A few months ago, Elite: Dangerous (or ED for short) came out for the Mac. I immediately bought the game, for old time's sake (I have been playing both the original Elite on the C64 and Frontier on the PC) and because it promised to be a playable game - as opposed to the perpetual alpha status that Star Citizen has been in now for years! After the break, I try to give a few of my first impressions from the time when I started to play the game, together with a summary of what ED means to me now after having played the game for a bit over 3 months.
Before I started playing I sat down and studied the game handbook because I wanted to begin as prepared as possible - I knew that this would be a bigger game than the original Elite, and also that I would be playing in an online universe, so I didn't want to make too many newbie mistakes. After a while I gave up reading, though, because I just couldn't keep it all in my head. I launched the game and noticed that it had a number of built-in tutorials, so I started to play through them. I managed docking and travel fairly well, with a few difficulties that I knew (or hoped) would sort themselves out later when I had more experience.
Then I started combat training, and I must confess that I utterly and abysmally failed even the first basic combat tutorial - I just couldn't keep that enemy Sidewinder in focus to hit him with my weapons. Besides I was much too absorbed to fly my own vessel withouth crashing into an asteroid to even begin to be able to fight effectively. After two or three more attempts I gave up in disgust, hoping I wouldn't encounter too many NPC pirates when I would take my first shaky steps in the game. I also realized that I certainly wouldn't play in Open mode, i.e. with other real players around, because I simply wouldn't have a chance against any of them.
And that's when I started to play for real. Immediately a large number of questions began popping up that went unanswered by the handbook, so I had to resort to the Internet to look for answers. Probably the most important resource at the beginning was the Elite: Dangerous Wiki, closely followed by the Frontier forums (which are a mess that can only be sorted out with the help of your friendly search engine) and YouTube. I would like to specially point out Dejan Kober's very nice series of tutorial videos. They are a bit lengthy, but I think very worthwile to watch, because Dejan takes his time explaining many things in detail and without rush. I distinctly remember how grateful I was for his recommendations how to adjust the default mouse/keyboard settings for flight control - docking suddenly became much easier!
My first steps consisted of finding out how to earn credits and learning how to travel between systems and dock at starports and outposts. The latter I had already practiced in the in-game tutorial, but now the focus was on how to do all this well and with a certain amount of efficiently - I didn't want to spend 20 minutes with each docking attempt. My equipment at that time consisted of mouse and keyboard, and this worked out to a certain degree, but after a few weeks I decided to buy a joystick because my mouse hand started to have cramps. In hindsight I can clearly say that this was an excellent idea because flying with a joystick is so much easier than with a mouse: Better orientation, no more cramped hands, and I even managed to do a bit of combat stuff without getting blown to bits :-) By the way, I bought a Saitek X52 Pro, which has a lot of buttons to get used to, but is totally worth every penny. Also, I would like to mention that getting the joystick to work on my Mac was truly a plug'n'play experience, not only hardware-wise but also because ED has a built-in set of controls for the Saitek X52 Pro that works out of the box. If you are on a Mac and consider buying a different joystick model, you should have a look at this article on the Frontier support site.
After a while I had earned enough credits (mostly with smuggling missions to remote outposts) to buy a bigger ship. I went for the good old Cobra Mk III, a multi-purpose ship which I then equipped with different modules to try out all the major avenues that the game has to offer: More trading/smuggling, mining, exploration, bounty hunting and the so-called "Power Play" sub-game, where players join one of several political factions and help their faction to increase its control over parts of inhabited space.
Fast forward 3 months: With roughly 60 million credits earned and 2 new spaceships bought, I now feel sufficiently confident to render my verdict:
- Combat sucks. I simply don't like the hectic associated with this play style. For me, combat is at best a diversion to create some variety to other play styles, but usually after an hour or two in a conflict zone I get tired of pew-pewing NPC ships. Fighting against other players might be more interesting, in theory, but in practice I don't even try because from experience in other games (battle grounds in WoW, or more recently Vainglory) I know exactly that I don't stand a chance against human players. By the way, this is also why I play in solo mode almost exclusively - I have no inclination to get slagged by some trigger-happy space vandal. Human players and their vagaries aside, from what I hear, bounty hunting NPC ships is currently the best-paying occupation you can have in ED.
- Trading has turned out to be more a means than an end, although planning a good trade route (spiced up with some rare good trading) sometimes does have a certain attraction, when I am in the mood. But trying to earn as many credits as possible on a maximized-for-profit trade route usually turns into boring grinding pretty fast. By the way, trading is also what reminds me most of the original Elite game: It almost seems as if trading was transported straight from the original game into ED.
- Mining is a very relaxing profession, but it is not very profitable at the moment. Also you need quite a bit of starting credits to be able to buy and equip an efficient mining spaceship. I will certainly revisit this later on, but right now this is not for me.
- Dabbling in Power Play and learning its intricate rules has been an interesting experience, especially because it provides an alternative source of income (5 million credits per week is easily attainable with almost no play time). There is, however, the merit decay mechanism, where you continuously lose the standing you have previously earned with your political faction. This forces you to continuously play and invest time to keep your standing. Definitely not for me, either.
- So, what's left is space exploration. Space romantic that I am, exploring the galaxy in all of its splendour is indeed the aspect of ED that has won my heart. Exploration is relaxing, involves no combat (!), as a tourist in space there are beautiful sights to enjoy, and last, but definitely not least, there exists a real sense of wonder and adventure. First, because the procedurally generated galaxy is vast and full of stars that no one has ever seen before - not even the devs at Frontier. And second, because - despite the lack of combat - there is a always a certain danger from destruction by mishap or cosmic forces when you are out there all alone. If you forget to check the fuel gauge and run out of fuel, you are dead. If you overheat while scooping fuel or because you get too close to a black hole, you are dead. If you stay out there too long your canopy will crack from material wear and you are, unsurprisingly, dead. One might argue that dying in ED is of no consequence since you simply respawn at the last station you were docked at and merely have to pay an insurance fee to get your ship back. However, dying also means that you lose all the precious exploration data that you painstakingly collected while travelling. This can mean the loss of several weeks or even months of work, depending on how extended the exploration trip was. Despite the dramatic description, exploration is and remains the most peaceful and relaxing occupation in the game, and that's why I like it.
While I am writing this I have already begun the great journey to Sagittarius A*, the giant black hole at the heart of the galaxy. I am certainly not the first who will reach this destination, but it is still a great adventure for me, and there are many untrodden paths that lead there to explore and write about.