For all the glitz and glamour in the main halls at this year’s E4 Expo, the game that I was most looking forward to playing was tucked away in one of the LA Convention Center’s upstairs meeting rooms.
The game was Elite: Dangerous, a reboot of one of history’s most important games.
These days UK developer Frontier Developments are better known for the likes of Kinectimals and Zoo Tycoon, but back in the day the studio’s founder, David Braben helped define a gaming genre.
With Ian Bell, Braben created Elite – the world’s first space combat and trading game.
Without Elite there would be no Freelancer, no X series and no Eve Online.
Elite was the first game that I played to truly immerse me in its virtual universe. Primitive by today’s standards, the game’s rudimentary black and white vector-style graphics put me in charge of a small spacecraft with a whole galaxy of star systems to explore.
I could become a pirate, a trader or a mercenary. I could go where I wanted and forge my own story among the stars. Today this is the standard game mechanic of many a space-based game, but back in 1984 video games where pretty constrained affairs. Ideas like immersion and open world would not come into play for years to come.
Elite was genre-defining and one of the most important video games ever made.
The game spawned a couple of sequels and whilst Frontier: Elite 2 was well received, the third game in the series was not.
Almost twenty years since the less than stellar Frontier: First Encounters (AKA Elite 3), Frontier Developments are putting the finishing touches to the crowd-funded series reboot – Elite: Dangerous.
It’s a game that has been a long time coming.
The game’s development was originally financed as a Kickstarter project. More recently funding has been provided via a rather controversial early access programme.
Devout fans have been able to sample in-development alpha builds of the game by parting with £100 (that’s AU$180 or NZ$198). The fee, almost three times the cost of the game when it is released later this year, includes alpha and beta access plus a retail copy and a lifetime of updates. Whist expensive, I can understand the value that the package has it the eyes of hardcore fans.
From the developer’s point of view the weighty price tag keeps the riff-raff out of the alpha and beta phases. How many free alpha/beta programmes have you signed up for in the past without submitting any feedback? Players paying £100 for an early go on a £35 game are probably going to be a little more invested in the development process that your average alpha/beta freeloader.
When you look at it that way a premium alpha/beta access programme is kind of a win-win, really.
At E3 2014, Frontier Developments had set up a dozen or so demo pods to show of the latest build of their Elite: Dangerous. I was greeted by a booth staffer who explained to me that she is not employed by Frontier, but was actually an investor in the project. My guide was a former test pilot and clearly enthusiastic about a game that both of us had been waiting two decades to play.
I was asked what I want to see: combat or the game world. I could pretty much imagine the game’s ship-to-ship combat, I asked for a tour of the game world (or universe).
I started with my ship docked in a space station. Using the hat switch on the top of the joystick to select menus I powered up my craft and ascended towards a familiar-looking rectangular exit.
Whilst I flew towards the beckoning star field a little too by-the-seat-of-my-pants for my watching guide, I was soon out of the bounds of the space station’s artificial gravity and heading into space.
With the game’s intricate controls, it was clear to me that Elite: Dangerous is more of a space flight simulator than an arcade-style romp.
Which is a good thing.
At a safe distance from the station I was shown how to pick a destination via the 3D star map. As my ship exited hyperspace a ringed gas giant came into view. An impressive sight.
I was told to proceed towards the planet or, more specifically, the planet’s ring. As I approached the ring became more defined and soon I was piloting my way through the chunks of rock that it was made up from. I’d witnessed a seamless transition from a distant planet to weaving in and out of the rocks that made up its beautiful ring.
It was at if I was there, back amongst the stars, just as I had been as a thirteen year-old in 1984, playing the original Elite on my ZX Spectrum.
It was time to jump again. This time into a situation that is probably not recommended if this was a real spaceship that I was piloting. As my ship decelerated out of hyperspace the yellow dot in the centre of the screen grew rapidly until it filled the view. I’d jump practically into the corona of a star. I could see my temperature rising and, due to my proximity to the celestial body there was no way to escape via my hyperdrive.
Turning away, I powered up the ships engines and, at a safe distance and out of the sun’s mass-lock, I jumped to my next destination.
I was playing a game still in beta, but the science and the physics for the game’s interpretation of space travel where all there. No doubt there will be tweaks and additions before release, but the E3 preview build was impressive and robust. Elite: Dangerous’ premium alpha/beta came across as being a lot slicker than your average Early-access game on Steam.
Unfortunately, due to a tight schedule I couldn’t spend that amount of time with Elite: Dangerous that I’d have liked to. I’d bearing scratched the surface of a game that promises to fulfil that childhood desire of mine to forge a life for myself in the heavens.
In just under an hour of play Elite: Dangerous managed to immerse me in a universe of possibilities the like of which I’d not experienced since Frontier: Elite 2.
Elite: Dangerous is now in the beta development stage. For the princely sum of £50 (about AU$90 or NZ$99), well-heeled gamers can adventure across 55 modeled star systems covering 29,000 cubic light-years around the Boötes constellation of our galaxy.
Players can invest £50 in the Elite: Dangerous beta and jump in right away or pay £35 to pre-order the retail version via the game’s website HERE.
Shane the Gamer would like to thank Frontier Developments for taking the time to show us their game, and especially the friendly investor for personally guiding us around the game’s wondrous universe.