The 80’s saw a lot of things go wrong in good old Blighty, but one thing they did get right was revolutionising the way we play computer games. When Ian Bell and David Braben released Elite in September 1984 I’m sure they knew that they had created something revolutionary. 30 years on, David Braben has an OBE, runs Frontier Developments, and is back to form with Elite: Dangerous. In our house, gaming just took a quantum leap into the imagination of my 6 year old self.
In 1984 Christmas was much the same as it is today. Parents, so tired and possibly a little hungover from the late night waiting for the kids to drop off, cursing their children as they bound into the bedroom screeching “Has Santa been?”. These are the same kids who only a week or so before had to be dragged from their beds to get ready for school. My 10 year old brother and my 6 year old self were no different, full of excitement and expectation we skipped most of the treads on the stairs to see what Saint Nick had left in his wake.
We got a computer. A BBC Model B. 32 bytes of memory, and a cassette tape drive. Santa even chucked in a joystick. There were tapes of games too, a clone of Donkey Kong under the title “Killer Gorilla”, the wonderfully odd platformer Chuckie Egg, but what captured our attention was the gorgeous cover art on one particular box. Elite, a space combat and trading game.
Flying around a universe, no lives to speak of just a save game that you nervously updated every time you docked. This game would keep my brother and I quietly occupied for hours on end. I wrote stories of the core planets, illustrated in felt tip and crayon. I was the “co-pilot” meaning I was in charge of the key controls whilst my brother commandeered the joystick for the actual combat and flight. At our ages, constant bickering was almost mandatory, but Elite could foster an air of co-operation that had, up until that point, been lacking in our home. Looking back I’m sure my parents were very grateful that the game existed.
Spin on 30 years and two sequels in the 90’s later and here I am again. In front of a computer screen, geeking out in a crazy fanboy frenzy as Elite: Dangerous arrives in Beta form. I threw what little money I could afford at the kick-starter project when it was announced, making sure I was eligible for this moment. In the preceding weeks I’ve glued myself to YouTube and Twitch, watching others play through the Alpha and Premium Beta stages. Even with Frontier: Elite 2 I had to fill in blanks with my imagination to get a sense of what an Orbis or a Coriolis Station would actually look like. No longer. There they were, and they were beautiful.
The premise of the game remains the same as it was 30 years ago. Trade, upgrade and kill your way up from Harmless to achieve the rank of Elite. It’s a formula that was revolutionary in 1984, and still works just as well in 2014. Of course though time and gaming have moved on. There are certain expectations in the fifth decade of personal computing. No game these days would be worth it’s salt without online multiplayer, and while this is very much the default mode for Elite: Dangerous, it is unlikely to become a battle arena of twitchers and griefers.
The main reason behind this is down to it’s scale. It is Massive, with a capital “M”. Braben’s boys and girls at Frontier Developments have decided to render the entire Milky Way galaxy in 1:1 scale, and then give you, the player, the ability to go wherever you like in it. As Douglass Adams put it “Space is big. You just won’t believe how vastly, hugely, mind-bogglingly big it is. I mean, you may think it’s a long way down the road to the chemist’s, but that’s just peanuts to space.” After spending 60 glorious hours in the 55 out of 100 Billion planned systems, I have to say I finally know where he’s coming from.
It’s that scale that currently makes bumping into another player while out trawling the void a relatively rare occurrence. You will see them at space stations, or in the few contested combat areas, but in a play area as vast as it is, PvPing is going to be a minor distraction among everything else that will be possible. Piracy, trading, mercenary work and exploration are some of play styles that you will be able to get your teeth into, but expect most of it to involve NPC’s rather that other players.
As the game is still in Beta, it has it’s issues. Bugs are there, but barely noticeable at present among the design aesthetic. There are currently only seven playable ships and it is not unheard of to lose everything, including your life savings which you tied up in cargo in your hold, as the Station you are docked in jumps 500m to the left and impacts your shiny new Lakon Type 9 into the wall. It’s not perfect, and it’s not feature complete, but it is the most fun I’ve had gaming since Frontier was released in 1993.
Over the next couple of weeks I will be releasing a series of blogs and videos that go deeper into the current Beta release. After all, I need to make sure my joystick arm gets a rest!