Elite: Dangerous is the crowdfunded re-birth of the classic Elite space trading game, which used ancient magics to cram an entire wireframe universe inside a computer. This new, modern magic is trickling its way through an alpha development process, and last week Adam and Graham got access to a series of singleplayer scenarios designed to demonstrate the game's combat systems. Graham is playing it with the Oculus Rift headset, Adam is playing it with aplomb. They gathered beneath a moonlit asteroid field to discuss their thoughts so far.
Adam: Now entering the DANGERZONE.
Graham: DA-DA-DA-DANGEROUS. (To the tune of Notorious B.I.G).
Adam: We should start this off by inserting a link to all those words wot I wrote about how much I like shooting things in Elite: Dangerous. I've already shown my hand - you begin. Are you pleased with this tiny portion of space?
Graham: I am. I didn't expect to like it as much as I do. I'm a fan of Frontier: Elite 2 from when I was a kid, but my memories of it mostly involve slowly revolving polygons and my inability to ever dock with a space station.
The latter of which became a metaphor for much of my later life.
But in any case, I imagined this new Elite would mirror the scale, but I didn't expect it to feel so good. I didn't expect the lovely juddering of your spaceship cockpit, or the whirring engine noises, or the tactical pleasure of shunting power between systems.
I thought it would be fusty, having learned little from the last twenty years of design, but that's not the case at all. This alpha is just a little combat chunk, but the combat is great all on its own.
Adam: The struggle to dock is a common theme in our lives. I thought the alpha might be too little to grab my full attention but the combat is extremely good. As you say, the whole design is beautifully atmospheric. It has a sleek future perfect vibe that disintegrates as soon as lasers start to flicker across shields and hulls are torn apart. It's SOLID.
Graham: I kind of thought they'd focus on creating a huge universe, and the details would get short shrift. That's sort of the way with space games, traditionally. But there's stuff like locational damage in the ships which is just lovely. Your windscreen can crack a little, and you can hear your pilot's heavy breathing as your cockpit de-pressurizes. Another hit and it smashes completely, and your ship is destroyed.
Adam: What it doesn't do - and can't do - is convince me that the rest of the game will work. The only hints toward the eventual scope are visual and narrative. Those brief text intros to the missions, talking about corporate espionage and piracy. And the obvious scale of space.
But I haven't had that much fun in a cockpit since 1994.
Graham: I guess the question is, if the rest of the game is a mess, would the fun of the combat carry you through? Would you still fly around getting in scrapes and space japes, even if you didn't enjoy the story, the trading, and so on?
Adam: I think the engine would be a fantastic fit for a space combat campaign. But that's a different game. If everything in between the combat is a mess, it'd be a massive pain just to get to the combat. There's so much that could be broken and distracting.
Graham: A reasonable point. I guess for me, the strength of this alpha is that it makes me want the rest of the game so much. These combat scenarios are set in and around asteroid fields or the empty void in space, but the thought of being able to fly off and visit each of the pale dots visible in the distance is tremendously exciting and even magical.
I think by feeling so good as a self-contained thing, it suddenly conveys the madness of also having an entire universe inside the game. That's a thing which had become less impressive since the original Elites, which now suddenly seems grand and impossible again.
I've said this to you already, but it's like playing Doom, enjoying the combat but thinking "If only I could talk to the monsters," and then being told that talking to the monsters was coming in a future update.
Adam: Yeah, but will we ever be able to talk to the asteroids? Favouritism.
But I absolutely agree. It made me long for the horizons in every direction. Which probably aren't horizons. Space horizons? Event Horizons? Sam Neill with a startling lack of eyeballs? The combat is great and I'd happily play a game that builds on that. Which is hugely surprising. I couldn't quite believe how much fun I was having. It's polished, it's engaging and the controls are superb.
But I want it to be an Elite game. It's not the combat that interests me primarily, which is why I was so happy that it sucked me in.
