Way back in 1984 at the dawn of the home PC era, a friend of mine bought a game called Elite, it was written by David Braben and Ian Bell who where, at that time, undergraduate students in Cambridge University. Elite ran on a 8 bit BBC micro and was the first real 3D game I ever saw. It was way ahead of it’s time. The graphics were crude, simple white out of black wireframe models that flickered a lot and there was no fill or much detail at all, the sound was horribly raw 8 bit chirps, beeps and white noise. However it was freaking amazing at the time. The resolution was 640×256, that’s about the resolution for an avatar these days. But it was amazing to behold. I understand that they sold as many copies of Elite as there were BBC micros, that has to be a unique event in the games industry. I was gutted as I did not have a BBC micro and could not play the game.
Not only were the graphics ground breaking the game was open play, a bit like grand theft auto. You could play it how you wanted. Ultimately the goal was to make Elite status, which the creators thought would never be achieved, but many did. Can’t remember how high I climbed, yes, I did finally get a copy of the game myself when it came out on my Commodore 64, it was on a cassette tape!!! The game eventually came out on pretty much every platform and each platform had a slightly different version taking advantage of whatever that machine had. I also got a copy on my Amiga when I got one and it had a mission to transport some Tribbles, this resulted in them breaking out of the cargo hold and crawling all over the screen.
To progress in the game you needed to make money, and to make money you had several options, trader, Bounty hunter, asteroid miner, pirate to name a few. I would spend most of my time as a trader. You would fly from one system to another shuttling various cargoes you hoped would make your fortune. The trick was to guessing what the destination system would value. So you would find a system what was an agricultural based system and take them machine parts or fuel etc. Then take food from them to a planet that needed food. Pretty simple stuff but great fun. I had reams of paper with prices of commodities from all the systems I had visited. And the amount of systems was impressive, there were 8 galaxy’s each with 256 systems, all this, plus the game was squeezed into 52 Kbytes!!! To put that into perspective 52 Kbytes is about the size of the image to the right of the ‘Elite on Amiga’ screenshot, just the one very low rez picture. Most simple programs on phones are MUCH larger than this. These guys created a 3D world populated with 2,048 unique systems, lots of different ships, NPC AI, stock markets etc. Phenomenal really.
A modern game like Titanfall consumes approx 40gigs, that’s 741,000 times larger than Elite. You can get the original Elite for free and can run it on a BBC emulator, if you have never played it you should give it a go.
Elite: Dangerous is the 2014 version of Elite, this was the fourth Elite installment The second game was Frontier: Elite II in 1993, then Frontier: First Encounters in 1995. I can’t remember playing either of these two games, which is very strange as I was such a fan of Elite. Perhaps I was too busy playing The Chaos Engine or Doom. For many years David tried raising funds for Elite Dangerous but failed to get any publishers to back it, so he started up a Kickstarter campaign in November 2012 and raised enough backers to get it made. By December 2013 the backers could play an alpha release and gave feedback. For the next 12 months the game was refined then launched at midday on the 16th December 2014, 30 years after the original game. I only found out about the game in early November of 2014, had I known about the Kickstarter I may have funded it. I was certainly jealous of the people who already had access to the game, which was now in gamma. Everyone around me was counting down to Christmas, I was counting down to the Elite launch.
The new Elite game is on-line play, a sort of MMOG, although I believe there can only ever be a single instance of 32 players in one space at any time, perhaps this will be improved in time. I have always shied away from these sorts of games simply because the general rule is that as well as being able to progress in a MMOG by playing legitimately you are also able to advance by throwing real money at the game. If you need to increase your characters strength you could either take part in many fights and get your power up or make a ‘micro payment‘ and get it instantly. This leads to the best players generally spending lots of money in game. This ‘pay to win‘ seems a bit unfair to me, great financial model for the games developer however. In one MMOG called Eve Online a year ago there was a huge battle where many thousands of real money was lost in virtual ships being destroyed. In Elite Dangerous you can’t do this, it’s all down to grinding gameplay, no shortcuts. There is a shifting and evolving economy in the game, but no way to inject or extract this virtual currency to real money. Frontier, the makers of Elite, may change this in the future, however I sincerely hope not. They are charging real money for paint jobs and decals for ships, however as you are stuck inside and generally have no external view, except when docked, this seems a moot point. OK so other people can see it but who cares. On an aside, after a while of flying about the paint gets ‘weathered’ in a rather realistic manner, nice touch.
The ‘World’ you have to play in is… wait for it, little pinkie to mouth, 400 billion solar systems, that’s a 1:1 scale representation of our milky way galaxy! The planets all orbit stars in real time and it’s a real sight to behold, they have aimed to keep everything as close to real physics as possible. I beleive that in the original Elite each system had just one star, one planet & one station, Elite Dangerous had a much more diverse collection of celestial bodies. David Braben has mapped hundreds of known systems and the rest are procedurally generated using some complex algorithm that is allegedly very competent at predicting real star systems. Frontier say that if you fly to a point in the game and look around, that’s what you will see if you were actually there. Could be, nobody is going to prove them wrong in my lifetime. This sort of attention to detail and keeping everything as close to real life as possible really appeals to me.
