They say love is blind, illogical and so many other things. When I try to objectively explain how much I like Elite: Dangerous, I land more and more on the meddlings of cupid.
By most standards, Elite: Dangerous is a very good game. Not a great game, but certainly not a forgettable clunker. So, why do I find myself placing it in my personal Top 10 of 2014 and why do I still find my evenings disappearing in a Milky Way-sized hole?
At this point I must confess to being a former EVE: Online addict, so I have form when it comes to massive space-based multiplayer games.
On paper E:D has plenty of issues. The narrative is largely non-existent, with the exception of bulletin updates that are easily ignored. While spectacular at times, the graphics still represent the emptiness of space. After a while the stars all start to look the same, as do the space stations. The game, representing a 1:1 scale version of the Milky Way, is so huge that the current player base can fully enjoy the loneliness of space. There are some RPG regulars that haven't been implemented yet, such as the corporations of EVE or the multiplayer raids of World of Warcraft. So, why do I look forward to playing it so much?
The game has a steep initial learning curve and there are six-points of movement to master when flying your ship. The controls are reminiscent of flight simulators and with that realisation a bond begins to form with a certain group of gamers I never really 'got'. See, there is a solid cohort of gamers who live for simulators, whether roaming with the likes of Euro Truck Simulator or staying more local with Farm Simulator. On the surface these games seem 'boring' but there's something there, something buried in the pride in ability that comes with mastering complicated controls. That same pride in ability rings loud with your first successful E:D docking manoeuvre.
Once you master those controls, the gameplay is a joy. I found one of EVE's major failings was its control system, it was all mouse clicks and telling rather than doing. Battles in EVE are largely won with advanced planning and strategy, while E:D is more about heat of the moment reactions, where the smallest of ships can strip apart a behemoth in the hands of a master. Both combat styles have their merits, but for people still waiting for a successor to X-Wing vs Tie-Fighter, Elite: Dangerous ticks the boxes.
Open-world is a phrase that gets bandied around quite a bit, but few capture the notion like E:D. Launch the game and your activities are completely up to you. Some may find the lack of direction hard to deal with, missing out on a clear path of progression, but the galaxy is your playground. Anybody can make some money transporting goods, pirating, bounty hunting or exploring. There is no 'class' to select before you begin the game, your actions count for everything.
The third time I died, I knew I was hooked.
After completing the training modes and watching the (highly recommended) tutorial videos, I began my quest to become elite. My strategy was simple: make some smart trades until I could afford the fire power to become the galaxy's most-feared bounty hunter. Once I locked in some profitable trade routes, I began to generate enough profit to think the game was easy, but I made the fatal flaw of investing all my money in cargo, too greedy to be safe.
When you jump to another solar system, you emerge near the sun, forcing you to pull up before your ship overheats. I'd done the manoeuvre dozens of times, so I was somewhat cocky. My next jump destination was in view beyond the star and rather than fly away from the sun and turn back, I tried to go directly. Your ship's 'frame shift' jump drive won't work near a large mass and as I approached the sun, I fell out of hyperdrive. My ship heat began to soar. I tried to fly away, but without the frame shift drive engaged, I was moving too slowly. I tried to re-start it, but I was still locked on a now obscured destination. In the heat of the moment, I panicked and watched as my systems fried, my viewing window cracked and my ship exploded. The scenario would be familiar to any sci-fi fan and the scene played out perfectly. Immersion engaged.
My second death was stupid. Closely orbiting a dodecahedron-shaped space station, looking for the docking entrance, I was in the shadow of the dark station with my ship lights off. Crash. Up to that point I wasn't aware of ship lighting, but such is the self-education necessary to be a solid pilot in E:D.
Believing myself wiser, I set out to make back my money and pay off the debt I had accrued after the previous deaths. I found a profitable trading route and all was well, until the shadow of cockiness grew once more.
Trying to make more money in less time, I began travelling on as little fuel as possible. A lighter ship allowed for further jumps. I was one jump away from profit, but my navigation wouldn't allow it, warning me I didn't have enough fuel to make it to my destination. I made the call to jump to an interim system, refuel and continue on. The navigation system wouldn't allow me to plan the complete route, so I jumped directly. I was so very smart, except the solar system I landed in didn't have a space station and no way to refuel.
A Google search and a visit to Reddit confirmed my fears: I was doomed.
I tried to fly towards my next jump, hoping the sub-light speed would bring me close enough to allow for a jump, but the scale of the game world is such that it would have taken me a year.
Then something surreal happened. I turned off my engine, checked all my systems and turned the lights down. Sitting in my room in Dublin, I was so immersed in the game that I felt a connection with all those sci-fi characters resigned to death. I turned on some music and stared at the stars. Unlike Sandra Bullock in Gravity, no moment of salvation struck, so after the song played out, I turned on my control panel, reviewed my systems one last time and pressed the self destruct option. It was a very real moment.
In many other games, losing everything for a third time would have resulted in a rage-quit, but Elite: Dangerous kept me hooked. Every mistake needs to be a learned from. There is no leveling system where new skills appear as you progress, you're only as good as you are in that moment.
The freedom and self-determination at the core of Elite allows for a level of immersion achieved by very few game