Elite Dangerous Horizons – Pushing the Frontier
Star Wars hype reached stratospheric levels just before Christmas 2015, and that wave is still rolling on strong, showing no signs of reaching a breaking point. Whilst I personally didn’t get too swept up in the carnage – and yes, for those wondering, I have seen and enjoyed the film – the reignited Star Wars phenomenon brought back a desire within me to explore the vast blackness of space in Elite: Dangerous. What better time to do it too, with Frontier Developments having just released their second season expansion pack, ‘Horizons’, perfectly in time to capitalise on the return of The Force.
For those who’ve been lost in the darkness of a black hole, Elite: Dangerous see’s you take the role of Commander in the ranks of The Pilots Federation – a group formed initially to organise trade routes, which grew into more of a galactic council governing all pilots. It’s you, your ship, and 400 billion star systems in a 1:1 recreation of the Milky Way, and you’re free to do whatever you like. Explore new systems and sell the data for credits. Take down pilots with bounties on their heads, and cash in on their criminal behaviour. You can go mining, trading, or just fly around. Whatever you like, really.
One of Elite’s early criticisms was that it gets rather boring after a while. Whilst there is a decent variety of things to do, they were all a bit humdrum. Core activities like mining, trading, and even combat never really expanded upon their initial offering of gameplay. And for those that did commit to the grind, the rewards weren’t all that appealing. It was a tough slog there for a while.
That’s all changed now with ‘Horizons’. For starters, any rocky or icy planet in the entire galaxy can be approached, flown over and landed on now, provided you have the right modules outfitted to your ship. If you have a vehicle hangar, you can take your SRV out for a spin on the surface. I cannot hesitate how awesome this looks every time I do it. Watching a planet grow into size as you get closer, seeing large cracks and canyons in the surface, then flying down low and landing in those same canyons is something truly spectacular. There are settlements to find, which similarly to starports and space stations you can dock at and trade with. You can also land outside settlements and drive your SRV into them, though there isn’t much to do there at the moment outside of scanning data nodes. Step out of line and you’ll be fired upon, which can be unpleasant to say the least, but not impossible to escape from.
There are other things to find on the surface also, from crashed ships to lost cargo. Some you’ll come across at random whilst others are part of the bulletin board missions you can find at any dock. The last time I played Elite: Dangerous, these missions offered comparatively little reward for quite a bit of work – one of the reasons I largely avoided them – but since I started with Horizons I find myself taking on far more of these than ever before. Thanks to Han Solo, I started taking on a number of smuggling missions, which can offer a considerable payout in compensation for the level of risk you sometimes have to take. If you get scanned taking illegal cargo into a starport, you can kiss you ship goodbye. Losing your ship can be costly, and in some cases downright disheartening, especially if you don’t have the money to cover the insurance re-buy costs.
In addition to planetary landings and other refinements, it has to be said that Elite: Dangerous feels far more alive now than it ever has previously. The galaxy is very much a living place, with the actions of every pilot and commander affecting the power and influence of every political faction in inhabited space. Civil wars will breakout when minor factions bicker over starports and other landmark settlements, whilst full blown War can overtake a system that is being invaded by an outside faction. Whether or not you choose to take part in one of these is up to you entirely. Their lives will go on once you leave their system, and the Wars will resolve with or without your help, further shifting the balance of power and economy in the galaxy.
Whilst visiting a war torn system, I dropped into a high intensity combat zone. Making sure to keep my distance, my ship warned me that it was picking up the signature of a capital ship. Moments later, with a thunderous warble, a giant capital ship emerged from hyperspace. It settled for a moment, then all hell broke loose. It was like a scene from The Force Awakens; lasers filled the sky like a meteor shower. I watched as, one by one, the local fighters were ticked off by the overbearing power and sheer force of the capital ship. With the additional backdrop of a sun-drenched rocky planet just 500-odd kilometers below us, and a bright pink Class-L dwarf star lighting the show off in the comparatively near distance. It made for one of the more visually spectacular and emergent moments I’ve had in Elite in recent memory.
There are a multitude of new ships now, bringing the total roster up to 31. Elite is still playing the long game, with ships priced as such that you’ll need to work away for a while before you can afford that fully kitted out Diamondback or Asp you’ve been wanting. That’s not a warning, though. I’ve had a great time earning what I can to get up to the fairly well outfitted Vulture I have now. And I regularly sell and swap out my ships in order to fit what I want to get done. If I’m keen on trading some commodities for a while, I’ll buy a Type-6 Transporter and load it up with cargo bays. The Vulture is my new go to for taking down pirates and heading into combat situations, as well as smuggling. It’s strong, agile and has two large hardpoints, so it’ll easily outclass anything smaller than a mid-sized ship.
Much of Elite’s allure for me comes from it’s unknowns. There is so much within Elite that is yet to be seen, and yet for many players, exploration and colonialism isn’t really enough. There was once a time where a bit of imagination was needed to fill in some of the holes left by things that simply aren’t in the game yet. A good example of that is the addition of planetary landings. Prior to ‘Horizons’ if you approached a planet too close, you’d simply drop out of orbital cruise into standard cruise, and be left effectively dangling a few hundred kilometers above the planet’s surface. The same happens now if you approach an earth-like or other type of planet, and it can be an immersion killer.
Thankfully though, we’re starting to see the fruits that an extended development cycle can bear. Elite has grown in leaps and bounds since its first public release back in December 2014, and even more since it’s first alpha released to KickStarter backers in December 2013. It’s a development model I’ve come to personally appreciate more over the years, though some have argued it’s a bit of a hard sell. If anything, I see it as a win-win scenario for both developers and players. Elite will continue to grow in larger and more interesting ways, and the developers at Frontier will be able to get on with the job knowing they are secure in their future. Win-win.
There is no better time to jump into the Elite: Dangerous universe than now. Horizon’s has yet to release on the Xbox One version, but it’s out now on on the PC. Time to dust off that joystick and start hunting some space gungans.
James Swinbanks is a Games Critic currently writing for GameSpot, although you’ll still occasionally see him popping up on Player 2, because frankly, he loves the smell of the place.