The on-line nature of Elite Dangerous meant that you no longer have the luxury of backing your game state up before leaving a station in case you crash and burn. Now if you died there was no way of loading an earlier save. This is actually a good thing as it makes the game much more tense. It’s not like playing COD where, if you die, you instantly get re-spawned with no real penalty, here you really don’t want to die or you will lose hours of progress. This stops people going mental with guns and taking a much more cautious approach to everything. Luckily there is a Combat Trainer program you could download to sharpen your teeth in battle before starting you on-line career.
So at midday on the 16th December 2014 I was finally in and all set, ready for my first unique Elite experience in approx three decades. I spawned at Yapping Enterprise in the system LHS 3447 with my shiny new, loaned, Sidewinder, it even had that new spaceship smell, I also had 1,000 credits in my account. I bought a few tons of cargo and launched for a neighbouring system to sell it and make some cash. My first launch from a station in 30 years all went swimmingly. In the original Elite you never got to see inside the station, you simply flew into the letterbox and you were docked. I say simply, but docking was the hardest part of Elite, one of the first things you wanted to save for was a docking computer. In Elite Dangerous docking is much, much easier, but you do now have to fly inside the station and land on a pad. The inside is a VAST rotating cylinder to generate artificial gravity. The inside reminds me of Arthur C. Clarke’s Rama ships. It even has a three pronged antenna on the far side and instead of a cylindrical sea it has a cylindrical road, complete with yellow trucks circumnavigating the ring.
The game does look and sound amazing, especialy at the kind of resolution modern machines can handle, I’m running the game at 2,712×1,526 at 60 fps with a 5.1 suround sound system, amazeballs. When docked you can see a high degree of detail everywhere with smoke coming out of vents and even dust particles floating around, on my new ship? When you see the station from the outside it’s very pretty, this massive city in space slowly revolving with the light from the sun glinting off it’s surface. The detail is not just minor, if you fly right up, and indeed, in and around the towers and channels there is more and more detail to see. I guess it has to make up for the emptiness of space. Some players like Titus Balls have put together some cool videos showing the beauty of the game. I find it impossible to dock without the sound of The Blue Danube playing in my head, especially at the ring stations, it really does look like something out of 2001: A Space Odyssey. Even the final computer graphics pad landing targeting sequence looks like the lunar landers sequence from the film.
The ships themselves are highly detailed and I especially like that fact that when you see other ships to see their thrusters firing, gear raising. lowering, guns deploying etc, great attention to detail everywhere.
Take three different drives into the Universe?
One confusing thing, or at least I found it confusing, are the three modes of travel in Elite Dangerous. In the original, and indeed most Sci-Fi films and TV shows, space ships have a regular sub light drive for system travel and another for hyper-spacing long distances, Star Trek had the Impulse engines for system travel and warp for interstellar. In the original Elite you would hyperspace to a system then using standard engines travel to the station. This took time, hours. To get round the boredom factor they placed a time compression option, like fast forward on a DVR, flight sims also use this option. As Elite Dangerous is online with other players this is not possible, so they invented a frameshift drive. This gets you about in the system a lot faster. So you have the standard drive which gets you from 0-400 m/s, then frame shift gets you from about 400 Km/s to about 400c (400 times the speed of light), depending on a few factors such as close proximity to stars or large bodies, gravity wells will slow you down. This frameshift drive gets you from one end of a system to the other in a reasonable amount of time, but would still take, hours , days or years to reach other stars. For this you have the good old hyperspace option.
Timing your exit from frame shift was initially tricky. I would often overshoot my destination a few times. Basically you have to be at a safe distance and speed to exit frame shift. The trick I found was to put the throttle on full till you got to about 10 seconds away then slowly throttle back till the ETA sits at about 7 seconds, on the left of the HUD is a reading showing distance & speed, when they are both in the blue disengage the frameshift.
Flight Assist Off
In normal sub light flight with the standard drive, ie not in Frame shift or hyperspace, your ship auto corrects for any drift. ie if you thrust laterally up your ship will move upwards whilst you continue to press that key. As soon as you release the power to the thruster the ship will put on an opposite thruster to stop the upward movement. This also works with yaw, pitch & roll etc. Therefore if you let go of all the controls the ship settles into a fixed orientation and speed. If you select flight assist off then it’s all Newtonian physics, now if you thrust up briefly and release the key you will continue to move upwards, same goes for any other manoeuvre. If you bank with the stick to the right a little then return the stick to the centre you will continue to slowly roll, never slowing. This makes for a very realistic space ship simulation, but makes it real tricky to control. Especially as there is not much around you to give an indication of speed or direction. It does give you a big advantage when manoeuvring close to objects such as stations and asteroids, it can also help in combat. If you get into a dogfight with FA off you are able to keep the sharp end of your ship aimed at the target even when you are flying in the opposite direction, this enables you to bring your weapons to bear all the time. However it’s very tricky to pull off and you can easily get into a spin or forget you are flying sideways and smack into an asteroid etc.
