Almost three years since its intergalactic introduction on Xbox One and PC, Elite: Dangerous has finally engaged its thrusters and landed comfortably on Playstation 4. With your meagre starting credits and reliable Faulcon DeLacy designed Sidewinder ship, you’ll traverse star-systems, mine asteroid belts, and contribute to intergalactic economies, all in an attempt to make your mark within a billion-planet galaxy that’s inhabited by thousands of real-life players.
Formats: PlayStation 4 (reviewed), Xbox One, Microsoft Windows
There’s no over-arching story within Elite: Dangerous. The moment you leave that initial space station is moment you begin to write your own intergalactic tale. Players can contribute hundreds of in-game hours to pursuing their career, contributing to an allegiance, or simply exploring the billions of undiscovered planets and stars which inhabit the Milky way, all without uncovering a single ounce of lore. As you and your fellow players influence the galaxy, economies will flourish, space battles will be won, and governments will be toppled –- it all comes down to player decisions.
The lack of a spoon-fed plot doesn’t mean that there aren’t mysteries to be found within the vast galaxy of Elite: Dangerous. As the master of the Cosmos, Carl Sagan, once said, “Somewhere, something incredible is waiting to be known.” This resonates well with how the shrouded plot of Elite: Dangerous unfolds. Players will have to make a conscious effort to find clues as to where story related content is going to appear, whether that be reading the GalNet feeds within a starport or participating in community-led activities. There’s also an incredibly active Elite: Dangerous community within the dedicated forums who are routinely trying to piece together the clues which are slowly released by the Frontier team. You’ll have to delve deep and contribute time and effort to the cause, but if you enjoy the adrenaline of discovering a new alien race or enacting the revenge of a pirate attack on a capital ship, you’re bound to be enthralled by Elite’s ability to tease mystery.
Intimidating. That would be the most appropriate adjective to describe the opening hours with Elite: Dangerous. Rarely does a game provide you with a tutorial section that only scratches the surface of what’s capable within its environment, but this most obtuse learning curve serves as a reminder that space is a selfish and unforgiving place. The PlayStation 4 controller doesn’t help you play what is a quintessentially PC game. The lack of being able to hot-key certain actions means that you’ll often have to scroll through menus to activate certain actions which can waste precious time. You’ll have to quickly accommodate yourself with the rules of the game as failure to do so could lead you to losing your ship — and you better ensure that you have the money to pay its insurance.
You can adopt any role within the game — whether that be a miner, mercenary, trader, or even a pirate — but be warned that all your actions are met with a subsequent reaction. All class choices come with their own stark reminder that you’ll inevitably incur a degree of risk within the profession of your choosing. Choose to meander through space as a trader and your cargo will be more lucrative to pirates. Choose to be a miner and your crawl up the social ladder will be slow and monotonous. Choose to be a mercenary and you’ll face daunting enemies. Choose to be a pirate and the cut-throat galactic police will pursue you at all costs all whilst accruing a handsome bounty.
Space stations act as your safe-haven whilst traveling between planets. It’s here that you’ll pick up missions, repair your ship, amass a crew, contribute to the commodities market, and buy ships. Most importantly, it’s here that you’ll have the opportunity re-fit almost every aspect of your ship’s on-board components. This in-depth customisation doesn’t mean you’ll have free-range to attach whatever you want though, as you’ll have to juggle each individual component with your ship’s unique power and weight capacities. Players will need to to be aware of the role each individual ship serves and work towards modifying it to their own individual needs. It’s easy to see why this level of customisation and in-game application appeals so heavily to fans of multiple genres.
The Horizons expansion adds a number of new gameplay and story elements to the base game. The most prominent of these additions revolves around players now having the ability to land upon certain planets and explore their surface with the help of a Scarab Surface Recon Vehicle. Whilst the ability to land on a planet certainly adds an extra dimension to gameplay, it ultimately feels like a hollow addition given that most of the available planets and their subsequent settlements are devoid of any sense of character. The one instance in which planetary landings are of a positive note is in relation to the Thargoid alien race that mysteriously haunts the Elite: Dangerous universe. Should players stumble upon one of their ancient archaeological crypts, they’ll be introduced to a series of puzzles that will eventually lead to more story and mission related content. The grind is slow, but it promises to be worthwhile for the pilots dedicated enough to uncover the mystery at the centre of this vast and unforgiving universe.
Even the most ardent critics of Elite’s gameplay would struggle to pick fault with the majestic beauty of the world Frontier have crafted. Through the utilisation of procedurally generated code, Frontier have managed to create a breathtaking 1:1 scale model representation of the Milky Way galaxy, meaning that there are some 400 billion unique galaxies to explore. It’s a welcome distraction when you’re flying to be able to take in the enchanting surroundings of your ship — looking to your left may contain the trails of a hyper drive having just been engaged whilst to the right you’ll have a gargantuan blood red star waiting for you to get too close. Whilst the PC version is compatible with VR technology, Sony has chosen not to support the PlayStation 4 in the same way, which is surprising given how well suited it is from both a graphical and gameplay perspective.
It’s a testament to Frontier Industries that Elite: Dangerous runs relatively smoothly, especially when you consider the sheer pressure their 1:1 scale model representation of the Milky Way Galaxy puts on the Playstation 4’s internal hardware. Slight frame-rate issues will occur when leaving hyperspace and approaching oncoming planets will lead to texture tears, but no game breaking bugs have been recorded throughout my playthrough that would significantly hamper the gameplay experience.
You’d expect by the year 3303 that mankind had at least one spaceship dedicated radio station but it seems we’ll have to wait for that great scientific endeavour to occur. For a game that has you fly through vast, unexplored corners of the Milky Way Galaxy, Elite: Dangerous doesn’t do much with its music to make the journey more exhilarating. The standard tracks you’ll encounter throughout 90% of your playtime is a vibrant mix of futuristic symphonies or sci-fi electronica, both adding a great degree of depth to the breathtaking environment. The subsequent 10% of your playtime in which you’ll be chasing pirates or preying on wanted fugitives is when you’ll activate combat music. In this instance you’ll again be joined by lightly played symphonic music, but this time to a more intense beat — which escalates depending upon the severity of the dog-fighting — that certainly helps get the adrenaline flowing. Whilst the music within these sequences is great, it just needs an extra degree of presence which would benefit the experience as a whole.
Elite: Dangerous isn’t constantly thrilling and sometimes it can be boring to the point that it feels like a chore, but that doesn’t mean that the world created by Frontier isn’t evocative, captivating, and exciting at the same time. It’s a game that doesn’t care about you, and it’s as a result of this selfish mindset that it excels. It’s a world designed to accommodate a very specific audience, but if you fit its very precise mould, it can provide hundreds of hours worth of enjoyable gameplay, and that will only continue to expand as updates and expansions are added throughout its lifecycle.