Suggestions of an alien intelligence creeping out of the shadows. Fighter ships, piloted remotely and able to bring down ships many times their size. Beautiful space station interiors that visually reflect the goods or services that they produce.
All very exciting, I'm sure, but I'm here for the cruise liners. Turns out I want every game to be a taxi/bus simulator, and if I can fly tourists around the galaxy, I'm definitely back on board the good ship Elite Dangerous [official site].
We'll get to my tourism fantasies shortly. First, let's talk about the pew-pew of lasers.
The headline feature of the 2.2 update, which goes by the name The Guardians, is the addition of single-seater fighter ships. These are launched from bays on your personal ship and you can either pilot them yourself, or hire ranked crew to take the controls. Management of your pilots seems simple enough, though there's a nice touch in that those that raise their rank under your command will reduce the price of their services as they become more loyal. That way, hiring a low ranking pilot and training him or her in the crucible of combat works out cheaper long-term than simply hiring the ace in every port.
Because the ships are controlled remotely, from the bay installed on your main ship, losing the fighter doesn't lead to the death of the pilot. You don't even lose the fighter, just one instance of it. Every fighter bay comes with a super-advanced 3d printer that can produce a new copy to replace a 'sploded ship. It takes time to make a complete new ship though, even in the future, so fighters are on a kind of cool-down. Of course, even fancy future-printers will probably break down or lose their 'connectivity' half the fucking time, but Elite doesn't simulate that part of the experience, thankfully.
Two of the fighters are imports from the CQC arena: the 'boom and zoom' F63 and the glass cannon G97, which is a sleek, curvy machine. The Taipan is new, a slower and tougher proposition. All three can be purchased with several different loadouts, which is fixed to the bay in which the fighter is installed. Loadouts are made up of one weapon slot and one utility slot, allowing for ultra-aggressive builds, with heatsinks instead of defense systems, or well-rounded designs.
Fighters are accessories as well as weapons, and there will be paint jobs available at launch. Frontier say this is a way to introduce a revenue stream that doesn't open up pay to win, the fighter loadouts being a free part of the update, while the visual customisation is paid for.
I like the idea of switching between a larger ship and its tinier launches, but the most exciting part of the proposition is the ability to leave one of your hired pilots in control of your main ship. If that lets me zip around like an angry wasp, stinging my enemies and never worrying too much about perishing, that's great. If it also means my space bus will be picking off anyone foolish enough to pursue me, providing millions of tonnes of backup, even better.
Oh, you haven't met my space bus yet? Here it is. It's called the Beluga.
Look at this beautiful bastard. Look at that bridge, where I'll be able to invite VIP passengers and show them how awesome the life of a space captain is. Look at how gorgeous the whole thing looks hanging in space. It's a luxury cruise liner, yeah, but you don't have to squint at it for too long to realise it's also a space bus. A giant, beautiful space bus.
I want it. I hope it won't take me sixteen years of mining and hauling cargo to buy it.
The simple fact of the space bus' existence isn't the best thing about the space bus though. The best thing is that unhappy passengers can eject themselves into space. How great is that? They take the whole passenger pod with them, so you'll have to buy a new one. Sometimes they'll just run away the next time you dock, trying to find a more efficient means of travel, but keep them in space for long enough and WHOOOSH, they launch themselves into the void.
Imagine how pissed off you'd have to be to take that risk: it's like rolling out of a speeding taxi on a busy motorway because the driver missed your exit. Except instead of falling into the path of a lorry, you might float in nothingness until all that remains of you is dust. I'd stick with the cruise and then just write a really nasty review on GalacticTripAdvisor.
Tourism brings two new aspects to the simulation. The passenger lounges themselves, which are found at ports, produce two types of contract – bulk and VIP. Bulk passengers are directly driven by the simulation, creating soldiers looking for transport to warzones and refugees wanting to leave, for example.
There are holidaymakers as well and they'll often want to go to tourist spots, which are persistent location, with beacons that you can scan to learn about their historical importance or recognition as an area of natural beauty. Community members who recommend tourist spots, having discovered a beautiful sight in the game world, will have their names mentioned on the beacon.
Passengers need cabins, of course, and the Beluga is the only ship capable of hosting the top-end luxury cabins that some VIPs will demand. VIPs might be famous entertainers, billionaires or politicians, and they have a set of traits that you can study before accepting their contract. Some might attract the wrong kind of attention while others will come up with requests during transit, such as asking for a detour to a nearby warzone. Yes, some people get a kick out of touring around other peoples' tragedies but, hey, lasers do look pretty flashing across the darkness of space.
Maybe I'll never be able to afford a Beluga (Graham suggests that he'd rather work for someone else, Euro Truck Simulator style, being a bus driver for hire; I would love that to be possible) but I could have a space taxi, doing shorter trips with a passenger cabin crammed into a spare slot on whatever ship I CAN afford.
There are lots of other changes incoming, including lots of pleasant visual flourishes that bring the work of the simulation to the surface. Docks will now change in appearance, based on what is being produced in them. Tourist docks are a beautiful mosaic of blue and green, made up of artificial lakes and parks. An industrial port will be stacked with machinery and so on and so forth.
Finally – and perhaps most importantly, spacebuses aside – Elite is becoming friendlier. Ships can be retrieved from distant ports for a fee, potentially saving those who travel far and wide a fair bit of time, and the route planner now has filters, so you can search for certain kinds of location, including those that are either currently wartorn or peaceful. Similar to ship retrieval, there are contacts in low sec systems who can fetch bounties or pay off fines on your behalf, saving you the effort of doing all of the busywork manually.
All well and good, as are the hints of ALIEN INTELLIGENCE, but if you're not planning to drive a spacebus for the rest of your Elite career, then I'm not sure we can be friends anymore. Team Beluga, for life.