I'll probably see more space combat with the alpha than I will with my first six months with the game. I intend to trade and explore. I'm a lover, Graham, not a fighter.
I think the update that adds 'loving' is due in August.
Graham: I'm an explorer also. I think that's why I'm so thrilled by the cockpit. The thing that excites me about Elite is that sense of being in a very small, cosy box in a very large universe. That sense of being ensconced, alone, adrift, surrounded by potential. The cockpit they've created so far is a place I want to stay, staring out the window.
Adam: Yes. I like the bobblehead but I'm also slightly miffed that it's such a personal touch that is, at least for now, universal. Everybody has one. I hope the cockpits can be customised at least a little.
Graham: I guess I should mention that I'm playing it with the Oculus Rift headset.
Adam: Oh yes. Graham is from the future. I forgot. I'm playing with my eyes.
Graham: My eyes have docked successfully with our virtual reality future. It's great. The game which initially sold me on the Rift was EVR, CCP's space dogfighting game now called EVE Valkyrie. E:D is similarly convincing.
Adam: IL-2 Sturmovik sold me. It's a device for cockpits. I'd go so far as to say it's a cockpit that people put on their heads.
Graham: A headcockpit, yes. Space combat makes a lot more sense when you can easily twist your head to look out windows and see ships whirling around above and behind you. Without the Rift, turning your head is put on the right analogue stick, but that felt slow and fiddly to do in the middle of combat.
Adam: Yeah, I barely moved my virtual head. I wanted a Rift so badly.
Graham: There was a thing. When I first started playing it with the Rift, and looked down at my avatar, there was a disconnect because the in-game pilot's body is positioned in the chair very strangely.
Their legs are stretched out in front, leaning back. It's not the way I'd ever sit in my office chair at a computer, so it seemed odd.
About five minutes later, I was looking out the top window of my ship at an enemy. When I looked back down, within the Rift, I realised that my real body had slipped into the same pose as the avatar. Like, "Oh, this is how space captains sit, because they need to look up and out their top window a lot."
It made me more like a space captain.
Adam: That is the ultimate accolade. When I play Euro Truck Simulator 2, I become more like a trucker. That simply involves scratching my testicles a lot.
I think you're essentially describing slouching though. Space captains slouch.
Graham: It's very commander-ly though. A firm slouch
Adam: How did you find the AI? I enjoyed toying with it and liked that it was far from perfect. Didn't feel like fighting drones.
Graham: I thought the different scenarios did a pretty good job of showing different types of enemy, as far as some being more aggressive than others goes. They seemed to have some sense of cover, nipping behind asteroids to try to lose me. It didn't feel like they were robots on rails, certainly.
Graham: They also kicked my ass a lot. I found it quite hard at first.
Adam: I was terrible for the first hour or so. Mostly because I couldn't work out which was was up.
Turns out there is no 'up' in space. As soon as I realised that, I was fine.
Graham: I feel like we should talk more about the tactical combat and nice 3D radar and HUD overlays, but really, what did you think of the final mission? The one with the faction battle and maybe 40 other ships.
Adam: I have to defer to your wisdom there - the last one I played was the supply strike, which is one squadron against another. That last one is Incursion, right? Where they keep jumping in?
If so, I was thwarted once and by then my time had been depleted. The weekend dead.
I struggled with the sixth and seventh missions because I was very intent on playing chicken with enemies in an effort to collide head-on. I love the idea of being in space, which is quite large, and still managing to crash into somebody else.
That's one thing about the combat actually - no matter how large the area, the technique and tactics mean that ships loop and spiral closer together, as if bound by elastic. It becomes oddly claustrophobic.
Graham: I can't remember its name. There's a faction war happening and you can choose sides, or fly around as an observer. There's larger, capital-sized ships and small fighters, and they start a short distance away from each other, and then start to arc off and lasers and missiles streak across the inky black. It's meant mainly as a demo of the scale of fights they're aiming for.
