How do you make one of the most expansive video games in existence even bigger? It’s a tough challenge, and one that Frontier Developments chose to take on with the release of Elite Dangerous: Odyssey.
Already based on a 1:1 scale of the Milky Way galaxy, Elite Dangerous offers players one of the most comprehensive sandbox experiences in gaming. You can fight, sell, hunt, explore and pirate your way across the galaxy in a number of customizable ships. It’s pretty much the thing of sci-fi dreams.
The latest expansion Odyssey takes the focus off scooting around the galaxy in space ships, and instead tasks players with exploring planets by foot, stepping out of their space ships or ground vehicles for the first time. If recreating the Milky Way was a huge task, then taking what are essentially 1:1 scale moons and planets and making them traversable by foot is even bigger, adding a micro-level of detail to the macro-level of the original game. More importantly, how do you make something so big, meaningful? No Man’s Sky’s early days showed that size doesn’t always result in engaging gameplay.
First impressions are pretty strong, as Elite Dangerous: Odyssey throws players into a tutorial from the off. Introducing on-foot mechanics to the player through a short mission, Odyssey explains how to use the new array of tools at the player’s disposal. New additions include a tool which allows you to store and transfer energy, a genetic sampler for storing organism data, a profile analyser which scans environments and an arc cutter that can cut through doors.
It’s a welcome change from previous updates. Elite Dangerous has never been particularly great at onboarding new players, so it’s a nice surprise to have the new mechanics explained. Once the tutorial is over, the player is thrown back into Elite’s gargantuan sandbox where you’re pretty much free to do as you please. There are a number of new areas to focus on in Odyssey.
Firstly, there’s plenty of outposts to discover. Checking the solar system map, it’s easy to see which planets you can and cannot land on to find outposts. There are a number of things you can do at outposts including hunting down bounties, illegally and legally procuring items and even taking part in king of the hill style gunfights.
If interacting with other humans isn’t your kind of thing, you can also hunt down alien fauna across the galaxy. This involves using a scanner to collect genetic data on a variety of alien lifeforms. Think No Man’s Sky’s scanner system, but much more drawn out and with fewer rewards. It’s a neat idea, but the system needs to be balanced a lot better in order to make it worthwhile for players investing their time.
Unfortunately Odyssey follows in the footsteps of preview Elite Dangerous expansions. Frontier Developments has a track record of releasing DLC in a fairly poor state and spend the following months fixing it based on fan feedback. I mentioned this a few months ago after playing the beta for Odyssey. The beta was in a pretty poor state, featuring all manner of bugs, gameplay imbalances and just a general lack of polish. For the full release, it’s clear to see Frontier Developments have made some improvements, primarily to how AI works and the game’s performance, but Odyssey is still in a pretty bad place.
Numerous bugs and glitches persist throughout the galaxy, which can make the game incredibly frustrating to play at points. Frontier Developments has been actively adding fixes and balances since the game was released, and we’ve seen four major updates to the game so far, all of which feature long lists of fixes and improvements. It’s certainly not perfect, but the game is in a much better state than it was at launch.
While it’s easy to criticise Frontier Developments, Elite Dangerous: Odyssey is a hugely ambitious project. The ability to traverse actually planet-sized planets by foot is pretty overwhelming when you are actually in the act. I like to think that a year from now, I could come back to Odyssey and find a game that not only features grand ambitions, but also the polish and direction to measure it.
Ultimately, Odyssey still suffers with the same problems that Horizons did before it, and that is that the act of grinding money to upgrade ships can be incredibly boring. Whether it’s endlessly scanning alien fauna or looting yet another abandoned base, the meat and bones of Odyssey can be incredibly dull. This isn’t helped by the absolutely terrible FPS controls, which still feel as sluggish as they did in the beta.
Despite the negatives, there are still moments of magic in Odyssey. Getting out of your ship and seeing it for the first time is an experience quite like no other. Especially when you consider that I’ve spent hours upon hours flying the thing. Being able to see it from the outside makes it feel more real than ever before. Standing on a planet as you watch the sunset is another equally amazing moment. Watching the planets move and rotate in real time is incredibly impressive.