Would cinephiles pay good money just to watch a train arriving at a station if the experience were available in IMAX? The original Elite may not lay a claim, however dubious, to inaugurating a medium like the Lumière brothers’ legendary Arrival of a Train at La Ciotat, but is no less influential on its own, having introduced gaming’s first truly open world and accelerated the shift from the shorter, arcade-inspired titles that dominated the home market in the early ’80s to the more layered, story-driven extravaganzas flooding it today. So, when the series’s latest iteration sticks with the barebones gameplay of the 1984 classic and rests primarily on its upgraded presentation to attract modern audiences, it seems to be asking a similar question.
On a technical level, Elite: Dangerous nearly pulls off the impossible task of dazzling on par with its predecessor. The view outside the starting Sidewinder’s windshield is stunning, the first impetus to wander through a vast galaxy of 400 billion star systems stemming from the desire to visually sample it. The exceptional audio design further enhances the sense of being there, from the whirring of the engines, to the metal-on-metal clang of weapons being deployed, to the horrible cracking sounds of the front screen about to burst at the tail-end of a losing dogfight.
Most importantly for a simulation, the handling feels real. The sense of weight accompanying the player’s slightest maneuver lends a layer of physicality to the steering. It also helps generate a sense of achievement rarely matched in gaming when it dawns on the player that he or she has advanced from unwitting landing-dock menace to true pilot in the game, someone who can smoothly park in two moves while absorbed in the calculation of profits from the sale of Imperial slaves and water purifiers.
This presentational gloss provides an indispensable early hook that almost compensates for the outrageous entry requirements. It’s not only impossible to skip the tutorials to have any hope of a successful first launch; one also needs to watch the instructional videos before attempting even those. Worse, by the time players finish with both they still won’t know what half of the blinky panels in the cockpit do, and those that do seem vaguely familiar you’ll be unable to recall the correct three-button combination to operate. Persist and new puzzles emerge. Traveling in supercruise will be all but indecipherable to novices as minor miscalculations cause them to miss their target by millions of miles before U-turning for another attempt that produces exactly the same result, only this time in the opposite direction.
Combat can be extremely disheartening as well. Tense dogfights can deadlock into frustrating 10-minute affairs with adversaries chipping away at each other’s shields, scoring mere scratches on the hull of the spaceship before they’re recharged. In nearly every aspect, Elite: Dangerous is a profoundly unfriendly experience for beginners. One cannot dip into it; either decide to take the plunge or find something else to play.
Survivors of those early, grueling hours of orientation will find that the vast expanses of empty space offer a rather limited range of activities. There’s the profitable trading option, hauling goods bought, mined, or salvaged to whichever godforsaken base pays the highest. More belligerent players can focus on combat, either staying on the side of the law as bounty hunters or going rogue and attacking freight ships to relieve them of their cargo.
Finally, one can make ends meet, if barely, by mapping out unidentified star systems and selling the data to distant stations. It’s the least cost-effective career path, but probably the truest to the game’s core premise: of solitary explorations and silent discoveries and etching one’s name on hitherto unseen corners of the galaxy for all future passing players to see. CQC, an online death-match arena that was introduced alongside the console release offers a fourth possibility and respective ranking ladder to climb. But it’s a self-contained mode, independent of the main game and best used as a break from the latter’s glacial pace.
Whether these endeavors start feeling repetitive depends on the kind of player undertaking them. Procedural generation, of quests, characters, star systems, has clear limitations, but Elite: Dangerous strives to make a virtue out of them, obsessing over minutiae such as proper landing etiquette and fluctuations in the price of palladium to provide a consistent framework for action while letting players’ imaginations do the narrative dirty work. In this sense, it’s probably closer to Football Manager than Wing Commander—a game that asks of the player to not just suspend disbelief, but to actively map their own stories onto a collection of randomly generated stats and numbers.
This is why neither the rare moments of grandeur, like dancing next to solar flares against an overzealous pirate that attacked you a bit too close to the sun, or investigating a signal in an uninhabited system to discover a funeral procession, nor the inevitable issues like the occasional bug and the ever-annoying idiosyncrasies of the always-online requirement, really matter. Such considerations only come into play after you’ve already decided whether Elite: Dangerous is a wasted opportunity or the only game you’ll ever need.
It’s also why planned expansions like the upcoming Horizons, whatever they may add to the admittedly frugal range of possibilities, will probably not change one’s opinion either way. In the vastness of the game’s near-infinite universe, it will always be up to the player whether to focus on the isolated sites of meaning, endowing them with some sort of narrative and a sense of accomplishment, or lose one’s aim somewhere in the void between them.