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Elite Dangerous Impressions Part 1 - Learning To Fly

The journey, not the destination

Elite: Dangerous is out. Somehow that happened after all these years. Remarkable, really. As previously discussed, a full review/Wot I Think of the game we're not supposed to call Elite 4 will arrive next year. It won't be from me, as despite my fondest wishes otherwise I can't spend the Christmas break in a Cobra, but what I can do is whip out my big joystick and give you some initial impressions over the next few days. You can call it a review diary if you like, but I'm more sharing what I think as I go along, not intending that it reach some final judgement. If you'd care to join me, SUIT UP.

Context, in case it matters: I spent quite a bit of time fiddling about with the initial backer alphas (disclaimer thingy: I didn't back it but requested and was given media access), but it's been a while. I was enormously impressed by how well it 'did' space, but decided I didn't want to wear out that awe on something so early. So I left it alone for months, and have only now returned to my cockpit. Thus, much of what I might mention is scarcely going to be news to anybody who's played earlier builds. I'm still learning all the terminology too, so some of that may be incorrect in this piece.

I'm around five hours in, and I haven't fired a shot. Not in cold blood, not in hot blood, just not at all. As far as I'm concerned I'm still on a provisional pilot's license, and until I feel completely comfortable with how to fly, navigate, dock and trade, I'm not prepared to risk even an inch of my skin.

Fortunately, I don't have to. While Elite: Dangerous in all other respects rips away the training wheels before you've even started pedalling, it's completely set up to allow one to play at one's own pace. I could have gone out and started shooting up pirates or traders from minute one if I so desired, but instead I opted to keep my head down, explore a few local systems and earn a few pennies from courier missions and simple trading. Even that was just an excuse to travel.

Travel is what Elite, in all the builds I've played, does best. The core sensation of being in space is something I've written on before, and Elite does it so very well that it deserves any award going. 'Best Sound' especially - its combination of sciencey noises and Eno/Apollo-like celestial moans is comfortably the most affecting thing my headphones have done this year, if not longer. To focus solely on how good it feels to boost and pivot around an asteroid field, or the yawning immensity as you fly into the enormous metal cave of one of its stations, would be to overlook the pleasure of the long-haul voyage.

That's what I've primarily been doing so far. Travelling between stars. It takes a long time to get from A to B, even comparatively short hops, and while sometimes that's frustrating, it's also the most perfect recreation I've ever experienced of real travel. Here's how it works.

To jump to another system, you select it from your map - sometimes you can just see it there, because it's proximate enough to where you are already, but sometimes you have to manually type in its name to find it. This is fiddly, especially if you're playing on a flight stick and have to awkwardly reach across it to your keyboard, but already it feels like travel. Tapping the postcode into your GPS, or scouring the map for wherever Stow On The Wold is. You're not just clicking on a thing, you're actively making this happen yourself.

Next, you probably need to get clear of whatever station you'd been docked at. Docking I'll talk about another time, but what I mean here is that your Frame Shift Drive - Elite's hyperspace engine - won't work unless you're far enough away from a major body. So you boost away until the Mass Locked sign turns off, then align your view with roughly the direction your intended system is in. All this takes at least half a minute, but again, you're preparing for the trip, making stuff happen yourself rather than having the game do it for you. The anticipation builds. The sense that all this really exists, that you can't shortcut, that travelling through space at crazy speeds is not something you can treat lightly.

And then. And then. Oh boy. This is it. Hit the button.

(For me, it really is a button, or rather a chunky silver switch. I know it's a huge additional expense, but I really do believe that a flight stick is essential for this game, that the game is a shadow without it. Elite has me so completely because I feel like I'm there, and that requires more tactile tools than a keyboard and mouse, something that makes me feel as though there is a direct link between me and my ship).

A few seconds to charge up. Then a Timer. 5, 4, 3, 2, 1... Oh. My. God.

I mean, I'm sure this will become routine at some point. My twentieth hyperspace jump was as thrilling as the first, however. Everything dissolves, blurs, lurches, bends. It's what we see in the movies but it's happening to me. And when it ends, you're not dumped neatly at your destination - you're hurled out of whatever vortex you were in, straight in front of a burning star. Huge, almost painful to look at, filling the cockpit and... it's getting bigger and bigger and oh God brake/turn/brake/turn/brake/turn.

