With the Lunar New Year Steam Sale going on, I decided to share my Elite: Dangerous Steam review in case anyone was considering picking it up. Due to Steam forcing a binary choice on me, I had to go with not recommending this title, but my actual opinion is much more nuanced than that. I definitely got my money’s worth, but I did so by treating Elite: Dangerous as an extension of the single-player franchise with multi-player tacked on instead of an MMO, because as much as I wanted them to be, the multiplayer features just aren’t there – and they aren’t the only thing missing.
Elite: Dangerous is a difficult title to recommend. On the one hand, it delivers an amazingly immersive and atmospheric experience, truly excelling at pulling players into the game, and making them feel the awe of being in space with fantastic visuals and some of the best audio work I’ve ever experienced in a game. The ships handle well without being too twitchy – even with mouse and keyboard after a bit of tweaking the controls -, combat is satisfying, and its ‘to scale’ modeling of our galaxy offers unparalleled scope. All the core components of a great game are present, which is why it’s so troubling that the game never really expands beyond those core components.
Every game system in Elite: Dangerous is a rushed husk presenting virtually no depth. Its economic market is the best example of this. It is player-influenced, with supply and demand shifting prices as players ferry goods between stations, but affords the players no control whatsoever in it. There is no manufacturing, no creation, no ability to do anything beyond shipping materials from point A to point B in the hopes of turning a profit. Trade goods are never used by the players at all, an unfortunate situation that makes mining not only incredibly ineffective at making money (as it’s basically a more difficult form of trading), but also deeply unsatisfying, as the ore you work towards collecting will never go anywhere, only disappearing from the economy as you convert it to credits at your station of choice. This lack of depth extends to the development of basically every other game system, much to the game’s detriment.
With the simplicity of these game systems comes a simplicity in objective. Your goal, as a player, is to grind more credits so you can buy a bigger ship (which tend to be strictly better than their less expensive counterparts) to more efficiently grind credits in.
Unfortunately, this is made even worse by the game’s horrifically poorly thought out reward structure, in which the missions, which at least have the potential to be mildly interesting, give laughably low rewards. In the time it takes you to complete a single mission, you could typically earn 20-100x’s as much by simply sitting at nav-beacon or resource node killing pirates for their bounties. The disparity in reward of mindlessly grinding over doing the game’s missions is mind boggling.
To the MMO player, the lack of depth in multiplayer is a massive let-down. There is no real reason to work together beyond the benefit of having another person nearby. Without the ability to impact the economy, players have no goals to collaborate towards. There are no multiplayer ships, and no player organizations to be a part of. What it all boils down to is that Elite: Dangerous simply should not have been a multiplayer game. Perhaps as a single-player entrant to the series, its sins would have been less numerous.
Elite: Dangerous is not a bad game, and even with its faults, it’s hard to give it the thumbs down. It’s certainly enjoyable in terms of minute-to-minute gameplay, but its current lack of depth and the developer’s apparent focus on introducing more shallow features instead of adding depth to existing ones ultimately make the game mostly a good introduction to space sims for the newbies whose lacking features will surely have you looking to Star Citizen once the inevitable boredom sets in.
The Key Takeaway: Elite: Dangerous is, as others have so often put it, miles wide and an inch deep. Without any real multiplayer features beyond being able to group up (which was added in a patch) and shoot at things, it’s better to think of the game as a single-player simulator in a shared universe than a real MMO. That said, it’s aesthetically astounding, offers unparalleled immersion, and excels at providing minute to minute entertainment through solid gameplay basics. If you aren’t looking for a multiplayer game with a lot of depth, you may be able to look past the game’s faults to find a really enjoyable experience.
Note that following the initial posting of this review, it has been announced that multi-player ships will be coming as an update some time in 2016 for players who purchase the Horizons expansion season.