After an hour straight of exploration in pure, uninterrupted solitude, I put down the controller and asked myself, "What on earth am I doing with my time?" I'd started a new save of Elite: Dangerous with the Horizons expansion that recently shipped. It predominately added the ability to "journey seamlessly from space to explore the surfaces of accurately simulated 1:1 scale planets and moons" throughout Frontier's virtual recreation of the Milky Way.
I was exploring Baker's Prospect, the moon base that functions as the default spawning location in Horizons. A mission on the station claimed that a pilot had crashed on the rocky wastes, and had only a few hours left to live. But I'd been driving around in my SRV, zooming my scanner in and out, searching for an asphyxiating NPC. After a full hour, I discovered nothing. No pilot, no rocks to mine, no extra bases, nothing. Just the cold, soulless solitude that Elite: Dangerous has to offer.
This is the problem.
It wasn't until I went through Steam's website that I realised that ED's Horizons expansion was being as an Early Access work. In truth, it doesn't actually mean anything. ED, and all modern space games, are always a work in progress. That's been the case ever since I purchased beta access along with the season pass last year.
That was 85 pounds in the middle of last year. I remember it costing me somewhere around $150 at the time; if I paid that amount today, it'd cost me $172. It was a serious investment, but I reasoned that Elite was the kind of game that would continually grow over the course of a few years. Frontier's competence in integrating virtual reality and TrackIR was an added bonus too. I didn't have either tech lying around at the time of purchase, but I knew I'd pick up at least one of the two, and I'm not averse to investing in a HOTAS setup down the road either.
My initial experiences of ED left me wanting. Starting out on a mouse and keyboard felt sluggish, even more than the space sims of the 90's. I ran through the suite of tutorials three times, more so to avail myself of the guilt that follows a $150-plus impulse purchase. It's not the game, I thought, it's me: I just need to give it more time.
But try as I might, that hook never came. I'd gotten to grips with the bare minimum of what it takes to be an Elite pilot — I could deploy my hardpoints, supercruise from one system to another, land, dock and do so without crashing into things — but it never felt right. So I chose the path of least resistance: I put the game down, told myself that the flight model would be more accessible, the Milky Way would be more brooding, the stations more alive.
It wasn't until this month that I picked Elite up again, well over a year from my impulsive investment.
The void of space is, unsurprisingly, difficult to fill
I'd kept an eye on the game's progression regardless, and seeing its development on Xbox One earlier this year piqued my curiosity greatly. To make the game playable on the next-gen console, Frontier would have to make the game a lot more accessible. I've been looking for anything on PC that would take advantage of the Xbox Elite controller, and the addition of planetary landings seemed like the perfect time to return to the game.
And credit where credit's due: the flight model, upon changing the default settings to one of the two advanced gamepad presets, was immediately familiar in a way the mouse and keyboard interface simply wasn't. Using fixed weapons is an utter nightmare — go gimbled or go home — and binding yaw to the right stick means that the left and right thrusters are located on the keyboard, which can be incredibly annoying if you've buggered up the landing.
It works. It works with a degree of competency nobody thought possible, and it's undoubtedly the easiest way for neophytes to get acquainted with Frontier's mechanics and models. The controller doesn't resolve the absurd yaw limitations that Frontier has deliberately imposed — they supposedly didn't want pilots to be able to camp in one spot and rotate around — but it feels more natural than the mouse and keyboard, and more comfortable than my hand-me-down Logitech Attack 3 joystick.
What the comfort didn't do, however, was prepare me for the loneliness.
Without a high-end scanner, you can wander aimlessly for hours
After a second hour of exploration in the above scenario, I eventually encountered interactable object outside of the base where I spawned. It was a bronzite chondrite rock, which yielded some nickel and carbon after accepting a handful of bullets from my plucky little space rover.
But not only did the four tonnes of minerals max out my cargo hold, it also got me nowhere closer to locating the pilot. I figured their oxygen deficiencies had surely surpassed my incompetence as a space ranger, so I summoned my Sidewinder and returned to the moon base to do something more meaningful. There wasn't any demand for my hard-earned resources, however, so I decided to pack up planet for a casual tour of the galaxy.
I checked the billboard for a mission and accepted, only to realise afterwards that it was in a location that the game told me was too far away to travel. Undeterred, I decided to simply manually jump as far as I could, refuelling along the way. Conveniently, you can collect extra fuel from a nearby sun by letting your cargo scoop flop out, a nice trait for those who simply want to roam the Milky Way.
A few more hours passed, jumping from system to system, warping between, in and out of supercruise, hyperdrive and regular flight. By the end of this one evening, I'd spent almost six hours simply travelling — and I wasn't done. ED prevented me from engaging hyperspeed because I lacked the fuel, so I simply lined it up, enabled supercruise and went to bed.
