Stick and Rudder: This is not an Elite: Dangerous review

One of these days I'll get back to writing Star Citizen-flavored words in this space. Right now, though, Elite: Dangerous is a thing that I've been playing, and please ya'll, put down your pitchforks.

It is possible -- and even healthy -- to like and support both of these titles. This is not space Capulets vs. space Montagues but rather the beginnings of a new sci-fi sandbox age. Elite's not quite where I would like it to be at this early hour, but it's still a fine piece of work that's salvaged a thoroughly regrettable MMO year.

I took some lumps last week for daring to suggest that Elite's sandbox mechanics aren't fully cooked. That opinion hasn't changed after a few more hours of gameplay, but it doesn't have to, really, since Frontier's franchise reboot is great fun despite subjective notions of sandboxiness and feature-completeness.

I'm enjoying the game in much the same way that I enjoy stealing bits of raw cookie dough from the mixing bowl on my kitchen counter. Sure, the finished white chocolate macadamia morsels will rock my tastebuds like nobody's business, but the dough is its own mini-orgasm that I'm quite happy to keep having while I wait for the oven to work its magic.

That's what Elite: Dangerous is, at least to me and at least right now: a bold yet bite-sized teaser for something grander and ultimately more filling. Currently I can blast through a 1:1 procedural recreation of the Milky Way, slewing around in supercruise and occasionally dropping into sublight to suss out a signal or stick a beam weapon up an interdictor's butt. Imagine how much fun it'll be to do all that with a group! Or what about stepping out of that orange-black cockpit and clomping around the interior of some smuggler outpost at the ass-end of space? Maybe I'll be able to hobknob with fellow players, buy an NPC a drink, and walk around the outside of my ship getting grease under my virtual fingernails while inspecting the crazy-detailed hull up close and personal.

For launch, the core flight and combat mechanics were deemed more important, and I can't disagree with that sentiment. Frontier should be commended here, too, as Elite strikes an almost perfect balance between sim-style accoutrements and arcade flying action. Everything's in the cockpit, so you won't be seeing your ship in third-person aside from a couple of odd angles in the space station fitting screens. The three-panel HUD -- along with its handful of sub-menus -- manages to give you everything you need to fly and fight minus the overwhelming hand-me-my-checklist feeling that accompanies a DCS World or Microsoft Flight Simulator session.

Elite: Dangerous does have its own version of the pre-flight checklist, though, and it's one of those tiny touches that puts a smile on my face every time I run through it. What's there to do once you've checked your controls and hit the big black? I'm opting to go the trader route at the moment. I bought my first Hauler recently, and most of my game sessions involve buying low via the local market interface, transporting goods to various star systems, and selling high when I get there. And of course, there's the occasional NPC courier mission and the very occasional combat interdiction thrown in for good measure.

I'm basically a space trucker, and there's something indefinably satisfying about this particular career. It probably doesn't sound exciting, which is precisely the point. It's exactly what I would be doing if it were in fact the year 3300 and I were in fact the proud owner of a freaking spaceship.

Most of my enjoyment comes from the familiar flight sim gameplay trappings paired with Frontier's meticulous attention to detail. Heat management is a core part of successfully flying every ship in the game, and it never gets old watching my cockpit windows frost over when I'm running silent and trying to smuggle a bit of illegal salvage into a Federation system. Similarly, docking in a rotating space station using Elite's 6DoF controls is way more fun than it sounds. Oh, and the deceleration experience as you exit supercruise with your nose pointed directly at the sun filling your viewscreen has to been seen (and heard) to be believed. These and other seemingly incidental systems take what could be a standard space shoot-'em-up and turn it into something I've inadvertently been playing for hours at a time.

If E:D is on your must-try list, you'll want to acquire a stick of some sort. Even a $30 Thrustmaster makes for a huge upgrade over your mouse, and that's also less than you'll spend on a PC-compatible console controller, which to my mind delivers an inferior experience in this particular game. If you've got a spare $150 lying around, TrackIR makes even a modest single-monitor setup into a you-are-there immersionfest. That's what I'm rolling with until Oculus gets its act together, at which point I may well disappear into Elite: Dangerous forever.

I do have one bone to pick with Frontier, as it's somewhat shocking to see an online multiplayer game release in 2014 with such a skimpy social component. Grouping and chatting was a design afterthought, and while it's true that many organized guilds will opt for external voice solutions, it really puts a damper on Elite's MMO pretensions when it's nigh impossible -- or at best, impractical -- to make friends via in-game chat.

Apart from that little bugaboo, I'm OK with calling Elite: Dangerous a bonafide crowdfunding success. It's not that I had anything to do with that success, either, since I didn't spend a dime on the game prior to purchasing the Merc edition at launch. But it gratifies me more than a little bit to see a polished, professional, and addictively playable title emerge from 2012's stick-it-to-the-man crowdsourcing zeitgeist.

Two years after Elite, Star Citizen, and several other titles briefly made Kickstarter cool, it's become fashionable for both blogerati and the commenteriat to look down their collective noses at crowdfunding. Every sandbox hopeful is a "scam" nowadays, or if not, it's full of "feature-creep" or otherwise too ambitious for your average armchair developer and therefore it's ripe for vague predictions of failure that roll easily off the tongue regardless of how little the eyes have seen of the product in question.

Elite: Dangerous has basically gone where no crowdfunded MMO has gone before, which is to release day and beyond. Yeah, release is scaled back from the ultimate vision that includes bipedal avatars, planetary environments, and more. But release is nonetheless a big deal, and early E:D is nothing if not a rock solid foundation for a space sim sandbox that I predict we'll be talking about for a decade, if not more.

Whether it's interviews with Chris Roberts or tips for pushing your Cobra's performance envelope, Stick and Rudder is your source for news and commentary on the world of MMO space sims. Join Jef Reahard every other Sunday to talk Elite, Star Citizen, and beyond.