Last week's Choose My Adventure poll set me on the path of the smuggler, challenging me to secure illegal goods and to sneak those goods by the feds to net a healthy profit.
Results were mixed.
B double-E double-R U-N
The first challenge of smuggling in Elite: Dangerous is actually finding something to smuggle. While many stations offer a black market contact through which to sell illegal goods, I couldn't seem to find any stations, even in "anarchy" space, that had those goods in stock. I didn't get a chance to visit every station in the current Elite beta, so it's possible there's a floating pile of metal out there that's stocked to the ceiling with drugs and booze -- I just never found it. The galaxy map shows common smuggling routes but isn't much help in locating contraband itself.
Luckily, smugglers in Elite are always getting themselves blown up. And when they do, their now-jettisoned cargo shows up on the scanner, assuming its close enough to cause a signature. Thanks to a little bit of space wandering and a whole lot of luck, I was able to find some stolen and illegal goods to shove in my cargo hold. In one case, I scooped up a full shipment of floating narcotics right under the noses of a bunch of federal ships. I couldn't help but flash them the bird as I boosted off into hyperspace (note: all Elite smugglers should listen to Johnny Cash while committing criminal acts).
The trick to smuggling in Elite is avoiding scanners. Federal ships patrol the space surrounding most civilized space stations and will attempt to scan any ship that approaches for docking. It's also possible to be interdicted by a random federal patrol while moving in supercruise, though fortunately this never happened to me while I was engaged in illicit activities. Interestingly, some goods are perfectly legal in one system but illegal in another. Elite has as many Colorados as it does Oklahomas. The onus is on the pilot to track what is legal where and to use that information to make sweet, sweet smuggling cash.
Some of you may have seen this cool video of a smuggler powering down all of his systems to reduce his ship's heat signature and sneak by federal patrols, but the truth of smuggling is actually much simpler: smash the throttle, get docking permission while hurtling toward the tiny docking port, and pray you can shriek into the bay before being noticed. Federal ships have a big weakness at the moment in that they seem mostly unable to lock on and scan something they weren't already tracking; if you're approaching the station at full speed, you'll probably make it by without issue. Assuming, of course, you don't smash into the side of the station by accident.
Stream viewers have informed me that some stations have docking speed limits, which means this method might not work for all smugglers in all situations. Still, it was an exciting experience that gave me the feeling of doing something illegal and getting away with it. The tension of avoiding scans gives smuggling an emotional charge that can inspire you to fly your best or make stupid mistakes. I'm excited to see how it evolves in future beta builds.
Final thoughts on the final frontier
Elite: Dangerous is currently in what Frontier calls Beta 1. On September 30th, it will be entering Beta 2. At the moment, there's not much in the game for folks who aren't really into flying spaceships. The entire Elite experience in Beta 1 can be summed up as, "Undock, fly here, do something, dock." If you don't find the docking, undocking, and flying interesting in and of itself, you're not going to have much to do in Elite. However, the content that is currently available is well-executed and relatively polished. Frontier seems to have focused on getting the flight mechanics right before anything else, and you can feel that focus even in this early beta build.
Beta 1 is pretty shallow. Missions are plain text and basic, stations are almost all identical -- actually, variety is somewhat lacking across the board. You're not going to find a driving narrative in the current build of Elite that inspires you to keep going. Instead, you have to discover your own fun. For me, the simple pleasures of messing with a spaceship's switches, investigating different star systems, and trying to master flight controls were more than enough to make the experience worthwhile. Elite doesn't offer a whole lot to do, but what it does offer is backed by solid mechanics and design. I suspect a lot of ardent Elite supporters are firm believers in the game Frontier promises Elite will become; I definitely see potential in what has been delivered so far. It's poised to be something special for folks who love space sims.
Unfortunately, the one thing I can't do is recommend you check out Elite: Dangerous for yourself. With a staggering $75 price tag on beta access (yes, yes, it includes the launch game, but seriously?), Elite stands in direct opposition to my belief that no one should ever pay for a game before it is finished. As I've noted before, developers should consider it a privilege to have fans test games before release rather than forcing fans to pay money to provide free QA services. Founders packs and pre-purchases and paid betas reduce accountability and have an overall negative impact on the gaming community and the quality of our games.
It's a shame because I really do like Elite. If the beta were free, I would happily recommend it. I would sing its praises on Twitter and tell all of my friends to sign up and fly internet spaceships with me. As it stands, all I can recommend is that you check it out on Twitch/YouTube and wait for release to make a decision. Elite will be priced at around $60 when it hits digital shelves.
That's all the Elite: Dangerous we have time for this month; tune in next week when I'll be revealing our next Choose My Adventure target! Hint: Last week's poll means it will be a newish, non-sci-fi MMO.
Mike Foster is putting you in the driving seat of Choose My Adventure, the Massively column in which you make the rules, call the shots, and take the blame when things go horribly awry. Stop by every Wednesday to help Mike as he explores the ins and outs of games big and small and to see what happens when one man tries to take on a world of online games armed only with a solar keyboard and the power of spellcheck.