So I’ve grabbed Elite Dangerous while it was on sale.
It’s a weird experience.
I do like the way ships handle. Out of all the space sims I’ve played so far it’s probably the smoothest, and I was surprised to see that even on M+KB the ships are pretty responsive and more or less handle like I’d assume simplified spaceships would handle (outside of supercruise that is). The aesthetic is good, and very consistent, and I absolutely love the diegetic menus even though they suffer from a “form over function” problem at times : they have been designed to emulate interfaces you’re supposed to navigate through touchscreen (touchholograms?) but you’re going to navigate them with keyboard arrows and/or a gamepad, which suddenly makes them less practical. Also the fact that some key parameters, like what subsystems you’re targeting, have to be set through menus instead of contextual buttons is silly. There’s a reason why fighter pilots have more info and stuff on their HUD than just their sights ffs.
I don’t like the combat, which is a shame for a combat-heavy game. Part of this might be due to playing with M+KB (I tried gamepad, but found menus even more of a pain to navigate) but overall it’s just very meh to me. Dogfighting in space is something that overstays its welcome very quickly. Sure, you can do 0-g turns, BSG style but outside of that it really just is 1960s jet combat all over again, get in your opponent’s 6 and pew pew until they’re dead. (The fact that the AI seems incredibly bad at shaking people on its tail doesn’t help). If I want hectic dogfights I’ve already got Ace Combat 7, which has pretty much refined over-the-top furballs to an art. It’s quite telling that among all the space sims I’ve played, the only one that had space combat that actually felt like the distances and speeds involved were somewhat evocative of actual space was Eve “Let’s cram every space fantasy trope we can think of in this game” Online.
Same for trading and politicking. The sheer scale of the game is dauting, and even though space trucking may appeal to some people, it just isn’t very fun. The fact that you need third party sites to even establish working trade routes is a shame too, but more on the abysmal map later.
So I’ve settled for exploration. Is exploration fun, in and of itself? I don’t know. A big part of what makes exploration appealing in a game for me is the lore - what am I going to find outside? And Elite kind of disappoints in that aspect. We have two alien races : the old-advanced-precursor-race-destroyed-by-its-own-creation (the Guardians) and the spooky-organic-hivemind-aliens (Thargoids). I get that Elite aims at this “classic scifi” feeling (the human factions are even more generic if it’s possible, the Federation is litteraly the US but in space, they’re not even trying to hide it), but it’s just…not interesting. The fact that Guardians and Thargoids also tend to attack explorers, which are generally unarmed, is pretty shit too. There was totally room in Elite for more weirdness, for strange megastructures, for derelict ships of unknown origin, for spaceborne lifeforms - for more mystery, essentially.
Did I mention how much the handling of SRVs sucks? Because it does. Oh boy it does. And don’t get me that “it’s normal that a ground vehicle handles badly at 0.2g” even on bigger planets it drives like crap. And it’s also kind of…meaningless? The Horizon-specific vehicle activities are the same as what you can do in space, but on the ground, so automatically less fun.
And the galactic map. Oh goddamn it the galactic map. I get it, making a 3D, 1:1 map of the galaxy that’s actually usable as a map is hard, but come on. The map being hard to navigate doesn’t annoy me too much because when you have 400 billion stars it’s going to be cluttered, but it is just so barebones. The ability to set custom waypoints directly (and not through favourites) and to compare plotted routes would come a very long way for explorers, and the fact that third-party sites are needed to compute stuff like the average fuel cost of a jump or what systems actually trade is really a bummer.
Overall Elite is a weird thing. It has combat. It has trading. It has (limited) politics. It has exploration. None of those seem like a real focus and none of those work very well, but they’re here.
And yet I love it. I’ve taken a small Adder, geared it for exploration and left the bubble, now hovering 300 ly away from it, in the vastness of the Milky Way. And I’m having fun. Not because of the game, very much despite it, but I’m having fun. I keep jumping from one star to another, and most of them are meaningless, barren systems left in the void, and in the end, no, it’s not fun, I take that back, but it’s fascinating. There’s something magical in Elite, something hidden behind the space fights and the boring lore, and it’s this galaxy map. This nigh-infinite swathe of stars, and the promise of an meaningless but endless journey.
That is what Elite should have been entirely about, to me. There are enough space sims out there with hectic spacefights and complex trade routes, but none of them with such a daunting sense of scale.