When it launched, Elite Dangerous was on the forefront of the space sim renaissance, revitalizing a genre whose popularity flagged steadily through the aughts and looked like a dead proposition only a few years ago. But a handful of games have recently proven that there’s an appetite for deep space-combat simulations, and Elite succeeded by focusing on the hardcore crowd that has been waiting for another turn at the sticks since the late ‘90s. It’s a big, ambitious, clockwork sandbox, and most of its systems work well independently. The problem, though, is that they often don’t work well together, and don’t really seem designed to.
Elite is like a beautiful scaffold behind which a building has yet to be constructed. The first few hours are breathtaking and immersive, with everything from intricate landing procedures to individual starship modules rendered in loving detail against vast, gorgeous expanses of the Milky Way. It seems rich with possibility, whether you want to hunt pirates, mine asteroids, trade commodities, or fight in service of a systems-spanning empire.
But when the novelty wears off, all these systems (both the mechanical ones and Elite‘s staggering 400 billion star systems themselves) feel empty. There’s no connective tissue, and not enough of a carrot to keep players engaged in what turns out to be a slow grind towards a limited set of rewards. Upgrading your ship represents the only real progression in the game, and once you’re in a ship you like and you’ve outfitted it to match your play style there is precious little left to strive for—no campaign or narrative, a faction system that feels like it’s built on numbers and bars rather than personalities and ideologies, no pilot progression, and no option to carve out a corner of the galaxy for yourself or build your own home amongst the stars.
The virtual reality angle provides a nice lift, but it’s not enough. Now that some of the initial novelty has worn off, headset owners are looking for VR experiences with some staying power, and Elite Dangerous’s depth would presumably provide that. But VR is still very niche and, as a purchase motivator, only applies to a limited audience.
Don’t get me wrong, Elite hasn’t been left to wither on the vine. With last month’s release of the Engineers expansion, part of their Horizons initiative, the developers at Frontier have added a suite of new content that includes an updated missions system, crafting, and loot. And alongside features like landing on planets and driving around in space buggies, future updates promise things like multiple players on-board the same ship, huge player-controlled capital ships, and boarding hostile vessels.
All of this planned content means more options and greater depth, and those are certainly key to ensuring Elite‘s longevity. But if the goal is to challenge a crowd-funded behemoth like Star Citizen or a fan darling like No Man’s Sky, it’s only the tip of what needs to be an expansive iceberg.
Building a sandbox and setting players loose in it can be a viable approach to game design. The problem for Elite, however, is that as a sandbox it feels too sparse and empty, with plenty of sand but not enough toys. And there’s nothing to build, no castles to create, shape, or destroy. You’re left feeling like you don’t have much agency in a universe that’s mostly barren anyway, like it’s less a sandbox than a deserted, very windy beach. Part of this is the questionable focus on making Elite feel like an MMO, even though after 100 hours playing online I’ve only ever encountered two other players.
This would all be fine if the game had a traditional campaign, but since no such game mode exists you’re left with a massive galaxy populated by a lot of the same stars, planets, and stations. Very few of the 400 billion systems have much in the way of individual personality, and it’s difficult to develop any attachment to them because they feel so lifeless. It’s one of the difficulties of setting a game in the vast, impersonal void of space, and one of the places where Frontier falls short. You flash from space stations that all seem to adhere to one of a very small number of flat, industrial designs, to planets that are 99% barren rock pockmarked with craters, doing the same menial tasks over and over. For all their success at modeling asteroid mining, building a landing mechanic that feels immersive and satisfying, and making combat flashy and fun, they stumble when it comes to giving you a good reason to do any of it.
Going forward, Elite needs to commit, in one direction or another. They have the bones of a campaign in the mission system, and the promised improvements make the idea of a proper story mode even more attractive. But on the other hand, they have a lot of varied systems in place that, united and expanded on, could make the universe of Elite Dangerous a wonderful place to while away countless hours, a sandbox you’d be happy to play in. But they have to choose one, and stop treading water in the middle, or games like Star Citizen and No Man’s Sky will turn Elite into an amusement park in Chernobyl: desolate, sad, and abandoned.
Alan Bradley is a freelance journalist, vagabond, and aspiring ornithologist (some of these descriptors may not be strictly accurate). Find his work on GamesRadar or follow him on Twitter @chapelzero.