I flew too close to a sun once, too drawn in by its gigantic majesty, and in panic I dropped out of Frame Shift speed. Standard engines couldn't carry me away fast enough, and attempting to restart the supercruise drive when I was that close saw my ship's heat go through the roof, immediately damaging the craft and dropping me back out again. It took 40% hull damage from repeated failed attempts and many, many long minutes to edge just far enough away, and finding a destination which angled me further rather than closer to the star during the first few precious seconds of high speed, but I made it.

I really didn't think I would. I thought I'd be stuck there, orbiting a celestial body until I expired or gave up and aimed straight for it. I paid for my carelessness, but I also fought my way out of it. This is travel, not fast travel. This is a voyage through an uncaring universe. Can't take my hand off the till.

Even when I don't go Full Icarus, getting to a new system's star is only stage one of a long journey. Next, I need to find the particular station or planet I'm bound for, and at a reduced but nonetheless impossible speed manually steer myself towards it. There's usually a long wait, as the light years count down slowly, slowly. I can't see my destination yet, just a dot on my HUD with its approximate location.

As the distance drops to mere millions of kilometres, I need to slow down. If I don't slow down early enough, I'll shoot straight past it and end up perhaps billions of miles on the other side of it. Conversely, if I drop out of supercruise too early, I could end up spending twenty real-time minutes edging to my goal. This is exiting the motorway, switching from a high speed straight line into slow precision, and the major shift in state of mind that entails.

I'm still learning quite how it works, but when it does work, when I shift back to normal speeds and normal space at the right moment, I'm just a few kilometres from where I want to be, and I breathe a sigh of relief and accomplishment. The lonely hotel at the end of a long night's drive. The sense of an ending, the need to stand up and shake out the cramp, that dim awareness that I've survived something ostensibly routine but in which any number of things could have gone disastrously wrong. I'm here. It's not home, but it's here. I did it.

It's a journey every time. It exhausts me. I love that. Elite: Dangerous treats every little thing as a big thing. It's a huge time and effort investment, a world away from the ADHD instant gratification and anytime teleportation of this year's icon-strewn big action games.

Still ahead of me is docking. Again, I'll probably talk about that another time, because it really needs videos, but it's a point where I want to frown at rather than praise the game. Initially, I was playing in the MMO-like fully online mode, because I felt the dynmically shifting economy and factional conflict was the true experience. Now I'm playing solo (which, infamously, is not an offline mode, even though I am the only live mind in it), purely because of docking.

No shortcuts, remember? So you can't dock at a station if all the docking bays are already in use. Makes sense, adds life, builds anticipation if you have to wait a couple of minutes to get the all-clear to land. And you can't land without the station explicitly giving you permission to - no shortcuts, air traffic control. Trouble is, now the game has its mass release, it seems many players are taking up the same missions, and heading to the same destinations.

Many of the stations I've fetched up at have been like a supermarket car park at 5pm on Christmas eve. It's a mad bundle of ships hanging around, trying to dart into apparent spaces before someone else does, all of them grimly and repeatedly requesting docking permission just as I am, and the ones who have landed seem to stay there for an eternity. There's no queuing system - it's first come, first served, desperately hoping that your next docking request comes in a split-second before the other three people who are trying same. I had a mission expire on me - costing me $10k - because I spent forty full minutes doing this, in vain.

Docking request denied. Docking request denied. Docking request denied. Docking request deni...

So I switched to solo mode, where this problem doesn't exist. In time, it won't exist in multiplayer either - players will scatter further across the universe, and there'll be less pressure on starting area stations. I suspect I'll be able to go back into the fray in a few days myself, once I've ventured further out. Really though, the game badly needs to implement a queuing system - take a ticket, have an ETA, know that you're definitely going to get in.

Flying and docking: that's what I've done so far, simply getting my head around travel, and other than the queues for the car park, I've adored every moment of it. The look and sound of this game is, if you'll forgive quite so much melodrama, second to nothing else this year, and probably the next. Maybe my feelings will change once I get into the combat side of things, and into long-term investment in better ships and factional alliances. I'll let you know about that in a couple of days.

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