On June 3rd, 2020, Frontier Developments made an announcement that had fans of the Elite franchise excited for new possibilities. After decades of being confined to the cockpit of various ships and land rovers, the most recent Elite iteration (Dangerous) would release a mind-blowing expansion that would allow pilots to roam the surfaces of planets, the insides of space stations, and across various settlements and wreckages. The Odyssey DLC would not only add new sights, sounds, and systems to the existing game but also change the landscapes of heavenly bodies, add first-person shooter missions, and integrate into the BGS (Background Simulation) system.
As readers know, Odyssey launched for the PC platform in May of 2021 (console users must wait until the fall) to much enthusiasm – as well as grumping – from the community. Although the public alpha testing phase had lasted only a few weeks, Frontier assured us that the title was ready to roll. I was not part of the testing phase as MOP’s Chris was, and while I normally give new drops a few weeks to burn-in, the allure of taking steps outside of my spaceship proved too strong. I made the dangerous decision to step into Odyssey on day one.
Upon clicking on the Odyssey button, I was treated to an opening cinematic that included a spaceman taking steps onto a planet, looking out to the horizon in wonderment and excitement at the new opportunities ahead. The camera started to pull back. Was that a stutter? The camera pulled back more. The stutter repeated. For the duration of the opening cinematic, during which the hopeful spaceman was eventually eclipsed by the word “Odyssey,” the stutter appeared at a regular interval, accompanied by the sound of my hard drive reading information in metronome-like fashion.
Now, my gaming system is not anemic. I built it last year using an i7 CPU and NVIDIA 2080 Super GPU. Yet somehow Frontier has figured out a way to make my hard drive the bottleneck for playing the opening cinematic of its prized expansion. Admittedly, it’s a small annoyance in the grand scheme of things, but it is the first impression presented to paying customers. Historically, studios have gone to great pains to wow players in the first several minutes of a game in order to capture their attention and assure continued curiosity. This lack of concern for the opening impression was slightly worrisome.
Once past the opening sequence, I was whisked directly into an Odyssey tutorial. “Nice!” I thought. Elite Dangerous is famous (or infamous, depending on your viewpoint) for its lack of direction to players, old and new alike. However, upon receiving my first tutorial instruction, I was greeted by an enigmatic tip: “Press ?? to move forward.” Being familiar with the peculiarities of the Elite Dangerous keybind system, I recognized that this was due to the new “on foot” keybinds being unassigned. Thus, with every new tutorial tip, I was forced to pause the action, enter the settings, and assign a new key for whatever action I was required to perform to advance through the tutorial.
I later learned that this bug was very specific to my case. It affected only players with an existing commander and custom keybinds who did not participate in the alpha testing. At the time, though, I was concerned that a new player confronted with these mysterious action tips would be thoroughly confused. At this point, I decided to give Frontier a few days to issue some hotfixes, as it was apparent the DLC was hitting the predictable snags of a major rollout.
When I next ventured into the year 3307, I decided to try out Odyssey’s bread-and-butter feature: the on-foot mission. But first, I needed to attend to some business. I ordered my pilot to disembark and took my first walk around the ship hangar, taking screenshots of my ship from all angles. I’ve got to admit, even though we’ve always been able to see our ship’s exterior when using the camera mode, it was a completely different feeling to walk around it in first-person mode. It did somehow make the craft feel more tangible. It was honestly kind of breathtaking to see it from this angle.
Next, I took the turbo lift up to the station lobby while enjoying the subtle touches of wooshing doors and elevator music. Once in the lobby, I spoke to numerous NPCs, most of whom chastised me for turning down their “danger level 4” missions until I finally found somebody offering what seemed to be a more reasonable “danger level 2.” I had previously purchased my combat suit and weapons, but they all measured in at a meager level 1. Not being able to find anything rated lower than danger level 2, I returned to my ship, settled into my captain’s chair, and undocked the TFS Idiosyncrasy in anticipation of the adventure to come.
Since there is no concept of fast travel in Elite Dangerous, it can sometimes take a few minutes to arrive at your destination. If your destination is on the surface of a planet, it can take 5-10 minutes to target the correct planet, supercruise to that planet, find the surface installation (or crash site), enter orbital cruise, and finally land in the vicinity of your objective. That’s in addition to however long it takes to jump to the appropriate star system to begin with.
So, when I inevitably failed my first mission – because of course I failed my first mission – I was a bit dismayed to learn that I had to travel all the way back to the space station giving out the mission in order to give it another go. Needless to say, I wasn’t thrilled about 10 minutes of travel ending in 15 seconds of combat resulting in my untimely demise.
Despite the obvious heavy emphasis on FPS combat for Odyssey, I decided instead to return to the activity that I really enjoy in Elite Dangerous: exploration.
I was a bit hesitant to set out into the deep knowing that my exploration suit was of minimal quality, but squadron mates assured me that a level 1 artemis suit would be sufficient for any normal exploration activities. And so I set out, pointing away from the bubble of civilization with the intent to make some first footfalls on planets’ surfaces, experience some of this new planetary tech Frontier has been touting, and maybe even discover some new life forms along the way.
As discouraged as I was with the ground mission aspect of Odyssey, I was equally delighted with the new aspects of exploration. Thanks to the enhancements to my ship’s surface scanner, I can now pinpoint planets with biological life forms. Once discovered, these life forms can be sought out using the planetary heat map (when it works, which seems to be about half the time).
More difficult is the next phase, which requires explorers to swoop down to the planet’s surface and attempt to eyeball the native life forms. (You’d think a craft that could identify the existence of biological life forms from a distance of thousands of light seconds away would have some sort of close-range surface scanning assistance, but maybe that’s an enhancement request in the making.) After finding a target, players must don the shiny new exploration suit and disembark the craft. More often than not at this point, doing so will award you with “first footfall” if you are the first explorer to set foot on the planet. Lastly, the biological sample must be approached and scanned with a hand tool in order for that life form to be recorded in the player’s codex.
In all, I think the Odyssey updates have made exploration much more interesting. Instead of the honk/scan/jump/rinse/repeat cycle, I feel inclined to spend more time in a specific system, zeroing in on planets with interesting features and life forms. Enhancements to the system map are also welcome, as we can now zoom in on a planet that has been full spectrum scanned (FSS) to see whether it’s a beautifully colored body or just a chunk of ice.
Are there areas that could be improved? Of course! I’d like to see better surface scanning and assistance locating geological formations. The addition of some form of animal life on planets with appropriate atmospheres would be exciting. Also, currently, there’s some weirdness in that I’m finding power sources and abandoned outposts on planets far beyond where human existence is supposed to occur. Even in systems that I’m supposedly the first to discover at times house these kinds of settlements. I can only assume that this is a bug – otherwise, the dark of deep space just got a lot more crowded.
We always knew that Odyssey was going to be an ambitious undertaking for Frontier. The community can feel free to keep on arguing about whether the scope was too ambitious or whether the build was rushed or whether feedback was taken into account. What I see from a 30,000 foot view is a fairly solid foundation that could still use a lot of polish. Will they get there? I believe they will, and I’m still excited to see how the new features are eventually improved.