It's a vision of what the game wants to provide, and it's exciting just to fly among it. Getting in close to the larger ships.
Adam: OH WHAT
I didn't see that at all. I must have stopped one mission BEFORE the end. Rats.
It's probably for the best. I think I managed to write fairly intelligibly about the small-scale combat. If I'd seen that I might just have posted forty screenshots and dropped the mic.
Graham: That's what it inspires. It drops you into this Star Wars or Serenity-style battle and then expects us to be able to form coherent, critical thoughts about it.
Adam: It's been so long since I've played a really good space combat game that I'd actually forgotten who much this is what I dreamed of playing when I was a kid.
It's such a cliche, but I really did want to be Han Solo.
Graham: I feel a little silly, because this is just a sliver of a game. If it wasn't for the Rift, I'd probably just be thinking, "Oh, this is a nice space combat thing. I hope the final thing is good."
But with the Rift, I'm filled up with its overwhelming potential. I want the finished game, and I want the consumer Rift, and regardless of whether either turns out to be as good as we hope, there is something wondrous about it already. They're trying to build a universe, and you can go inside that universe.
We've spent decades playing games, and trying to convince people of the power of these imaginary worlds. Trying to get them to ignore the boards and counters, the confusing controls and crappy textures. Now it's just, here, put this thing on. There we go. Now you're inside it. Isn't it beautiful.
It makes me want to get my Dad to come visit, so he can have a go.
VIRTUAL REALITY SPACE HAN SOLO.
Adam: Even without the Rift I had a similar feeling, although I think it was exaggerated by the fact that I have used a Rift and can totally imagine assuming the spaceslouch while wearing one.
But the whole experience did make me a bit giddy. I always thought of Elite's world as being quite austere, a quiet ocean or desert with the occasional nomad passing through. There's a beauty in that as well and it was obviously my memory of the original games' appearance that made me feel like that.
But Dangerous (and I understand but dislike that subtitle) is a different thing entirely. It is, in a way, a much more obvious version of space - full of drama and colour to counterpoint the void. That's hugely exciting to be a part of though and I can't wait to explore the quieter corners. There will be some spectacular sights, I'm sure.
Graham: You can customise the cockpits, by the way. There's a menu option for selecting what kind of bobblehead you want. I put a little Christmas tree on mine.
Adam: A relief.
Graham: You, me, Craig presumably, adrift on the edges of space. Giddy is the right word. I haven't felt like that about the potential of a game in a long time.
Adam: I haven't even managed to wrap my head around the idea of multiplayer yet.
I was one of the people who thought that having any sort of multiplayer aspect would detract from the workings of the galaxy.
I figured that as soon as you add real people, they're expected to do a lot of the heavy lifting. They'll make the economy work, they'll perform piracy and protection, they'll be the living part of the world. Not an excuse for a static world, but a crutch that makes it seem slightly more active.
Obviously, the intent was never to force multiplayer on people so my doubts were a little misplaced. But now, I want to invite everyone I know into space with me. Just for a holiday if nothing else.
Adam: I spent half an hour babbling about the game on the phone to my sister and she has about as much interest in space games as I do in erotic abattoir photography.
Graham: I would have gladly had multiplayer forced on me, but I am happy that they're committing to supporting both though. I can see times when I'd appreciate each mode.
Question: does your sister often discuss erotic abattoir photography?
Is my fear of massively multiplayer entirely unfair, do you think? Not just in this game but elsewhere as well? I like games built around systems and I often think that a multiplayer game hopes that people will create their own systems.
I guess DayZ is a good example of that. There's a lot going on beneath the hood and it has complex survival mechanics but it's the human interactions that everybody talks about and focuses on. I like DayZ though so maybe I'm just a mad old fool.
Graham: I think it's all systems, but different types. Singleplayer games give players top-down direction, or control the world from above. Something like DayZ or EVE Online by comparison create gravity-wells for players to be sucked towards. i.e. Spawning supplies in certain locations, so as to draw players towards them and together and therefore forcing them to interact.
