The space trading classic finally arrives on PS4, with more content than ever and the most anticipated alien invasion in gaming.
It may not be well known in America or Japan, but for any British gamer of a certain age Elite is one of the most iconic video games of all time. The 1984 original made open world, or rather open galaxy, exploration a reality decades before Grand Theft Auto. And by the time the sequel appeared in 1993 it seemed as if the franchise, and gaming as a whole, was headed along a clear and obvious path of ever-increasing ambition and complexity. But that’s not how things worked out, and it’s only recently that developers have once again made the stars their destination.
It is interesting how open world games were dominated by space-based titles in the early years, but how by the end of the 16-bit era they’d almost entirely died out. That’s partly because the inky blackness of space is far easier to render than the anarchic detail of a bustling city, but also because the necessarily complex controls were poorly suited to early consoles.
There has been a mini-renaissance in recent years though, helped by the fact that space simulators work particularly well with VR. But while it’s tempting to make comparisons to No Man’s Sky, the most relevant modern counterpart to Elite Dangerous is EVE Online. Not just because they share similar concepts and settings, but because both are massively multiplayer online (MMO) games.
Being an MMO is an important distinction to make, not in the sense that it drastically changes the nature of Elite’s gameplay but because it gives an indication of how much time you’re expected to sink into it – and how slow the burn is in terms of substantial reward. Elite is not a game of instant gratification and it makes no attempt to pretend otherwise. If you don’t spend a good couple of hours playing the tutorials and watching information videos before you start then you’ll have almost no idea what’s going on or how to control anything.
We say this as a warning of what to expect though, not as a criticism. Despite its enormous complexity, and unforgiving nature, Elite is a very easy game to describe: it’s basically a Han Solo simulator, except you’re always stuck inside the cockpit of your spaceship rather than hanging around in cantinas.
You start the game with the sci-fi equivalent of a Reliant Robin and it’s entirely up to you what you do with it: you can be a bounty hunter tracking down criminals, a mercenary for various political and industrial entities, a smuggler of contraband goods, an honest merchant buying low and selling high, an asteroid miner, an explorer selling maps to uncharted systems, or just an honest-to-goodness space pirate.
There are story missions of a sort, but as with the original they’re not particularly prominent and you’re under no obligation to follow any of them. More importantly none of the activities involve selecting predetermined roles, you simply do whatever you want, when you want. The only limitation is whether you have the right kind of ship and equipment, which invariably means toiling away at a more mundane day job in order to get the money you need.
The slow upward tick of your bank balance, and the constant shuttling between safe ports, works very similarly to the original game, but today will be seen as little more than traditional MMO style grinding. Except, unlike other MMOs – where you spend the first several hours just repetitively tapping the ‘1’ key to slaughter cannon fodder enemies – you get to fly around the galaxy in your own spaceship. There’s no frigid timer-based combat here, but instead a deep and involving space combat simulator to tempt you into less honest, or at least more violent, ways of earning a living.
Elite Dangerous sensibly pulls back from the more pedantic simulation elements of Frontier: Elite II, and although it does use elements of real physics to inform the controls (and the impressively accurate galaxy map) they still feel pleasingly similar to the original. There remains a significant learning curve before you feel fully in control, but despite the many menus and cockpit displays the basics of flight and combat are easy to pick up and work surprisingly well on a DualShock controller.
This is an impressive port all round in fact, with early problems with screen tearing having already been patched out within a few days of launching. The graphics are also a very close match for a mid-range PC, and although you might be disappointed by the barren planetary visuals they’ve actually always been like that (in the game’s lore almost no planet supports life naturally).
And while many PlayStation 4 owners were no doubt frustrated that it’s taken so long for the game to appear on their format the fact that it’s been out for two and a half years on PC not only means that all the teething problems are over but there’s also a wealth of content that wasn’t there at launch. The £20 base game is a good way to get a feel for whether this is a game for you or not, but we strongly recommend forking out for the Horizons season pass (or if you’re more confident you’ll like the game the Commander Deluxe Edition from the start).
For an extra £20 this adds all manner of upgrades, including planetary landings and surface vehicles, new story quests to meet and enlist the help of spaceship-customising engineers, the chance to own and operate much larger ships that can launch their own fighters, and the ability to customise your commander and crew so that they’re more than just a name on a menu.
Recent updates have also brought the appearance of fungal-based life to some planets, and hints of at least two different alien races – with the infamous Thargoids having already been spotted both in space and on planets.
In addition to all this the game also has a drop-in co-op option if you want to join up with friends; although you can choose to play solo if you prefer. There’s also now a selection of standard competitive multiplayer modes if you want to visit the relevant arena, including Deathmatch and Capture the Flag. This works something like the Crucible in Destiny, and once you’re up to standard with your piloting skills can be a lot of fun.
The other benefit of the game’s late appearance on PlayStation 4 is that many of the issues with gameplay and economy balancing have been ironed out over the years, although it’s still frustratingly difficult to find trade routes quite as lucrative as in the original game. Mission design remains sadly formulaic though, and we’ve always been disappointed by the lack of variety and personality in the places you visit. The original game had a Douglas Adams-esque sense of humour, but although there is a sliver of dark humour running through the game the tone can often be dispiritingly antiseptic.
But then a lot of what you’re doing is basically donkey work: mining, trading, and the interstellar equivalent of truck-driving. All of that is made infinitely more interesting by the fact that you’re doing it in outer space, and that your daily grind is in constant danger of being interrupted by space pirates – or worse, but Elite Dangerous is still definitely an acquired taste. If you do think it’s for you though, then get ready for a long and storied career as exactly the sort of space adventurer you always wanted to be.
In Short: The pioneering space adventure makes an impressive landing on PlayStation 4, with more content than ever and the promise of even better things to come.
Pros: The freeform structure and wide variety of roles is impressively liberating. Nuanced but accessible combat controls. Fun multiplayer options. Decent port from the PC.
Cons: Very steep learning curve. Earning money at the beginning can get extremely repetitive, as can the mission design, lifeless planets, and identikit space stations.
Formats: PlayStation 4 (reviewed), Xbox One, and PC
Release Date: 27th June 2017
Age Rating: 7