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Preview: the Elite Dangerous Odyssey FPS expansion is best when you're not shooting

[insert your own "one small step" joke here]

There's a Vulture circling overhead. Not a scavenger bird, but the somewhat larger Core Dynamics Vulture. Its engine reverbs across the moon's surface as it boosts off into orbit, ignoring me. I'm not worth the hassle. My Sidewinder, the trash-tier space banger of Elite Dangerous, is parked quiet and unoccupied on the edge of a huge meteor crater. I'm out for a walk, you see, with the long-awaited space legs of the upcoming Odyssey expansion. Not everything is smooth and picturesque in this ongoing public alpha. Despite that, it's gratifying to boot up your favourite space-trucking game and find not just a walking simulator inside, but a moon-walking simulator.

Odyssey is the biggest sideways step Elite Dangerous has taken, essentially embedding a first-person shooter inside its already-operating space sim, like some chocolate truffle of genre. The alpha has problems, especially when it comes to the planetside battlefields, but ultimately I cannot knock the ambition of this update. Especially when it offers the one thing I've been itching to do since this spacey meatball came out six years ago: the ability to clamber out of your ship and kick the landing gears.

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This works simply. You land on a planet or moon and click "Disembark". Fade to black for a moment and you're on the surface, WASD-ing around the place with glee. A space suit HUD tracks your oxygen supply, health, shields and energy. Energy depletes over time, and if you're in a particularly cold environment (as space is wont to be) your energy bar will dissolve faster. But you can keep it pumped up with little energy-pack juice boxes, which you buy in space stations. Because that's one of the other places you'll use your legs.

These stations are a little plain-faced so far. Elite is hard and dry sci-fi, so the grey metal interiors and straight talk of the shopkeepers and NPCs lacks the colour of something like No Man's Sky or Outer Worlds. That's fine by me, I'm very boring. The real problem is that these stations (and everything else) demand a little more from your machine.

There's a graphical upgrade with this expansion. New witchspace effects, shiny reflections, warty terrain. This'll be welcomed by many. But the bump in graphics is an unexpected disadvantage for those of us slumming it with a grandpappy graphics card, unable to get a new one for a decent price (thanks, Borkcoin). For instance, I've had to slap everything down to "Mid" on my venerable GTX 1060. This feels like a concession for a game that has looked so good for so long. Although there's probably still a lot of optimisation and tweaking to be done.

"Finding your feet, physical and metaphorical, is reminiscent of the vanilla Elite, when you're learning the ins and outs of spaceflight and pushing buttons to see what happens."

And the tweaks are forthcoming. The alpha has already been criticised for forcing players to take ludicrously long taxi rides to far-flung moons. I fell victim to this too, when I met an NPC in a clinically undirty bar and accepted a mission I thought was straightforward. I was to rob some chemicals from a box at a manufacturing plant. Simple. Except the plant was 150,000 light-seconds away. It took my space-taxi 18 minutes to get there, during which I played with the info screens, unable to affect the spaceship in any way. Basically rummaging around in the glove box of boredom. That problem has eased now that the alpha has given players their own ships in which to reach planetside settlements.

These settlements are like the bases you could previously shred in your SRV (your space jeep). Only this time you're on foot. At my first mission destination, I eventually died to the whizzing moonbullets of an industrial goon. But I enjoyed running around in the dark at the frozen temperature of -250 degrees celsius. Scuttling away from the flashlights of guards and pressing every button on my suit in a panic as I tried to remember where I put my electric juice box. That opening moment of finding your feet, physical and metaphorical, is reminiscent of the vanilla Elite, when you're learning the ins and outs of spaceflight and pushing buttons to see what happens.

This is a case of diminishing returns, of course. All the settlements so far are quite samey, and there is a very limited number of objectives once you've touched down. Find item X, restore power to building Y, kill every Z that moves. Ah yes, the killing.

