Here she comes, limping into starport with her thrusters spluttering, smoke billowing from her exhaust, sparks leaping from the jump drive. No, I'm not describing my spaceship as part of the universal game review opening in which I tell a tiny story to ease you into things. I am using blunt metaphor to describe Elite Dangerous: Odyssey itself, the leggy new expandopack that adds first-person exploration and gunfire to Elite's space sim. Although she's a tough machine with lots of promise, her internal electronics have a serious case of gremlins. Look, she's exploded.
For anyone who hasn't seen the star bulletin, Odyssey came out last week, swarming with so many bugs that developers Frontier have "wholeheartedly" apologised. In my playtime over the past week, I've seen my share of crashes, muddy textures, pop-in, and bouncy characters. I've clipped through a parked spaceship, had a heap of UI glitches, and encountered one very forgetful space cop who bobbed up and down, scanning me approximately 50 times as I idled on a moon's surface. Others have seen worse. So it's important to say up-front that this wasn't released in a finished state. And it's not only the bugs that frustrate. Some of the new features (even when functional) feel half-baked.
At least it gives you a decent introduction to space legs. Upon first playing, you're dropped straight into an abandoned settlement to learn the ins and outs of on-foot exploration and shooting. Slice open a maintenance panel here, brawl with some enemy soldiers there. It's all guided by a pilot in the sky primed to pick you up. This is a decent start. One of my worries with the alpha was that the game wouldn't teach you basics and be too reluctant to hold your hand (common practice for Elite). But this feels like a good intro, even if lacklustre gunplay is noticeable right from the start.
Afterwards, it's all you, training wheels off. I used this time to go on a quick tour of some planets. And what better place to start than the Sol system? Any planet with a "landfall" icon can be landed on and blessed with your bootheels. I visited the wild extremes of Mercury, where your suit will warn you of extreme heat on one side and extreme cold on the other. I bopped over to Europa, where I landed at a tourist hotel. These are some of the cooler-looking outposts, plastered in advertising, if hauntingly short on visitors.
Then things took a turn for the shooty. I wanted to check out a cosy hotel cabin but the door needed "level 3" clearance. So I decided to commit some cheeky identity theft. See, you can use a scanner gadget on people to clone their authorisation pass, which would get me through this forbidden door. On missions, this is useful for entering power buildings or storage warehouses, where you can collect whatever item you've been hired to procure, or kill whatever scumbag you've been hired to blast.
Unfortunately, I was caught red-handed with my illegal fraud gun out. A guard started shooting at me. I legged it for the ship, relishing in the mischief. What an emergent misadventure! I clambered aboard my Diamondback (a nice mid-level explorer's vessel) and then discovered one of Odyssey's important quirks. The same peashooter rifles which can only kill a human after dozens of shots can explode a ship in seconds. I was dust before I even had the chance to undock.
This is a problem with Odyssey and a wider problem with Elite. Cool, immersive simmy moments spiked with confusing design. Aside from that starter tutorial, there's still a strong disregard for the player, which is in turns frustrating and refreshing.
Some hidden facts are fun to learn. For example, every space station gun shop has a shortage of "e-breach" hacker tools (that's a handy gizmo for unlocking doors). But then you realise they only sell these dodgy devices in Anarchy systems. That's cool. That's a nugget of unspoken knowledge in Elite's universe that makes sense when you think about it, and it gives you a reason to set course for a legally choppy system every once in a while, since this tool is so useful for ground-based missions.
But at least now I can say I discovered some slime.
But then there are other unspoken rules, like everything you need to do to perform xenobiology, one of the new on-foot activities. It took hours for me to figure out the steps needed to track down basic alien life. It involved an amount of scans beyond the scope of this or any article, but basically resulted in me gliding slowly over the surface of a reddish planet looking out for anything unusual in the dirt. Other pilots have found plants that look like brains, or weird exo-mushrooms. I found mould.
The activity itself is fairly dull. You have to hop out of your ship with a handheld scannotron and scan three of the same lifeform, the game says, to collect a sizeable genetic sample, which you can then sell to a science man in any space station. But some moulds I encountered were not "genetically" different enough, the game said, and I was not allowed to scan those. Bad moulds. Eventually, after slowly buzzing a 30km stretch of land I gathered enough biosamples from good moulds to satisfy the game's picky desires. I headed for a system with a genetics pawn shop and sold my sample, looking forward to being justly rewarded for my part in the honourable scientific mission of cataloguing extraterrestrial lifeforms. I got 78,000 credits.
To put this in perspective, I can often taxi a passenger between star systems for 1 million credits. I can ship a bunch of metal for 300,000. You make more as a space Deliveroo than as a space biotechnician, which earned me only enough to buy 3 shady e-breaches. That's embarrassing. But at least now I can say I discovered some slime.
It's a bad sign for one of the non-combat activities to be so dry and unrewarding, especially given Elite's repetitive nature, where you often do the same job over and over to earn bank. Repeated visits to shops make the lack of variety to space station environments particularly noticeable. I've only seen two types of space station "walkabout" interior so far, and though there are instances of bystanders chatting to each other, it's obvious this is the same room in every starport. Even the NPCs who grant missions stand in the exact same place in every spacebase. In an era of procedural generation and modular level design, it's jarring to fly 100 lightyears only to walk into a room identical to the one you left. Airports, the homogenous liminal zones of our own world, have a lot in common with Elite's space stations, but even they have some variety of layout.
The FPS missions were a little rough in the alpha, but after my failure as an exobiologist I decided to give war another chance. I hopped in a dropship and was auto-piloted to a combat zone. The AI seems to have marginally improved since the alpha, even if the bullet-dispensing still doesn't feel great (it was especially sluggardly when I tried to play with a controller). Then the fight I joined bugged out. No enemies were remaining but the mission didn't terminate. Friendly NPC teammates roamed around saying "I lost 'em!" and "Where'd they go?" A couple of fellow players ran around in equal frustration. I called a space taxi to come pick me up and the game said I needed to be 300 metres from the firezone. I ran off into the dark of the moon and called again, turning my shields off to preserve suit energy while I waited for my space Uber. As you can tell by now, this is a deeply broken game.
My experience is common enough that the DLC has been Steam-negged to oblivion, and the reasons are myriad. The outfitting menus (used to buy components for your ship) have improved in some places and become noticeably worse in others. The planet generation tech used to create terrain looks much worse for myself and many others. There is also the issue that players with the vanilla game or with Horizons (the previous expansion) can't play with those running the Odyssey version.
I am an Elite apologist, and have been since the earliest of accesses. When I praise the exploration and simminess I do so from the mindset of a guy who can put on a playlist of songs and indulge in the kind of spaceman play-pretend reserved for toddlers in cardboard boxes. And I would be an ingrate if I did not acknowledge the delivery of those spacelegs I have so often requested. But even I can only stomach so much bugginess and general wonk. Hopefully in the future Frontier will finish working on Odyssey's borked features. When that happens, I'm sure this will be the place to jump in for new players. But I can't make that recommendation now. Perhaps if you're desperate to step foot on a strange world (lord knows I have been) this fancy-yet-malfunctioning ferry might satisfy you. For everyone else, stick with the spaceship you've got.