Elite Dangerous: Horizons

Well, Christmas is as far away again as ever, and as we march inexorably towards 2016, I wanted to share my thoughts on some games that have been occupying my time over the festive period, starting with the spiritual successor to Frontier: Elite 2Elite Dangerous: Horizons.

I’m picking on Horizons specifically, as the update came out mid-December, and starts a new season of updates and content for the game, kicking off with the big one of planetary landings, but there’ll be more on that later.

Elite: Dangerous is the crowd-funded spiritual successor to Frontier: Elite 2, though it plays much more like the game the original title was. In some respects, I think this is the game that Elite 2 would have been if it had been released today. All the components of the original are in place, from trading and bounty hunting to mining and running missions for the galaxy’s great powers: you can do pretty much anything you set your mind to in this game, and that is both its blessing and its curse.

For those of us possessed of enough imagination to visualise ourselves out in the cockpits of our ships, concerned about being scanned by Imperial Security on approach to a station because of all the illegal goods we’re ferrying, or wondering just what is beyond the next hyperspace jump, the game is simply one of the most immersive and engaging experiences I have had. Hours and lightyears will just drift by as you navigate the galaxy trying to turn every situation you’re in to your own ends.

If you’re not prepared to make your own entertainment, or just want a game you can dip into and out of quickly, this probably isn’t the title you’re looking for. Hard work pays off in Elite, and hard work takes time.

That said, and despite the fact that the game features a galaxy modelled in real terms (size and distance!) after our own Milky Way, its not a lonely experience if you don’t want it to be. A patch early on in the first season of the game introduced Wings, a system which allows you to link up (group, if you will) with up to three other players to take on missions and challenges that are too tough to face alone. The great thing about this mechanic is that while it does allow you to arrive in overwhelming force at hazardous locations and simply kick a lot of arse, you can also use it for more peaceful ends: fighters guarding a massive trade ship will received dividends based on the profit of the sale, and bounties can be obtained as well as trade dividends for guarding ships that are mining an asteroid field. It really is a game you can play your own way.

To complement that message, the simple Elite pilot ranking is also gone. In its place are ranks for each of the three main “disciplines”: combat, trade and exploration. Frontier even ran a competition for the first person to become “triple Elite” and I believe the lucky person netted a £10,000 prize!

That leads me neatly on to something else I like about this game: the community. The galaxy is a thriving place, and Frontier have truly excellent community engagement. Community goals (more in a bit) crop up all the time and allow players to directly influence the fates of major powers and events in the galaxy. To reinforce the power system, they introduced a system called Power Play, in which small factions and great powers vie for control of systems, stations, planets and outposts. You, as a player can join a major power and attempt to tip the balance in favour of your patron, or try undermining opposing powers. Anyone who wants to remain neutral can, and is free to profit from the strife caused by all the changes in power structures. Smaller factions can (through player actions) spread their influence out across systems they are present in, and then out to other nearby systems as well. Several examples of community factions becoming in-game factions exist as well (the Hutton Orbital Truckers, The Code and The Guardians of the Core) reinforcing Frontier’s desire to engage the community in the game. Indeed, a popular community run podcast exits (Lave Radio) which discusses the game’s hot topics and developments and various community projects around the game (both in game and in real life).

A lot of these groups have their own aims and objectives and are fun to deal with, even if you’re not part of them: the truckers, for example, aim to take over Alpha Centauri and spread their trade influence across nearby systems. The Code are a group of honourable pirates who won’t kill unless they have no choice and The Guardians see it as their sacred duty to protect Sagittarius A* – the super-massive black hole at the centre of the galaxy.

The game neatly balances the risk and reward across the main three disciplines also. If you’re a bounty hunter, the rewards are immediate, however you may find yourself dealing with more than you can handle if you pick a fight with the wrong ship… Mining is (or can be!) slow paced and peaceful, however despite the lack of immediate activity, the rewards can be quite high if you know where to find the best stuff: some goods (platinum and painite, for example) can only be found through mining and they are amongst the most expensive commodities in the game. Trading relies on your guile and memory: finding what you can buy cheap and sell high. Rewards can be slow to arrive until you can afford the larger ships, but the more you do a run the more of a target you’ll become to pirates who just want to loot your cold, frozen wreckage… Exploration is another slow-paced activity: set your course as far off the beaten track as you can and just see what’s out there! The more you discover and the more data you bring back, the more you’ll be paid.

