Earlier this summer I wrote that Elite Dangerous‘ community events were something the MMO community should watch. Watch. I never said play, and I never ended up pushing the “purchase” button when I saw it on sale. I’m not really a flight sim person. Heck, I’ve even mentioned several times that I prefer kart-racers to realistic racing games.
However, I recently snagged a review key for Elite Dangerous to try it out on the PlayStation 4. I even streamed my first experiences with the game. It was a rocky session to say the least, but I decided to stick with it for a few more hours after getting some support from viewers. I really wanted to be able to recommend the game as something to pick up, but honestly, I’m still in the “watch” category.
The simulator-game spectrum
I’ve covered this before, but one of the values of games is that they’re a simulation. Not all games need to be educational or aim towards higher meaning, but the good ones give you the opportunity to do so. To compare games with movies, think about Star Wars. If you come out of Return of the Jedi thinking, “That fight between Vader and Luke was cool,” that’s OK. However, if you recognize that the family battle represented Luke’s becoming his own man, that he rejected the advice from his older and more esteemed teachers to find a peaceful solution no one said would work, then you got a good second-hand experience from the movie. With any luck, that experience would connect with other experiences and guide you through life. Laugh if you want, but that’s basically the principle of education and how humans can learn better than many other species: We don’t need direct experience; we can simply bear witness.
Games can do the same, especially MMOs. I was a shy kid, but MMOs gave me opportunities to practice speaking to large groups of people, through both text and voice chat. Explaining gameplay mechanics, lore, and even some social strategies for alliance-building to people twice my age (or older) gave me confidence. My more outgoing friends and family who have seen me do interviews and streams always ask me if I’m nervous, or say, “Oh, yeah, you’re a teacher, so I guess you’re used to that.” Teaching certainly helped, but speaking up in MMOs is where I really started developing my public speaking persona. It wasn’t the games themselves but the experiences I was able to get through them. Moreso than any other genre, MMOs simulate societies, not just based on combat but on story telling, economics, and even research. You can get some of that from online shooters, but not all of it.
The thing is, the simulation isn’t just about how the game is made; it’s also about how the player approaches it. I’d probably place most MMOs somewhere in the middle of the spectrum, as they can be pure entertainment if you’re just logging in for quests, but they can be almost pure social simulation if you’re mostly using the game as a graphical chat room. Your choice of playstyle dictates how simulator-like the game can be.
This is where Elite Dangerous comes in. ED is an unrepentant space simulator. It is very possible to spend days/weeks/months flying around before getting to your location if you don’t use your hyperdrives or subcruising options. Gravity and heat from entering the atmosphere are real (dangerous) things. Star Wars this is not, but especially in a modern-day space sim, this isn’t uncommon either. They’re genre staples that I already knew I’d have to deal with in order to try to get at certain features that attracted me to the game. ED does take some liberties (we could go on for days about how realistic laser combat is), but moving my ship felt more like moving a vehicle than a game character. I do like vehicle-based games, but mostly if they’re simple or a side aspect of something more bipedally based. If realistic vehicular avatars are your style, ED may be for you. Maybe.
Let’s assume you like space simulators. Heck, I’ve played a few in the past. Demos with flight sim controllers make these games feel significantly easier to play since they better simulate the actions you’re taking in game. At home, I usually use a keyboard and mouse, and this is where my PC background may be at fault: I just can’t get over the PS4’s UI layout.
Using a mouse to point and click feels natural to me. Keyboard shortcuts are awesome since you have so many mapping options. A controller limits your options a bit but should allow for the same issue.
The problem is that there is a lot to control in ED. I’m not just talking about landing gear and balancing between systems, engines, and weapons’ power, but about basic things like navigating menus to check quests, interacting with NPCs, system messages, and messages to other players. Maybe I’m getting old, but I could barely read most of the game text on a 32 inch TV screen, even when standing right in front of it. I’d look up directions online and promptly forget them. Maybe the tutorial I experienced on the stream had been fixed, but revisiting it was neither fun or particularly enlightening.
