This week, Zero Punctuation reviews Elite Dangerous.
Man, you don't see this kind of thing much these days: a title consisting of two adjectives. Remakes of nostalgic games that rely on crowdfunding to pay for all the rose-tinted glasses, on the other hand, that's slightly more common. But let me skip to the end for a moment; I quite enjoy playing Elite Dangerous, but that comes with the qualifier that I am a bit weird, and also quite enjoyed playing Euro Truck Simulator. There's something relaxing about completing incredibly long, drawn out, but totally uncomplicated tasks: set your GPS, put your favourite podcast on and while away the hours, sticking your head out of the window, pretending to be a King Charles Spaniel (In Euro Truck Simulator, I mean, not in Elite; that would end horribly). I think this would be a better world if we'd all be more open about our weird pleasures; we might find that perhaps they are not as weird as we imagine. When I finally had the courage to stand up and say, “You know what? I actually really like taking crystal meth!", you'd be surprised how many of my cellmates were on the same page.
Being over 30 and everything, I may be one the nostalgia suckers Elite Dangerous is aimed towards, but I'd have been interested nonetheless; a bit of space trucking to catch up on some podcasts, and every now again, fight someone to death with lasers. There's long been a tendency for PC space sims to be rather dry affairs, caught somewhere between Wonders of the Universe and Microsoft Flight Simulator, where you need to use half the fucking keyboard to activate the cup holder. But thankfully, El Dangerouso seems to be on my level and all the essential functions could be mapped to my 360 controller. Most of them, anyway. Oh, for one single solitary additional button I could map to the fucking landing gear! But no, guess I just have to keep the keyboard on my armrest like Wesley Fucking Crusher.
Of course, the game was starting out with negative points, 'cos I hate games that make you download a special installation client for it alone. I hate uPlay and Origin enough for forcing me to leave the Steam comfort zone, but they're for all the games by a single company, so it makes sense in a “treehouse fort, no girls allowed” kind of way. But installers for lone games? That’s the kid who stays home alone, smashing frogs with a hammer. I know it tends to be de rigueur for MMOs, but I'm not sure why you think Elite Dangerous was an MMO; I mean, they have the solo play option right there on the title menu. Anyone who clicks on anything else has only themselves to blame. I get quite enough grief from all the NPC ships, thank you very much, and at least their dialogue has been spell-checked. I hasten to add, of course, that solo play apparently doesn't mean the same thing as offline play. You still have to have an internet connection even when you're not playing alongside other players, and I have no idea why; maybe they're constantly gathering data on who's the best pilot so they can pass the details on to those aliens from The Last Starfighter.
But anyway, the usual sales pitch of Elite is that you can fill whatever role you want: space trucker, space explorer, space Blackbeard if you can figure out how to set your beard on fire in a low-oxygen environment. Before any of those, though, you do have to put in some hours as space crap-out. There are few things the game is bad at explaining, 'cos it hails back to a time of manuals longer than Anita Sarkeesian's list of grievances.
I scraped through combat training and thought I was ready to blaze the trail of Space Commander Yahtzee: Hero of Space. "What's that? A notorious pirate whose name is an oblique reference to 20th century science fiction is wrecking havoc in the next system? Leave it to me, chief! I'll just warp right over there, and then there's only 500 trillion cubic kilometres of space the scoundrel could be hiding in." Turns out if you've been send to find something in a star system, you're supposed to investigate random, unidentified signal sources, and if you roll a six, it'll be the thing you're looking for. So after a few false starts, I tracked down my prey. "Your days are numbered, villain!", I declared, and then I opened fire with my starting lasers, which had about as much impact as an attempt to spread marmalade on an angry walrus. "Erm...well, I never said it was a small number!", I said, before being smeared across time and space. Probably smarter to keep your head down with looting and trading until you can replace your twin laser pointers with actual weapons.
So I found some ways to make money. It's hard to predict what the best cargo to move will be, but for that reason, it's very satisfying when you do start making profits. “Yes indeed”, I'd say to myself, “Call me Space Commander Yahtzee II: Hero of Shopping!” And then I investigated a signal and found some crates of fine art floating in space. I would swiftly learn that cargo found in such a way is classified as “illegal goods”, and a lot of space ports fine you for showing up with illegal goods. In fact, more than once, I was fined for showing up with illegal goods that I needed to complete a quest in that space port, which struck me as very unfair. And illegal goods can only be sold in the black market, which A) not every space port has and B) is on the “contacts” menu rather than “commodities”, so the trial-and-error that was needed to figure this all out made me feel like the world's worst undercover cop. “Hello! Could someone direct me to the black market, so I could sell all this highly illegal cargo? Thank you, Mister Black Marketeer; I will certainly think of you next time I have some stolen goods! Would you mind spelling out your name and address into this microphone?"
So Elite Dangerous does take a bit of learning, but once I was a savvy star pilot, it became very absorbing. It controls intuitively enough that space battles are fun, but because they're the exception rather than the rule and most of your time you just spend space trucking, then they feel more special, ‘cos they are just a small part of a larger life you're building for yourself. And I kind of like that in a game, but again, do bear in mind that I am a weirdo, largely shunned by the daywalkers.
Maybe I like Elite for the stories it lets me make up in my own head. Don't know if it should score points for that; that's just leaving blanks for me to fill in. Space Commander Yahtzee II, for example, met his end after a galaxy-wide police chase when a pirate organization that had seemed so nice at the time suckered him into shooting down innocent traders. Embittered, his son, Space Commander Yahtzee III, eschewed human company and chose a life of exploring the furthest stars, until his own tragic death when he warped into a sun. Details are sketchy as to why he did this, but his last known transmission suggests that his podcast had just ended and he must have alt-tabbed out of the game to find another one.
- The best at shopping: Ben "Yahtzee" Croshaw
- And why was there fine art floating in deep space anyway? Maybe a wormhole appeared in Brian Sewell's garage
- Becoming elite is quite the feat