I mentioned community goals earlier: these are set up by Frontier in game and rely on pilots joining the goal and completing objectives. For example, recently the Explorers Association wanted pilots to deliver metals to Neville Horizons to aid the construction of a new starport:

Screenshot_0173

Other goals have recently been done for the Hutton Mug, to defend traders bringing metals to Neville Horizons from pirates and to deliver exploration data to Lave Station. The rewards you get for completing them depend on which tier is reached by the time the goal finishes and where you personally rank in relation to all those who contributed: with the right ship and a little bit of research, it can be easy to get in the top tiers and ensure a nice chunky reward!

Something else I mentioned earlier was planetary landings. When Dangerous first launched, you couldn’t land on planets at all – if you got too close your ship’s drive would perform a safety cut-out and drop you back into normal space. Now we have Horizons you can land on any planet without an atmosphere: atmospheric landings are coming “soon”. You don’t have to land at a recognised space port, even if there is one: you’re free to drop your ship anywhere you please on the planet’s surface. If you have a surface reconnaissance vehicle (SRV) you can take it out of your ship and go roaming around the surface if you so desire, and there are plenty of goodies on the surface of planets to tempt you. Some goods for crafting are only available in surface locations, and there are plenty of crashed ships and unauthorised settlements that can lead to interesting encounters…

Landing on planets is a tricky business and requires the planetary approach suite for your ship. Once installed, you can simply fly towards your target world until you enter orbital flight, then its a matter of finding a location to touch down – something which is much easier in a smaller ship than a massive one. Unlike flight in space, gravity has an effect when you’re near a planet: if your ship is too massive and your thrusters are too weak, escaping from the clutches of a planet’s gravity can be hard, and I’ve heard that some pilots have had to destroy their craft as the configuration of modules on their vessel would not allow them to escape at all! As with everything else, its a dangerous galaxy and you should take care!

The crafting of items is something that Frontier are keen to introduce in the coming season. The rudiments of the crafting system are already present following Horizons and although at present you can’t do too much with the system its clear that big things are planned. Presently you can manufacture different types of munitions for your weapons: standard, improved and advanced. Each successive tier of ammo will increase the damage that weapon does when it strikes a target. Frameshift boosts are also available and will (for one jump only) massively increase the distance your ship can travel through hyperspace. The only thing that lets the crafting system down at the moment is that there is no player economy to allow trade of crafted items: personally, I don’t have the patience to go and find all the things I’d need to make an FSD boost, for example, but I’d happily pay someone else to do it for me. The lack of ability for that person to give me an FSD boost and for me to send them credits for doing so is somewhat of a handicap.

There are other things I’d like to see in the game at some point too: I’ve touched on a few of them here, but the ability to sort your list of contacts by time remaining or distance from you would be nice, as would the option to hire NPC wingmen to help when you’re mining or cruising for a fight at a compromised nav beacon. Most of the improvements I’d like to see are small and the game can hardly be considered broken or incomplete because they’re not included: the ones I mention here are the biggies and I feel that the game would be a much better experience if these were included.

The Bottom Line: I’ve heard Horizons referred to as “Euro Truck Simulator in space” and while it can be, if one does nothing but trade, there’s plenty of other things out there to see and do. The procedurally generated galaxy means that even Frontier staff don’t know what’s in a lot of the systems, and when the game tells you that you are the first person to discover something, it really means it, and that can give you quite a buzz. The flight mechanics, both for faster-than-light and sub-light are solid and the ships feel as they should: massive Anacondas and Corvettes are ponderous to turn but have devastating firepower and shielding, Eagles and Vipers can turn on a space-sixpence but you need to take care with their fragile hulls or more powerful ships will burn you up. With everything that’s here and everything that’s coming (Frontier have said there is a 10-year development plan for this game) there’s going to be plenty to keep you occupied should you chose to jump in. The game can be hard in the initial stages, it doesn’t hand-hold and is very unforgiving if you do something stupid, which can put new players off: a friend of mine was an ace at EVE Online, and thought the same would be true with Elite… He was magnificently wrong… That said, if you can persevere with it enough to find your space legs, Elite is the kind of fulfilling space experience I haven’t had in a very long time, and its well worth the time you’ll find yourself investing in it. 90%

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2 Responses to Elite Dangerous: Horizons

  1. Really interesting article, also perhaps the best comment I’ve ever seen on describing Elite:
    “If you’re not prepared to make your own entertainment, or just want a game you can dip into and out of quickly, this probably isn’t the title you’re looking for. Hard work pays off in Elite, and hard work takes time.” 🙂

    Cmdr Fenris Wolf

    • Thanks! Glad you like the article, its good to get feedback on the things that I write! Given the developments that are heading our way with Elite, I doubt this will be the last thing I write on the subject. I was trying to avoid too much speculation, but personally I can’t wait for the UA mystery to be resolved and Thargoids to make an appearance…

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