Because of my frustrating stream, I went back to the game’s tutorial for help a week later. It was possibly patched as I’d seen warnings and messages that a rewatch showed weren’t in my stream, but it was still incredibly basic. I didn’t feel it tied gameplay together in a way that “stuck”; instead, it painted feature islands that didn’t connect to a broader image. I was struggling with basic gameplay in important ways. Why did my ship sometimes feel like it was being pulled in the wrong direction? How could I tell which way was “right” when trying to park a ship that wouldn’t dock? Did I have to go through the menus to scan objects, and why wasn’t there an onscreen hint about how to do it?
My space travel and docking skills improved over my original steam, but struggling with basic movement isn’t fun, especially when it took me 30 to 45 minutes to do a delivery quest with no combat involved. I stumbled on other ships to hail or signals to check during my flight but often overshot these targets. Exploration in space, as you’d expect in real life, can mean looking at a lot of nothing. I could float aimlessly for a while before giving up and going back on my simple delivery quest, unless I got bored and turned the game off. I hadn’t realized my quests had real-world timers, and so I’d log on to find I’d failed them because of this.
This is what many of our readers have complained about: feeling like they’re just floating aimlessly in space. I don’t wholly agree with this because I did have a lot of quest options. I found things I could have done if I could figure out how to do them. Because I felt like the learning curve was so steep, I didn’t want to do them. That’s the key issue I have with the game. For all the promise of the cool stuff I could do, the aliens pulling me out of hyperspace, decoding Morse Code space signals, and intergalactic piracy enhanced by deep spaceship controls, I just didn’t want to invest more in the game. I mean, on a surface level, my pride forced me to chug along, but after several hours of gameplay, I lost the will to go on, several times.
To be clear, this is about my own game preference. I like something accessible. If I can sit a small child or grandparent in front a game and they can “get it” enough to have fun, awesome. If it’s a bit hard for them, but casual gamers who grew up on Mario and Final Fantasy can figure out, that’s good too. But as a lot of readers have complained, the game can feel like a bunch of “nothing” if you don’t invest the time to get to know the game. I’ve played some games like this, such as the Monster Hunter series, but even that felt like it had a more measurable progression system for someone steeped in MMOs. If ED’s space game were connected with avatars that could board space stations, smuggle diplomats through the space port and onto the ship, and maybe engage in some hand-to-hand combat when someone betrays the group and tries to kill our pilot as he navigates an asteroid field, it’d grip me more.
That’s not Elite, though.
Good simulation, rough game
If I were into piloting or wanted to be an astronaut, I’d probably like Elite Dangerous more. If a student or friend had that interest, I’d recommend the game to him or her without hesitation. Heck, if I had friends I could jump into the game with, I’d probably try the game again.
But the stars didn’t align here. Elite doesn’t have a lot of control input that’s similar to most MMOs, especially on the PS4. That increases the barrier to entry for me and possibly many MOP readers, and I say that as someone who’s recently been juggling a motion-control fighter, third-person shooter, tap/swipe AR game, and turn-based RPG, at the same time and on various platforms. I assume that Massively OP readers probably play quite a few MMOs/MMO-ish games at the least, probably a few genres as well. We do have Elite fans here, but commenter complaints and my own experience make me feel like this is still a title I shouldn’t easily recommend that readers pick up without a lot of investigation and weighing against their personal playstyles.
I still say Elite Dangerous’ community events are one to watch, much like EVE’s. Even for a newbie like me, Frontier advertised its community event loud and clear from the start, even making it possible for me to jump in if I had been better prepared for the game. I wasn’t, but as I said before, I’m happy to stand on the sidelines and watch, hoping an MMO(ish) game in a genre I’m more comfortable with will be made by developers who’ve seen what Frontier and other companies have done in terms of community. We have more than enough kill quests and gear grinds. We need them to feel like they matter, not just in terms of lore, but actual social gameplay.