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Impressions - Elite: Dangerous Alpha

The fraught frontier

The current alpha for Elite: Dangerous offers a linear series of combat missions, with a narrative through-line about illegal toxic waste dumping, megacorp mercenaries and accidental collisions with asteroids. That may well be how the final game plays out for some people but I’m more likely to spend my time exploring the farthest reaches of the galaxy, looking for unusual sights and making a few spacebucks by trading with whatever life exists at those penultimate frontiers. As such, the alpha only represents a very small portion of the Elite that I hope to play when all is said and done. With that in mind, here are my impressions of several hours in space.

I love space and I might well love Elite: Dangerous. I don't know if I will yet, not in the long-term, but it's certainly made a good first impression.

This may only be a small portion of the Elite I'm looking forward to but it's a tasty one. The sort of microcapsule The Jetsons probably used to pop on a Sunday lunchtime, containing all the flavour and weight of a slap-up roast dinner. The alpha might not tell me a great deal about the astounding complexity of Elite’s worlds of infinite possibility, but the sheer spectacle of this small slice of space makes the promise of adventure all the more thrilling.

Aesthetically, it’s everything I’d hoped for. The first time my cannons scorched the tail-end of an enemy ship, I immediately wished I was broadcasting live, thinking I’d just seen the perfect shot. Engine trails were replaced by flame and smoke as systems wavered, and the poor bastard rolled out of harm’s way. The new path placed a nearby planet behind him, an immensity that filled my view. The blue of distant seas washed around his vessel, absorbing it and momentarily hiding it from view.

When my eyes had adjusted, I could still see the smouldering mark where the projectiles had scarred the surface, a beautifully constructed minor detail in a world so large that it’s natural to expect only the broadest of strokes. It’s impossible not to perform an imaginative reverse crash-zoom at this point – picture a squadron picking holes in a frigate or interdictor. Picture the death of a ship that blots out an entire system of stars, picture your wingmen burning by your side in a lonely ambush, picture the freedom of the galaxy, and the beauty of finding a perfect sun that rises and falls with the nudge of a thruster.

And there’s the dilemma. Playing this alpha is like arriving on a pristine beach, reclining in a pool of shade with a cocktail in hand and looking out onto the most perfect bay beneath skies that a glossy brochure or glossier travel agent would definitely describe as ‘azure’. You’re ready to head out into the water but it’s off-limits for now and when you do take the plunge maybe it’ll be shark-infested or full of arseholes riding inflatable bananas. Maybe one of them will leave a floater in the water, the beefy aftermath of a thirty-year beer and steak diet.

Sorry about that. Memories of a childhood holiday on Majorca. What I mean to say is that I’ve been playing a tiny scrap of what Elite: Dangerous will eventually be and it’s exciting enough that I’m tempted to extrapolate. It’s the beautiful tip of an iceberg that may melt before we see the rest of it.

The missions in the alpha are superb though, even if the first one is little more than target practice utilising toxic waste barrels. Indeed, it's not the mission design that shines, it's the engine and the power of the control systems. By the time wingmen and entire enemy squadrons start to populate the gaps between the asteroids, the combat is as intense and fulfilling as any space-biffing I’ve played in a good long time. Sweet mercy, it HAS been a long time and during the first combat mission, as I grappled with the controls and struggled to orient myself, I realised how much I’ve missed this sort of thing.

I played with a keyboard and mouse at first, which is possible but difficult and distracting. A joystick would be ideal, simulating what I presume is the avatar pilot’s experience. Shifting to a joypad satisfied me though and within ten or fifteen minutes, I was pitch perfect. The controls are tricky but tight, and it’s even possible to perform a fairly precise circle-strafe despite the (intentionally) low yaw rate. Having to combine pitch, roll and yaw to wrestle the ship into position during pursuit and avoidance is glorious, and even my joypad’s tiny thumbsticks felt like powerful conduits.

Chasing an enemy as he spirals, dives and weaves is tense, particularly if he has companions closing in for a kill of their own. The Sidewinder is a marvel of engineering though and with some practice, it can pull off remarkable manoeuvres, seeming to turn on a sixpence (probably actually half the distance from here to the moon) or to turn a spiralling dive into an angled sidestep.

The thrusters feel punchy. That’s definitely the right word. Every time I adjust the power to the engines or shift the ship on its own axis, there’s a jolt, a sense of the scientific ingenuity that carries these machines. They slam into position and the crackling of their skin when a shield fails under fire is vivid and terrible. The designs are future-sleek, particularly when shields enclose them like tight rubber, but the Sidewinder’s cockpit has a lived-in feel, with its bobblehead mascot on the dash.

Judging by this small taste, Elite’s world will have rust layered atop much of its rocket age wonder. Exploring almost-limitless worlds wouldn’t be half as entertaining if they were all sterile and shiny. I’m getting ahead of myself again though – there are no worlds, as of this moment, just a few ships at war. And I’m surprised by how satisfying the experience already is.

Dare I say that I’d be happy with a full combat campaign in this engine as a game in and of itself? My interest in Elite is in the exploration, the trade and the playing of roles, but sci-fi dogfighting this good is a rare treat. The AI is good as well, capable of putting up a strong fight but also prone to the occasional error. I’ve already enjoyed one head-on collision, although it was intentional on my part. I just wanted to see if it was possible. It’s amazing how small an area a group of ships end up occupying when they’re constantly trying to reverse position and chase one another’s tails.

Graham has been playing with an Oculus Rift, which may have been making him tad spacesick. I suspect we’ll both be playing some more over the weekend and will partake in some form of discussion to be shared at a later date.

It’s all tremendously exciting, even if it is little more than a glimpse of a possibility. I shifted all power to my weapons as I chased one ship down. It was already flaming out, shields wrecked and pilot sending out distress calls. My engines shuddered with delight, rolled over and reached for a smoke. I drifted silently as the poor bastard shrank in my reticule. And then I fired until the lasers burned white hot, even with the cooling systems turned up full.

Empty spaces. Perfect peace.

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