It wouldn't be an FPS add-on if there were no guns, after all. Here there are designated settlements in which to fight a mix of bots and other players. The "conflict zones" are basically sci-fi Battlefield, but not as smooth. A dropship spits you into a settlement where you capture points and kill enemies until one team runs out of reinforcements. Sadly, the assault rifles, laser rifles and pistols of this futurewar aren't super. Whatever we're now calling the nebulous hand-to-brain sensation of playing a FPS (Shootfeel? Gunsense? Triggerfeel?) is not great here. The firearms are airy and quiet, like plastic toys. The iron sights are weirdly translucent. Enemies don't seem to react to being hit until the final few blows, and the AI is erratic in its ability. Most of the time bot soldiers spray their bullets with the resolve of a pacifist aiming to miss. They run around in the open and ignore you even if you're right next to them. Until one of them feels a random surge of megacompetance and kills you in a single rude burst.

It'd be reassuring to see this FPS stuff get cleaned up as the alpha goes on. But part of me doesn't mind even if it stays messy. I only want space legs, after all, not space arms.

Luckily there are "low-threat" activities. One of my favourite moments was in exploring a completely derelict settlement on the dark side of a moon, a small, dead colony in total blackout. Some fellow CMDRs showed up, but they weren't aggressive. We blinked our flashlights at one another and said our crouch-hellos before splitting up to explore the abandoned base. Consoles sparked in the command centre, fires flared in the storage warehouse. Everything had a gloomy, haunted vibe and I got to properly use my space gadgets for the first time, cutting open the panels to power outlets and hacking the doors to a medbay. I hoovered up all the loot in the lockers inside (you can sell it to bar staff in space stations), and by the time I came out of the building, one of the other commanders had restored power to the whole base. They were having a spirited argument with a turret that was now a real Twitter user - that is to say, very online. The whole adventure was a quiet, atmospheric scav-fest, a real good time.

Until I hit the chat key and the game became locked in text-message mode. The alpha bugs are powerful. Paralysed by this bug and unable to move anything but my space-neck, I looked on as my new friends boarded a shuttle (you can call one from your space phone) and blasted off without me. I died a few minutes later when I ran out of oxygen. So yes, there is fun to be had in the alpha. But if you want fewer, uh, idiosyncrasies, you best wait until this DLC is properly baked.

What might dissuade you is Elite's often opaque nature. Its hit-and-miss UI. Some of the sim's appeal arguably comes from learning its small rules, necessities, and details. You come to understand, after a few failures, how to adequately prepare for certain types of mission (don't forget to check if a passenger is a wanted fugitive before you agree to pick him up, kids). I find this galactic learning curve enjoyable, and I've played enough Elite to still maintain the perfect space trucking playlist. Yet even I find Odyssey a little under-explained. Much of the fun I've described has been sprinkled with moments of binding and re-binding controls. Instances of dying and wondering why. Confused about-faces in moon towns, not knowing where the hell I was supposed to go.

In other words, it's hands-off. And it's hard to tell how much of this is down to the recognisable aloofness of a sim and how much is the result of unintuitive design. Elite has always been reluctant to explain its intricacies, and fresh-faced space wanderers will be as alienated as ever if Odyssey is released without some bare bones tutorialising.

Despite the wobbliness present in the alpha, and the lacklustre gunfoolery of its FPS segments thus far, I'm still hopeful with what Odyssey is promising. Mostly I'm grateful Frontier has delivered on a promise made years ago. They have stuck to their guns, even if those guns are a little lightweight. When it's all fleshed-out, the best thing a returning space pilot can do, in my eyes, is to land on a far-flung moon and step out onto the surface. Enjoy the view, take some screenshots, jump around in low gravity and watch out for Vultures overhead.

The alpha is halfway through its planned phases, and there are more features to come, including a bigger bubble of worlds to visit and the ability to gather organic samples from alien plant life on planet surfaces. To me, it's all bonus material. Making panoramic space postcards is the simplest and best pleasure of having space legs.

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