Hands-on with the Elite: Dangerous alpha

Elite: Dangerous alpha test

I don't have much history with Elite. I played the original, circa 1985 on my dad's green monochrome Apple II, but frankly I didn't understand a bit of it and subsequently went back to Sundog and subLOGIC's fledgling wireframe Flight Simulator as a result.

By the time Elite II and Frontier: First Encounters shipped in the early to mid 1990s, I was already losing copious amounts of my adolescence to Wing Commander, Privateer, and X-Wing, all of them of course indebted to the space trading flight sim thing that David Braben and Ian Bell published a decade earlier. For all intents and purposes, then, I'm an Elite virgin despite a lifetime of playing nearly everything in the genre it inspired.

And if the Elite: Dangerous alpha client is an accurate barometer, gosh have I missed out.

Elite: Dangerous alpha mission select

The bad

Let's get the bad out of the way first, shall we? The build I played was a single-player affair. It's just me, my spaceship, and nine combat missions. But that's really the extent of my complaining.

Yeah, I'd like to see more, and I'm sure you would too. This is purportedly a sprawling, procedurally generated space sim, after all, one in which we'll be flying, fighting, trading, exploring, and who knows what else at some future post-launch point. Impatience aside, what I am seeing right now is thrilling, high-quality stuff that makes me think crowdfunding a triple-A developer isn't quite as crazy as it sounds.

Elite Dangerous sidewinder

The alpha environment

Elite's alpha setup features a virtual cockpit -- specifically, the cockpit of one Faulcon deLacey Sidewinder Classic Navy Edition -- an asteroid field, and an escalating series of baddies begging for the business end of your blaster cannons.

Let's talk about that field for a moment. It's hard for me to imagine any pilot with a surname other than Solo willingly entering an asteroid field, especially at speed and especially in pursuit of another craft. It's situational awareness overload, see, and these are gigantic free-floating rocks with your death written all over them. But this is of course a cinematic exercise in space combat, so common sense is secondary to zomg-that-was-close and wow-look-at-the-detail-on-these-thi.... crash.

Elite Dangerous virtual cockpit right

The visuals

Elite: Dangerous is gorgeous, even in this early alpha state. Frontier has helpfully done away with typical MMO industry NDA obfuscation, and as a result you're free to watch some alpha videos if my screenshots aren't doing it for you.

Suffice it to say that it looks and feels as if you're controlling some far-future death machine, from the slickly functional UI with its virtual multitouch elements to the traditional space combat sim radar and energy management niceties. Frontier has even included your pilot's arms, legs, and a working dash-mounted bobblehead doll, too.

The ships themselves can be hard to see simply because they're moving so damn fast. You can't watch your own, naturally, since this is more of a sim than an arcade shooter and you're in the cockpit as opposed to a third-person view. Even so, Elite: Dangerous is shaping up to be one of those games that's going to be fun to play and fun to watch. I'm certainly enjoying the Fraps footage I captured, and picking out little details that I missed in the midst of a firefight is strangely rewarding.

Elite Dangerous cockpit left

Gameplay and controls

Firefights are of course the entirety of my gameplay experience thus far, so it's a good thing that they're incredibly well done. It's both a testament to Frontier's designers and a sad commentary on the state of multiplayer space sims that 2004's Jump to Lightspeed was the last one that gobbled up significant portions of my free time. It's highly encouraging, then, that I played and replayed ED's alpha missions over and over again last week.

I'm between joysticks at the moment, so I put my PC 360 controller to good use for this dry run. The standard mappings were mostly intuitive, though I did have some trouble figuring out how to scroll though all the options on those spiffy-looking side panels. Fortunately it was nothing that a bit of keyboard keybinding couldn't fix.

Elite Dangerous bobblehead

If you've played a space sim before, then Elite's alpha controls are old hat. Shunting capacitor power between your weapons, your engines, and your other systems is a fun little minigame that never gets old, particularly since you have to do it while controlling your craft and tracking enemies.

Your Sidewinder isn't exactly a dog, but it doesn't seem all that maneuverable, either, so while the controls felt tight and fairly responsive, I wasn't able to throttle back and turn inside of enemy ships for easy kills.

That's a compliment, for what it's worth.

The Crimson Triumph bloke on the third mission was somewhat challenging, and I'm not sure whether it's because Frontier's AI is that good or I'm just out of practice. Probably a bit of both, but either way it was satisfying to engage in a lengthy battle that felt more like a chess match than a typical turn fight.


One other aspect of my alpha experience that bears mentioning is the performance. Sure it was a single-player affair, but I expected plenty of rough edges and found none. I ran ED on a 30-inch monitor driven by a pair of ancient GTX 460s and powered by an equally ancient Core i5 with eight gigs of memory in tow. It was a decent system three years ago, but it's barely adequate these days. No matter, though, because I never dropped under 30 frames-per-second, even with Fraps humming away in the background.

Elite Dangerous power usage

The future

I've been guilty of overlooking Elite: Dangerous in favor of a certain other crowdfunded space sim. Given the high level of competence on display in Elite's alpha, though, and given the fact that I've been spacesim-starved for a decade, I'm happy to report that ED has vaulted very near the top of my watch list, both personal and professional.

I'm hesitant to heap too much praise on an alpha product, but at present Elite: Dangerous looks to be a fantastic return to form for the genre and a feather in the crowdfunding movement's cap.

Massively's not big on scored reviews -- what use are those to ever-changing MMOs? That's why we bring you first impressions, previews, hands-on experiences, and even follow-up impressions for nearly every game we stumble across. First impressions count for a lot, but games evolve, so why shouldn't our opinions?