The first word that comes to mind when describing Elite Dangerous is “big.” Video games tend to struggle when it comes to conveying how vast space truly is. This is something the developers at Frontier set out to fix with their massively multiplayer follow-up to the classic Elite series, and “massive” is the operative word. The game takes place in a one-to-one recreation of the Milky Way galaxy featuring tens of thousands of unique star systems to explore. The universe is so massive that you can go days without seeing another player unless you deliberately seek them out.
While space is by definition mostly empty, that doesn’t mean there isn’t plenty to do in Elite Dangerous. Players can hunt bounties, trade between planets and space stations or dive headlong into the chaos of galactic power struggles. It’s easy to feel overwhelmed at first due to the sheer number of functions the game throws at new players. But it doesn’t take too long to get a handle on the controls. The complexity goes a long way toward making you feel like someone piloting an actual spacecraft instead of just controlling one in a video game.
On the subject of gameplay, ship-to-ship combat is somewhat reminiscent of games like Ace Combat. It’s very fun and exciting to play. The flight controls work well, for the most part. However, they lack the subtlety for precision tasks such as landing, making it too easy to overcorrect and fly off in the wrong direction.
Mining and trading can be surprisingly enjoyable as well. It might seem dull from an outside perspective, and I’d be lying if I said it doesn’t get old eventually. But there is something satisfying about finding a profitable route or good market for your salvage. If none of that sounds interesting, players can simply pick a direction on the galaxy map and see what’s out there. And there’s definitely a lot to see.
Elite Dangerous really is a breathtakingly beautiful game. Ships traveling at FTL speeds leave behind shimmering wakes as enormous space stations rotate silently in the void, their cavernous cylindrical interiors filled with skyscrapers, highways, and holographic billboards.
On the downside, transit seems to take a disproportionate amount of gameplay time. As fun it is to fly between the rings of gas giants and watch the boiling plasma of supergiant stars, that will seem far away while flying in circles around the same star system waiting for your sensors to identify which of the dozen signal sources is your mission target. While that may be in service to creating the vast sense of scale, it does make searching a large area tedious.
In terms of narrative, Elite Dangerous has a unique approach to storytelling. I can’t decide if I like it or not but it’s still worth talking about. The game doesn’t have a plot in the conventional sense of a linear or branching narrative.
Instead of a story campaign or main quest, the story of the game unfolds in real time. It is driven primarily by the actions of the players and how they interact with each other and the various in-game factions. Players can influence the ongoing struggle for galactic dominance by completing missions for the different factions. You can also spend credits to support them. And you can join in on procedural and player-instigated battles for control over disputed systems.
Frontier might occasionally get the ball rolling with content updates and announcements on the in-universe GalNet News service. But it’s the community as a whole that determines the fate of the galaxy.
This is either great or terrible depending on your point of view. For instance, any in-game event can be promoted to canon if it gets the developer’s attention. This allows events they never even conceived of to become part of the game’s ever-evolving lore. But it means there doesn’t seem to be much direction to how the story progresses.
There isn’t much of an arc and there are no characters to grow attached to. There is just stuff happening, the vast majority of which you are unlikely to participate in directly. Many MMOs still want their players to feel like the heroes of a story. But a player in Elite Dangerous will only ever feel like one pilot out of thousands. This isn’t inherently a bad thing. But if you play games to feel like your actions have far-reaching consequences? Or for the satisfaction of seeing a story through to its completion? This might not be the game for you.
The missions and locations don’t offer much in the way of story either. The former are all just different variations of the same procedurally-generated tasks. The thousands of spaceports may as well be the same five or six locations for all the difference it seems to make.
In a way, Elite Dangerous is a victim of its own scale. There are so many locations that it would have been impossible to give them any lore beyond what could be filled in on a spreadsheet. Elite Dangerous ends up being 100 thousand light-years wide but only about two inches deep.
Compare this to something like Mass Effect, a game with a vastly narrower scope but with more attention given to each planet. A paragraph or two of lore might not seem like a lot. But it goes a long way to making the galaxy feel like a real place with a real history. I can remember more vivid details about individual planets in Escape Velocity: Nova, an isometric space trading game from almost two decades ago, than I can about any of the interchangeable spaceports I visited in Elite Dangerous.
Still, Elite Dangerous is a must-have for anyone in the market for a realistic space sim and MMO fans looking for a unique experience. However, players interested in RPG style content might find the shallow lore and lack of characters disappointing.
I enjoyed my time with Elite Dangerous, and I think you will too. But your mileage will vary if you aren’t in its target audience. That’s something worth considering.