If you like DayZ, why do you feel you might not like the same in Elite?
Adam: A very good question.
Partly, I think, it's scale. I find it important that the world of a game is credible, no matter how abstract it might be. If I'm convinced that it continues to exist when I'm not looking at it - even if I can prove that isn't true - I'm much more likely to stick around. I love the possibility of stumbling across events as they occur rather than being directed toward the only thing that IS occurring.
I want to be a participant rather than a spectator.
That suits multiplayer games perfectly because, by their nature, they are a confusion of actions. Even if people do the expected thing, they don't do it at the expected time.
But Elite's world is so large that it can't possibly contain enough people to make it hum all over all of the time. It needs artificially spurred events to fill the gaps.
Does that make sense? I think it makes a kind of sense.
Graham: Mm, I can see that. That does make sense. I confess I don't know; what's the structure of Elite's multiplayer? Will it have hundreds of thousands? Twelve? I haven't read about it.
I think EVE Online offers solutions for some of those problems, but it is dependent on a great many players being online at any given moment.
Adam: From what I've read, large changes will be player-driven. So if a bunch of people form a trade federation, protecting one another and concentrating on specific routes, the economy in the systems that they target will become stronger.
Other players could then form a raiding group and attack the traders. A rich route, and therefore a well-established one, will provide more bounty.
But, yes, EVE is a fine counterpoint to my worries as well. Shows that people can be interesting in space.
Fundamentally, part of my concern with multiplayer is down to being a roleplaying kind of person. I'm more interested in being convincing than being successful. AND IN THE GAME
Graham: I like the idea of being a space bounty hunter, hunting space bounties. But I dislike the idea of being constantly drawn into elements of the game I don't enjoy - or don't want to focus on, like combat - by players haranguing me and interfering with my play.
I give the concept of multiplayer 7/10. Rent, don't buy.
Adam: Other people in general really. They're like flies in a delicious soup. But I do want to form a squadron of space-chums for adventures, good times and possible betrayal.
Adam: If we don't betray each other, space will betray us anyhow. Like the sea, it turns on those brave captains who try to tame it
Graham: Oh, I thought of a real criticism!
Graham: It is hard to drink coffee while wearing the Oculus Rift. You can't see the mug on your desk, and the rim clashes with the headset when you try to raise it to your lips.
Graham: Elite: Dangerous requires straws.
Adam: You just need to customise the cockpit so that there is a cup of coffee precisely where your actual mug is placed. And chop off a bit of the headest.
I have a criticism.
The chaff did nothing.
And a missile hit my spaceship in the bum.
And I bounced off an asteroid.
Graham: Asteroid physics: 0/10.
Although you're right about crashing into enemy ships. Head-on collisions with enemy fights sends you into an uncontrollable spin, and experiencing that in the Rift is thrilling. It's the one moment the Rift's slight sick-inducing blurriness fits perfectly.
Adam: Thrilling in the same way as that one time I drank a big sugary milkshake and then went on a big dipper was thrilling?
Graham: I have yet to actually barf, but then I hadn't drunk any milkshakes, so.
Adam: Here's an odd thing - we haven't talked very much about the original Elite at all here. Dangerous feels very modern - futuristic even with the virtual reality and the spaceslouch - and the parts that we've seen were the least interesting thing about the original, as far as I'm concerned. And I find that exciting as well.
If the freedom and sense of space is as enjoyable as I'd hope for from Elite, then the combat and aesthetic pleasures will be the cherry on top of a delicious cake.
And we'll look back and laugh 'HAHA. What fools we were to be so excited about a cherry! How innocent!'
And we'll say that while drifting through space together in tiny fighters, on a hunt for Jim's frigate. Then we'll rob all of his credits, blow his ship to smithereens and find that he's fired us by text message.
Graham: It's all I've ever wanted.