Living and dying in the Elite: Dangerous gamma build

Elite: Dangerous

When we last looked at Elite: Dangerous during August's Choose My Adventure, the game was in a barebones beta format with just a few of its promised eventual features. Frontier Developments' crowdfunded space-sim certainly brought a lot to the table with its pretty graphics, realistic flight physics, and down-to-the-details sim structure, but anyone not interested in running courier missions or blowing up other ships was probably left wanting.

Now, however, Elite is a different beast. Just two weeks from final official launch, Elite is in what Frontier Developments is calling the "gamma" stage. It's as close to the finished version of the game anyone is going to get until launch on December 16th. So naturally, I took another dive in Elite to see what exactly has changed.

New stars, new buttons

As anyone who watched this week's Elite stream can attest, Frontier made some changes to the UI and control scheme since our last foray into the game. I faced a few hiccups trying to figure out how to exit super cruise (the old button is bound to hyperspace jumps now), navigate the tiered menus, and find destinations on the system map and galaxy map. The changes are all for the better, making the menus more efficient and giving you an increased ability to do the things you want to do. Common tasks like refueling and repairing used to be buried under a set of sub-menus; now they're right there on the front page of the station screen.

Elite's universe has expanded dramatically since beta. In this gamma version of the game, all 400 billion systems of Elite's Milky Way galaxy are available for exploration. All you have to do is set your destination and fire yourself into the deep. Initial excursions are limited by the starting ship's small fuel tank, but better ships and gear lead to more exotic locations and new dangers. You can even stop by the Sol system and say hello to Earth, assuming you have the Sol system pass and feel like wasting your time in space visiting the one system you've already visited. I ran into quite a few other players exploring the areas surrounding my starting system, but I am curious to see if the game feels empty once you venture further into the black.

Perhaps most importantly from a structural standpoint, Elite's ranking system is now fully implemented. Every pilot in the Elite universe has a rank based on his or her activities, with the rank of "Elite" being bestowed on those who show the most aptitude and dedication. Fans of space exploration or auction house arbitrage will be happy to hear that rankings are not exclusively reserved for combat pilots. At the moment, my pilot's rankings are as follows: Combat Rank - Harmless, Trade Rank - Penniless, Explorer Rank - Aimless. Truly the heavens quake with fear when my pilot's name is spoken.

Doing things. Space things.

I would wager that the most common critique of Elite's beta was that there wasn't much to do. The game felt like a demo or a preview; if the space sim part didn't grab you immediately, it was unlikely the available content would change your mind. The gamma version provides many more options for players of all stripes. Mission variety has been widely expanded. There's a new set of combat training scenarios to help you learn the ropes. Interdictions have been modified to be more dynamic and interesting with the potential for preemptive escape through crafty piloting (they also feel more common). Mining is a thing you can do now, and it's much more active and dangerous than mining in a certain other space MMO. And yes, there's finally more than one type of space station to visit. We all love those giant floating dock boxes, but no one's sad to see their numbers reduced. I'm a big fan of the stations with exposed docks, especially.

For me, the biggest change overall is the implementation of exploration as a career. Exploration in Elite is very simple on the surface; you find a system on the galaxy map that seems interesting, hyperspace-jump your way to it, and start scanning everything you can find. The exploration data you gather while scanning undiscovered celestial bodies and anomalies can then be sold through the Universal Cartographics marketplace. There's no need to fit a ship specifically for exploration (at first, anyway), and the whole thing is easy enough that you can start doing it on your first day in Elite. It even pays pretty well.

Exploration has its dangers. Interdictions are a constant threat. If you remove your guns to increase your jump range, you have to be fast on the hyperspace button if you want to stay alive in uncharted systems. And then there's the other famous complication of space travel: death by stupidity. Here's a completely hypothetical example: Consider what might happen if you overzealously jumped to an unexplored system without first checking your fuel reserves. You might end up out of fuel and have to self-destruct to respawn back at civilization, losing your exploration data and ship in the process. And man, that would be dumb. Ahem.

I can't speak much on combat in Elite just yet. The training simulations are more than challenging enough for me, and I'm fairly certain an encounter with a hardore human pilot would end in my demise. Combat pilots will find a wide selection of ships with plenty of outfitting options, and I'm sure there's an entire meta built around designing the optimal combat ship, but that stuff just isn't my cup of space tea. YouTube is a good source on this; there are lots of pirates and mercs out there documenting their brazen heroics/scoundreling.

In the end, Elite: Dangerous today is the same game we played in August but better and more interesting. The gamma version finally brings Frontier's full vision into focus, and the result is a challenging, complex title that's sure to keep spacefaring gamers busy for the forseeable future. With so much more to do and so much more variety on display, Elite is growing into exactly the game I hoped it would.

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