I look out across the vast emptiness of space from my cockpit. I've just completed my first couple of transport missions and I am finally starting to generate money on a regular basis. I dropped off 3 tonnes of Auto-Fabricators to some port half way across the galaxy with no run in with pirates. I'll call that a success. I had to make two hyperspace jumps past burning suns and god knows how many planets. As I collected my reward, I picked up a few more delivery missions so I could earn some more money, to then take on some more missions. At that point, I see the rest of my life in front of me.
When people describe the crew of the Nostromo in Alien as "Truckers in space", this must be pretty close to what they mean.
Over the Christmas holiday, I got familiar with Frontier Games' Elite: Dangerous. If you've never heard of the Elite franchise, well you should have done. The original came out 30 years ago now and was really a seminal bit of programming. It was game that had a universe with around 2050 planets across 8 galaxies. You generally progressed through trading resources, which could be anything from food, resources, beer or even slaves. You defined your moral bounds in the game, which was pretty revolutionary in 1984. That whole universe was inexplicably packed into less than 1 megabyte too. You can barely send an email that's under 1MB nowadays.
The game has had a few sequels, but the most recent is Elite: Dangerous. The game has been in various stages of alpha and beta since December 2013, after a successful Kickstarter in 2012. It 'officially' launched on December 16th last month, the 30th anniversary of the original Elite. I'd known people who had been playing for a while, so I was a little daunted to swoop in late, but with the release of the full game, I decided it was finally time to dip my toes into the water.
So I went in blind, picked a class and went forward with no real bearing on what I was doing. Quickly, "dipping my toe into the water" was like drowning in a massive ocean with no life raft in sight. This game is massive, with a lot of fluid concepts and ideas such as adaptive economies and trading. It's also a pretty hardcore spaceship simulator to boot. You'll see a million toggles to twist, parts to buy that add indecipherable additions to your ship and so on. You might find you can't make a jump using your hyperdrive because you've left your cargo scoop open, with no idea how it got open or even what a cargo scoop is. This then cues 10 minutes of hitting every conceivable button on your keyboard.
Adding even more size to the game is a 1:1 recreation of the Milky Way. This extract comes from the Elite Dangerous wikia:
In Elite: Dangerous the galaxy will be scientifically accurate and include around a 100 billion star systems (around 400 billion stars considering most systems contain multiple stars). The Elite Universe is modelled on current galactic charts. Planets and moons will rotate and orbit in 1:1 scale real-time, therefore constantly changing a system's environment.
So yeah. It is a pretty dense game. If you want to get into Elite: Dangerous, be ready for a fair bit of research. Frontier Games aren't interested in holding your hand through this experience. They expect you to figure out how to navigate and what path you'll take to make money on your own. The game has a training mode, but even that isn't too interested in helping you out too much. For example, in the landing training session, you can do everything the games tells you, open your landing gear, position yourself above the landing spot and drop down to find out you never lock into position. That's because you need to be facing the control tower in the game, but the tutorial never points that out to you in any obvious way.
This is a game with an intense learning curve, but after spending a few hours flying around doing stuff I'm 'supposed to do', I'm finding there is tons to admire about the game. Once you get your bearings and right yourself into something resembling buoyancy, the huge and unknowable universe becomes a joy to exist in.
It probably took me 3 hours of aimlessly wandering around space and trying new things, but I finally figured out the basic tenants of money making and surviving in the last frontier. (That and a trip to a pretty lengthy Youtube tutorial.) Once you know how to exist though, the core of the game is pretty simple, at least in the early parts. Accept mission, fly to destination with cargo, earn money. Sometimes things might be a little more complicated, such as the station your at looking for a certain resource. You'll then have to follow a daisy train of imports to get to the source of where that particular item is coming from.
I figure that sounds really busy work-y. In a way it is, but let me point a few things out. Firstly, I'm only just starting my career as a CMDR. There are tons of ways to make money in the game, from being a trader, a resource gatherer, explorer, combat pilot or pirate. You'll probably just be taking these simpler cargo missions on as your first source of income. Secondly, there is something immensely satisfying about the work you're doing. The trips you are taking to deliver goods are awe inspiring as you'll see tons of planets and suns as you hop from system to system. There is also something very satisfying about learning how every minute detail in the game works. It's depth of unknowableness becomes a bit of a reward system. Learning how to do something for the first time is gratifying, but there is always something else to be learned.
Of course, once you have enough money, you can start getting into space combats and bounty hunting too, shooting down outlaws across the galaxy. the combat is pretty satisfying with most battles actually going on for several minutes. There is something really gratifying about finally blowing up a ship after a ten minute dog fight. It, like just about everything else in the game, feels earned. Elite: Dangerous is a slow burner, but it is also massively rewarding in the way all the best MMOs are. Sure, it's built on endless cyclical systems like, earn more money to buy a new ship, to earn more money to buy a new ship, but so are games like World of Warcraft. Elite: Dangerous is already getting its hooks in me and I'm very into that.
Despite stretches of tedium, so far Elite: Dangerous has really won me over and I will no doubt be jumping in frequently when I find time. As you progress, you might even find yourself enjoying those moments of quiet and your menial tasks. At least, that is the path I've chosen. Frontier barely hold your hand and that means you are given a great deal of freedom to grow as you want, even if those options aren't explained to you. You can just be a trucker, or you could play the economy, or you could train to be a hotshot bounty hunter. You'll have to figure it out yourself. This is a complex game that won't be for everyone. For those that it is for though, it seems there are endless facets to to fall in love with.