It was roughly around 3:00 AM. When I arose, the sun wasn't up but my ship had unceremoniously crashed. I didn't care. I was travelling out of obstinance, more than anything else.
I fired up ED the next day. I hadn't accomplished anything; no missions, no trading, no combat or exploration of note. I was simply alone — and I was starting to enjoy it.
Not quite the pot of gold, but it'll do
I continued trips to and from nowhere over the Christmas break, the entirety of which I spent with my family. Having grown up playing his fair share of games, my brother sat and watched me cruise from one system to another, achieving precisely nothing.
Eventually the solitude became too much, particularly given the mood around this time of year. So I sought solace in what felt — not what was, but what felt — like the polar opposite: a Korean MMO.
Specifically, Black Desert Online. I'd been provided with a key shortly after I started on annual leave, and having played a few MMOs in the past from the region (PangYa remains a source of many happy, albeit absurd, memories) the visuals and frenetic action of Pearl Abyss's world looked enticing.
The first thing you encounter in Black Desert is the character creation, and it's a doozy. The way you can customise the tiniest elements reminds me a lot of Fallout 4, although Bethesda's interface is a touch more elegant about it. I was keen just to spend time in a world that was populated, however, so I went for a largely standard Sorceress and jumped right in.
Immediately, I'd gotten the fix I'd been missing from Elite for so long: a world that was alive. Static, undoubtedly broken, and filled with more magic than a mushroom farm, but things were happening. There was a suite of UI shortcuts that were incredibly helpful too, such as the one-touch button that automatically sets your character off to their next quest and the ability to attack via WASD and mouse or the number bar.
I'd gained about 11 levels and was starting to become accustomed to my shadowy minion, a creature of dark magic who accompanies you on your journey whilst NPCs warn you about feeding its strength. It was quite the little bastard early on, tasking me with the mindless slaughter of innocuous imps and gentle tree spirits. It reminded me of my Sith Warrior from The Old Republic, which I roleplayed as an embodiment of pure, sassy evil — although this had a primal level of maliciousness about it that, combined with the visuals, was oddly humorous.
What wasn't humourous, however, was when my game experience was rudely brought to a halt. As I fired up to enjoy the game in the last few hours before the throttling of the closed beta, a group of insidious twats took it upon themselves to begin posting Star Wars spoilers in global chat. It immediately reminded me of why I generally avoided the genre in the first place: people are arseholes, and games are often more enjoyable without them (friends not included).
Without fault, I instantly shut the game down and returned to the silence of Elite.
Automated docking is a godsend, although manually landing can be cathartic as well
Since returning home, it's becoming increasingly clear that the solitude of ED is part and parcel of the game's appeal. I've begun treating it the same way others play Euro Truck Simulator 2: a relaxing, almost meditative experience occasionally broken up by the odd interdiction and reference to the galaxy map.
I'm continuing to lose hours upon hours in Frontier's space sandbox, and the game's biggest crime — still, as many have noted — isn't quite so much that the game has no content, but more that it feels like there's no content. The imagery of ED being a pool a mile wide and a few feet deep is as true as ever. If you want to find the fun, you have to dig, then dig, then dig some more, until finally the promise of a diamond emerges from the debris.
In many ways, the best parts aren't provided by Frontier themselves. Radio Sidewinder is a 24/7 online radio that, among other things, broadcasts ED-related chatter, advertisements for various organisations, licensed songs and other bits and bobs. It fills in the background nicely, especially considering how muted ED's soundtrack actually is. I've had the volume on full and played with headphones and speakers, and often the sound of a new track has only served to remind me that there was very little music playing previously.
Playing with friends, or an organisation, is undoubtedly the best way to maximise your experience. Even if you don't want to fall to the appeal of larger alliances, or playing into the in-built factions, you'll probably still want to resort to the myriad of forums and sites dedicated to optimising trading paths, mining and other elements. I've restricted my experience purely to the single-player for now, dodging the issues associated with hackers, bounty hunters and inconsiderate pilots.
That might be deliberately crimping my experience but the ultimate truth — no matter what my impressions might imply — is that I'm still playing. I'm still losing track of time cruising from system to system, staring at the planets as I fly past, still cursing as my peaceful journeys are interrupted by another interdiction.
I still feel alone, too. But it's something I've learned to make peace with. I hope it doesn't stay this way forever. Frontier plans to add multi-crew ships, fighters that can be launched from larger craft, customisable player avatars, crafting and loot over the coming months. The perception of emptiness is what the developers really have to fix, and I'll continue trading peacefully to see if they do. After all, there's much to discover.