Frontier Developments’ Elite: Dangerous – the rebirth of a legend

Format: PC Publisher: Frontier Developments Developer: In-house Release: 2014

We’re in trouble. A minute ago, our instruments were spewing out smoke, but that’s stopped now. This is because a hairline fracture in our canopy has just proved fatal to its integrity, sucking the shards of reinforced glass out into space along with our targeting reticle and air. Two of our enemies have been reduced to still-cooling shrapnel at least, but concentrating too long on the second meant we allowed the other three to adopt a delta formation and get a bead on us. They’re just out of range at the moment, but turning. Apart from the muffled music and our pilot’s strained breathing echoing in his helmet, the depressurised cabin is eerily quiet. Without our HUD, we can’t use our heat-seeking missiles, and we only have two minutes left to finish the mission before we asphyxiate. Beam laser it is, then. We centre the enemy wing where the sights used to be, accelerate and open fire. We’re not going down without a fight.

Even at this early stage, Elite: Dangerous is already living up to its subtitle. Your ship creaks and groans under stress, its engine and weapons sounding at once identifiably mechanical yet unfamiliar. And every encounter in this alpha build is a fraught one. Frontier has spent a long time polishing the feel of its combat, so already dogfights are far from the chore of attrition into which so many other videogame space duels descend. Instead, balletic manoeuvres are allied to brute-force weaponry and a metagame of ship power management. It feels just like you’ve always imagined a real space battle would, but combat is hardly Elite’s best-known aspect.

“Why didn’t we do trading first? Because [combat] is a big, big risk,” chief creative officer Jonny Watts explains. “We didn’t want to underestimate how difficult it would be to get the feel right but still have all this longevity in. We’re really pleased at the way the alpha backers have responded, [saying] that it feels right. That was down to iteration upon iteration upon iteration. That’s why we did [combat and flight] first, because it was a bigger risk than people might think. You can’t trivialise how something feels to play.”

Frontier’s certainly getting something right: the current build is enticing members of the team in early to play it before work. “The most important thing we’ve done, and the most difficult thing, is to make the moment-to-moment combat fun,” says CEO David Braben. “That’s a challenge I think I’m happy with. There are always things at the edges I want to change and improve, but I think we’ve got the bricks and mortar of the house in place. We now want to put in the windows and doors.”

The first time you see it in motion, Elite: Dangerous catches you off guard. It looks incredible. Its realtime lighting, for instance, sees the thrusters of ships ahead of you lighting up your cockpit.

That’s enough windows and doors for somewhere in the order of one hundred billion star systems. Many of those will have upwards of 100 celestial bodies in them, including planets, moons, space stations and even other stars in some systems. Elite: Dangerous is a game of staggering ambition: every visible star in the night sky will be present, their movements dictated by gravity. Beyond that, the remainder of our galaxy will be procedurally generated according to real scientific data, but the technology will be intermingled with artistry.

“Procedural generation magnifies what the artist is doing,” says Braben. “An artist can draw something and [our technology] can use that input to create more of the same thing. Equally, if you use a tool to create and lay out a planet, an artist can look at it and tune that until it looks just right. Get the lighting right, the colouring, and from those rules [we can] create any number of planets. The beauty with this is that it’ll automatically conform with the scientific rules, which I care about, but also the things that artists care about, too.

“We know what we can see with things like the Hubble Telescope, but we also know what can’t be seen. We can use the same statistics to make sure things are about right. There’s a very good chance that the [stars] that are procedurally generated are pretty close to the ones that are actually there.”

Procedurally generated systems will have a slightly different naming convention to our more local stars, so that you know which ones are real. But Braben envisages a universe of rich variety that rewards explorers, including the ability to label certain discoveries.

“Even when you know there’s a star there, you don’t know what’s in its system. Ultimately, there will be things for explorers to find, not just [the opportunity to] name systems. One hundred years ago, 200 years ago, people could go out adventuring and find things that other people hadn’t seen before – that’s been lost. I love that spirit, that once you’re out of the few tens of thousands, or hundreds of thousands, of systems that people will regularly frequent, generally you’ll be on your own. If you see another ship, that’s an exciting thing in itself – someone has managed to stock up and get this far out. You can probably meet up and say, ‘My so and so is broken. Do you have one of these?’ But they might just end up killing you [laughs].”

