David Braben turned to Kickstarter to get the ball rolling, and after a successful campaign and development the final version released on PC last year. Now it arrives on Xbox One as a timed exclusive, but can such an in-depth experience genuinely translate to a home console?
Your starting pack is initially limited to simply that of a new commander, which grants you a stock Sidewinder ship, 100,000 credits, and places you in a random federal system. You can then either step into the training missions, which teach you the fundamental skills of combat, travel and docking, or you can simply jump straight into the main game.
Immediately the controls set Elite: Dangerous apart as a simulation rather than an arcade experience, with controlling your ship’s momentum initially quite difficult to grasp, and a need to constantly reset your thrust, so that you don’t overshoot a target or crash into an object. It doesn’t take long before everything starts to click into place though, and you’re soon able to follow an enemy craft’s trajectory, though whether you’ll have the lasers or shielding to enter into combat at the outset is another matter entirely.
Even the training is unforgiving, and I had to retry a couple of the missions as I got used to the technical requirements and involving combat. Docking was incredibly tough too, and I failed spectacularly on my first attempt, but after taking a breather and trying again I was able to successfully land my ship, without the starport turning its lasers on me!
The array of controls, menus and sub-menus can be overwhelming at first, with all of the main buttons assigned a function and extra inputs created by holding down a face button and combining it with the D-pad. Given a little time it’s actually quite intuitive, but there’s another simpler way to access your ship’s systems which is achieved by clicking in the R3 button. This brings you into first-person mode within your ship, at which point you can just turn to look at the system you want to use to bring it up.
The visuals are sharp and clear on the Xbox One, and the blue neon flashes accenting your ship HUD’s orange glow create an authentic sense of place. It genuinely looks and feels like you’re piloting a ship in space, with vast cube-like starports quietly spinning in the darkness. There can be times where it feels like you’re simply chasing an icon in the vastness of space, but I can’t help but think this just makes it a more realistic experience.
As well as being attractive the game runs relatively well, though there are elements of the HUD and options system which aren’t completely seamless, with entries to the galactic map or into hyperspace prompting some slowdown. There can be noticeable screen tearing if you move too fast, particularly whilst in first person within you ship. The soundscape the game creates meanwhile is phenomenal, at times recalling the space opera of Star Trek, at others the electronic themes of Mass Effect. It even does a good job of creating the absolute stillness and solitude of space, with the hum of your engines and the tones of your computer system often the only sounds.
Your first tentative steps into the world are shaped by the missions you accept. Found at each dock’s bulletin board there are a range of available tasks which will take you out or the safety of the starport into the dark unknown. It’s safe to say that the expanse of space is not a journey to be taken lightly, and I spent the first fifteen minutes of my very first mission trying to reach another base that was well beyond the range of my small spacecraft. There is no hand-holding here, and you have to approach the game as if it were real, from the pre-flight checks at the space dock to plotting your journey, to playing the markets and choosing the right missions for your capabilities. Any game that has a location marker that genuinely tells you that at your current speed it will take you nine days to arrive is looking to immerse you in its world.
The combat is tense, involving stuff, with the constraints of your early craft ensuring you can’t very seriously consider engaging anybody to start off with. However, as someone who loves the space combat of games like Starlancer, I was hugely gratified to find that once I’d acclimatised to the controls I could spin, veer and juke to my heart’s content whilst using an array of different weaponry. The toughest part of combat, and indeed navigation, was successfully using the 3D radar to locate my target, though I always managed one way or another.
The game offers a fully interactive and interconnected multiplayer landscape, though PC and Mac players won’t directly compete with those on Xbox One. Console players do however have exactly the same access to narrative, economy, diplomacy and galactic power states, and can affect these in the same way those on other platforms can. Given the vastness of space, it’s very rare to come across other players, especially in the pre-release servers, but there didn’t seem to be any problems with connectivity when I did come across others.
The CQC Championship – standing for Close Quarters Combat – on the other hand, drops you directly into either team or solo combat with multiple adversaries. Rather than being stuck in your campaign vessel, you’re granted a more worthy ship with the simple aim to take the other players out. Various standard game types appear, including capture the flag, and it’s really the antithesis of the main game, being fast, immediate and momentary. It’s certainly enjoyable, though it loses some of the magic of the campaign, but with the ability to gain XP, level up, and unlock new craft, it’s sure to find plenty of fans looking for a break from smuggling goods.
As yet, it still isn’t a flawless experience, with some long loading times and a few problems connecting to the servers from the loading screen. It must be said that these were still the beta servers, and hopefully connectivity to the general servers will be much more consistent. It’s also an impenetrable game at times, so obtuse as if to test whether you’re sufficiently masochistic to take part, but perseverance rewards those willing to put the effort in.
Elite: Dangerous is a phenomenal piece of simulation software, masquerading as a game. I felt like Mal Reynolds, Captain Picard and Luke Skywalker at various points, while at others I felt like a delivery man who was able to make a cup of tea whilst travelling to the next drop off. The emptiness of space can be overwhelming, and Elite: Dangerous revels in that a little too much, but for the brave, or foolhardy, it offers an experience that is unlike anything else on Xbox One.
Version Tested: Xbox One