Space stations provide a place of refuge from the dangers of open vacuum, as well as points for pilots and traders to converge on. A planned post-release update will enable you to walk around and explore them too.

To get that far out will use up fuel, of course, which you’ll have to buy or mine along the way. Travelling locally won’t burn too much, but longer-range in-system travel, dubbed Super Cruise internally by the team, is more thirsty, accelerating your ship up to speeds comparable to that of light (Braben compares it to a realtime version of Elite: Frontier’s fast-forwarding or the J-bound space-skip in the original game).

The third tier of travel is hyperspace, which will see you materialise at your destination almost instantly, but is bookended by a long build-up and cooldown, and uses a great deal of fuel. The studio is still balancing its fuel ranges, but right now ships’ capabilities vary from between four to ten light years. In theory, you shouldn’t be able to run out of fuel even at the fringes of the galaxy, since a well-shielded ship can scoop hydrogen from the surfaces of gas giants and stars. If you find yourself stranded, however, there’s always the option of sending out a distress call.

That kind of scale will come later. In its current state, Elite: Dangerous is a more modest proposition, existing as a series of discrete combat encounters. The first mission we try is a simple, if morally questionable, chance to acclimatise to the controls. A mining company has employed our services to remove evidence of its less-than-legal waste disposal methods. Taking out floating canisters is hardly taxing, but even this task reveals the nuances of Frontier’s painstakingly iterated flight model. It also highlights the audio design. Easing the throttle forward brings about a deep, protesting rumble as the engines power up, the sound falling somewhere between a jet engine and the guttural roar of a TIE Fighter.

It bespeaks a utilitarian vision of space flight that leans more towards science than fiction. “We’ve been having a lot of discussions about what Elite is,” says Watts, “[and] about the difference between Elite and other science fiction. We really are trying to get that reality into it. Every form has a function: ships need to be aerodynamic if they’re going to go skim across the atmosphere, and all the hatches need to be the same size, so that when ships connect to each other, you know the passage will match up. Details like this give a sense of realism and believability, which we hope will result in more of an emotional connection to the game.”

Attacking large, turret-armed ships such as this head-on is suicide. Instead, getting behind them to where their defences are weakest is essential. Whether you can survive long enough to manoeuvre into position is another matter entirely.

Those details go as far as correctly scaled grab handles inside every cockpit, positioned to allow pilots to strap in when in zero- or low-G conditions. You’ll find the same handles on the outside of ships for maintenance space walks, a feature Braben tells us he intends to implement further down the line. Gravity is especially important to Braben, who dispensed with the notion of simulating artificially generated gravity from the off. “Even if you could do it technically, it would consume stupid amounts of power, and it’s so easy to just rotate things,” he explains. “I think that’s what people would do.”

And that eye for detail permeates the entire game. Our Cobra’s cockpit, for example, is bristling with tech. It could be overwhelming, but Dangerous has been designed around nested layers of complexity to provide a natural progression curve as you gain experience. New pilots need worry about little more than thrust, their direction of travel and, if they decide to stray out of safe space, the fire button.

The level of control is up to you, though, and that extends to the hardware you play with. While the studio initially tuned the game using a 360 controller, we played most of our session using Saitek’s X52 joystick-and-throttle setup. The controller works well – you’ll see plenty of Frontier’s own using it – but it’s clear that a flight stick is the most natural fit for Elite, the difference being akin to playing a racing game with a good-quality wheel instead of a pad. Add in surround sound and Oculus Rift, and it’s almost enough to make us forget that we’re sitting at a desk in Cambridge.

Once you get accustomed to the basic controls, you’ll want to start managing your ship’s power distribution across engines, systems and weapons. These are displayed in a triangular grouping on the right of your cockpit’s instruments, and clicking the relevant direction will incrementally divert resources to that area, reducing your ship’s capacity for powering the other two as a result. This is done using the nub positioned on the top of the X52 joystick, or the D-pad on a controller. If the enemy is pummelling your shields, diverting energy to systems to keep them going might just provide the extra few seconds you need to turn the tables or escape. Conversely, if you’re behind your quarry with nothing else to worry about, diverting power to weapons will stop your guns overheating as quickly, helping you maximise your advantage. Using hyperspace, meanwhile, requires you to divert power to the engines while it charges up, leaving you temporarily vulnerable.

With this fighter in your sights, it makes sense to divert power to your weapons so that you can sustain longer barrages before your guns overheat. Enemy shields and hull damage are displayed to the left of your cockpit.

“You can fly around and do things right from the get go,” Watts explains. “But if you’re in multiplayer and up against someone who’s your equal then just this one per cent, two per cent advantage should mean the difference between winning the bounty or not.”

Braben cites Call Of Duty as inspiration, where a tiny margin between different weapons can grant you the edge. He’s quick to stress that Dangerous is still being balanced in this respect, but the concept’s appeal – of achieving victory not just through skilful piloting, but also through cool-headed management of your ship’s systems in the heat of battle – is undeniable.

Power management is just the first layer of complexity, however. Using the mouse to look to the right of our Cobra’s cockpit reveals another screen, which can be used to define ‘fire groups’ – custom sets of equipment that can be switched between rapidly when needed. You might, for example, have a beam laser and homing missile loadout in one; diagnostic hardware, such as scanners, in a second; and a ready-made Gatling-gun-focused stealth group in another.

A Gatling gun might not be an obvious choice for going unnoticed, but temperature is key in this universe. Your heat signature dictates how visible you are to the instruments of other ships, so a mechanical weapon, which dissipates the majority of its heat via its projectiles, is a sensible choice for staying off the radar. A beam laser may be more powerful, but the tradeoff is that the weapon system heats up quickly.

Heat is a problem for your ship, too. A cockpit readout shows how hot you’re running, but you can take a couple of measures to reduce your thermal footprint. The quickest is using up a heat sink, which absorbs excess energy before being launched into space like a flare, possibly attracting the attention of tailing heat-seeking missiles in the process. The second option is to seal up the ship by closing its vents. Doing so will stop your ship expelling heat at the cost of it building up internally – get too hot and you risk damaging essential systems. Hyperspace travel requires closed vents, too, adding another range-limiting factor to consider on top of your fuel capacity.

This ominous-looking craft is the Anaconda. A more ponderous beast than the lithe Cobra, it’s still bristling with mounting points for deadly turret guns. It also boasts a roomy cargo bay.

Another mission we play – called Predator Or Prey – pits us against four multipurpose Sidewinders and one much more heavily armed Cobra fighter in an asteroid field. We need only take out the Sidewinders to win the scenario, so there’s little point in risking more than we have to. By keeping our vents closed, we can move in close to a target without alerting the marauding Cobra, periodically releasing one of the three heat sinks taking up space in our cargo bay in order to keep our ship at a workable temperature.

Master all these systems and there’s one level deeper to go: gutsy aces can switch off flight assist, providing even finer, if less stable, control. All ships come equipped with lateral thrusters, which are used in combination with flight assist to allow for subtle changes to velocity and are particularly useful for adjusting trajectories during docking. But their effects are far more profound without a computer keeping tabs on things, placing you firmly in the grasp of gravity and inertia. Early-access backers are already learning how to use thrusters to their advantage, performing advanced acrobatic manoeuvres such as flipping their ships to face chasing enemies without changing their flight path.

All of these options and systems are available from the start, a decision that’s indicative of Frontier’s intention to put the responsibility for improving your piloting skills firmly in your own hands. “Artificial progression, where you become a level-four pilot or whatever and can suddenly do more things, is bizarre to me,” Braben tells us. “It’s almost a reverse learning curve; the game gets easier the more you get into it! Elite has always been about learning to be a good pilot. But you do have the equivalent of those levels as you’re learning more about the game and buying ever-better kit for your ship.”

Your ship is as much a part of your character as the pilot you play, a point Braben wants to emphasise by building on the concept of ship manufacturers introduced in Frontier: Elite II. While that was mostly an exercise in nomenclature, Dangerous’s manufacturers will each have an origin, a history, geographical and political allegiances, and their own recognisable aesthetic. We’re given the example of the difference between Mercedes and JCB: the former name carries prestige, especially beyond the European mainland, while the latter is cheaper to repair and more sturdy, if not as pretty. “If you think of the number of different of roles that you’re doing in Elite, that sort of fits,” Braben says. “And you don’t want to crash into a JCB…”

A still from the first in-engine footage of Elite: Dangerous released by Frontier. In the clip, two capital ships face off as fleets defending each one attempt to turn the tide of the battle.

While you may not be levelling up a character, you will have a reputation to worry about. “It’s not a level as in something like Skyrim, where your abilities go up,” Braben explains, “but it opens more and more of the game up to you. If you were someone finding a pilot to do a job, you wouldn’t want a rookie to do it, you’d want someone with experience.”

In the original Elite, your Combat Rating was dictated by your ranking, but now your reputation will be monitored by the Pilot’s Federation, and it’s based on an array of behaviours. Contacting, trading and other progression routes that Frontier is yet to reveal will all feed into your ranking, while actions such as attacking innocent or unarmed players will be looked upon dimly, resulting in a bounty on your head. Elite is all about choice, of course, and you won’t have to focus on a single career path or behaviour. A trader might come across a pilot with a price on their head en route and decide to become an impromptu bounty hunter.

Elite’s multiplayer setup, however, exists somewhere between the Dark Souls multiverse and a full-on MMORPG. Dangerous’s universe will fracture into shards as you explore, matchmaking you with similarly skilled pilots and your friends. But while that means you won’t decelerate from hyperspace to find tens of thousands of ships swarming in a system, everybody’s activities will be aggregated to allow for a fluid economy.

“What if players cooperate and try to drive the price [of a commodity] down, flooding the market with massive amounts of a product? How would the game respond to that?” Braben asks. “Imagine loads of people flood the market with grain. People would stop buying it and the price would go down. Then people would start stocking up as it’s so cheap, but there will come a point where you can’t store it, or you start feeding it to animals or whatever. In the opposite direction, you can create a famine, where the price skyrockets and people start getting hungry. We’re looking at how that drives missions, where suddenly the demand is disproportionately high.”

These pin-badge insignia represent the three major political factions in Elite: the Federation, the Empire and the Independent Alliance.

While socio-economic tides will ebb and flow in well-frequented systems, the fringes of society may present greater opportunities for prospectors. You can mine in core systems but, thanks to Dangerous’s player aggregation, the rarest materials will likely be in short supply, if not entirely diminished. If you go to virgin space, you’ll have a higher chance of finding untapped veins, but you will also be straying from the auspices of the law and its protection.

“You want to be quite private about it,” Braben warns, “but you can come back with a big haul. And you might choose to tell your friends, ‘In this system, if you go to this place, it’s really high in certain minerals.’”

Tradeable information will play an important role in the game, even providing a source of income if you choose to charge for it. And the kind of valuable knowledge you can offer won’t just be limited to the location of mineral-rich asteroids. Perhaps an engineer in a relatively safe system can tune a particular weapon to make it two or three per cent more powerful, but you hear a rumour that someone else in a more dangerous area can achieve four or five per cent. Do you risk venturing farther afield or play it safe? “We can put those rumours in, too,” Watts says. “Yes, and some of them will be true!” Braben laughs.

Travelling to a new system with friends makes sense, then. Perhaps one pilot could fly an Anaconda – a large ship with weapon turrets and plenty of room for cargo, but limited manoeuvrability – while others guard them in combat-oriented Cobras. An agreement could be struck that the profits of the haul will be shared among the group. But once whatever cargo you find is secure, there’s nothing stopping anyone betraying their comrades for a larger cut. Escaping justice won’t be easy, however – ships travelling in Super Cruise or even hyperspace can be tracked and followed. You can even lasso players out of Super Cruise to challenge them. And while stealth is an option, it’s far from a sure-fire way to avoid punishment.

A close-up of the burly Lakon Type 6. Elite’s in-game craft replicate the well-used look of the concept art.

“We’re in a wonderful arms race of things that make you stealthy versus things that can detect you,” Braben says. “So if a pilot puts in better scanners, they have more of a chance of finding you, but you can put in better shielding…”

When it’s released later this year, Elite: Dangerous will be competing with a raft of other space-based games, but even 30 years after the original’s debut, the series is still pushing into uncharted possibility space. Dangerous is shaping up to be just as ambitious as its forebears, but crucially, Frontier’s initial focus on getting ships feeling right looks to have established an equilibrium between gameplay and scale. The result could well be the first Elite that matches its creator’s vision.

“What I’m hoping is that players will be able to recognise the night sky and know which star they want to go to,” Braben says. “But you can just fly to the stars – you don’t have to set a destination.”