This method of travel is also a good evasion method. You can thrust away from on enemy ship then turn off as many systems as you can and you will vanish from their scanners and visualy you will be hard to see when you are a few km away from your hunter. More on stealth later.
On my first few trades I lost money, I started with 1,000 credits and that very quickly got whittled down with bad trade, fuel & repair costs. After figuring out the trade rout option on the starmap (should that be starchart?) I finally started making money, not lots, but enough. The Sidewinder only had 4 tons of cargo space, I got a bit more by stripping out the scanner & shields, but still was pretty poor for trading. I generally made more money by taking jobs from the Bulletin board, but did sometimes get bitten when I found I did not have a drive capable of jumping the distance required, the more weight you carry the shorter you can jump. The Starmap BTW is impressive, you can zoom around any of the 400 billion systems and if they have been explored, view what is there. You can toggle trade routes on and off showing what commodity is being moved from whereto where. You can also calculate how far you can go on a full tank of fuel and use a navigation program to plot your jumps either for speed or economy.
After much grinding I could afford a new, bigger ship, the Zorgon Peterson Hauler. Striping out everything, including shields, got me sixteen tons of cargo space. Armed with this new ship and my database of commodity prices from the systems I had visited, stored in a Google spreadsheet, no paper trading in 2014, teenager me would have been most impressed. Now real money rolls in. The maximum amount I found I could make on any one commodity per tom was about 1,000 credits. I was tempted to trade in slaves, which yielded a lot more profit, but not confident of my smuggling abilities. Smuggling consisted of shutting down all non essential systems and sneaking into a station without being scanned. If caught you would get a BIG fine. Decided not to chance it.
Did make a little extra cash by discovering some new stars and planets with the basic scanner and selling to stellar cartography. Paid for my fuel costs generally.
Power is nothing without control
I had been playing with a mouse and joystick whichdoes work very well, but did splash out on a HOTAS, not a hot ass, a HOTAS, the Saitec x52 Pro. This is fancy talk for Hands On Throttle And Stick, basically a joystick and a separate throttle. I did have my old joystick around however it did not work on the infamous Windows 8. HOTAS certainly does make the game more immersive and easier to a degree, once you have the many buttons mapped out to your satisfaction. Another thing that makes the game much better is Voice Attack and FaceTrackNOIR, I have also used them with FSX and Mechwarrior Online.
Voice Attack is a third party piece of software that listens out for commands then emulates a keyboard or joystick action. So you can slave the voice command of ‘Target’ to the key command to target. Of course the best command is to program it to enter hyperspace by saying ‘Engage’, be still my beating heart. Works very well and can do other tricks such as launching other applications or playing sound files etc. FaceTrackNOIR uses your webcam to track where your head is pointed and if you look off to the right the POV in the game shifts round to the right, genius. Like a poor man’s Oculus Rift, an Oculus thrift if you like. The OR works with Elite Dangerous by the way. Will be very tempted to buy one when it’s finally released, have seen some people give some amazing reviews of their experience with ED on the rift.
On the 20th of December disaster struck. A bug in the game meant that I was unable to sell my cargo. Many other people were experiencing the same issue. I opened a ticked with Frontier. Long story short, not I or anyone else that I knew of got a reply. Even if you jettisoned the cargo it magically came back. So I had a hold full of cargo and no way to get rid of it. After four days I decided all that I could do was to Self Destruct and start again. VERY annoying. To this day I have not got a reply back from Frontier. Luckily the bug has not hit me again, yet!
It appears that other bugs have now reared their ugly heads.
Cobra MK III
Another week of trading and I had enough for the fabled Cobra MK III. This was the ship you had in the original Elite, you could not fly in anything else. Can’t say it looked anything like the 1984 version, however this was a good thing. The 1984 Cobra was a strobing black and white wire frame affair. As I had in earlier ships I stripped it down to bare essentials to make for cargo space. Think I got something like 60 tons of space. Now buying a full load of goods could cost as much as 300,000 credits, a rather large amount. There were times when I made a loss and other times when I almost lost it all due to bad piloting or pirates. On one occasion when docking I collided with a Lakon Type-9 Heavy in the letterbox and it instantly took out 50% of my hull. It was whilst I had the Cobra that I got interdicted a lot more, guess pirates can smell the money. I was taking a risk by buying as much cargo as I could, not leaving enough to cover any insurance, I’m still not sure what would have happened if I had ever died and lost all my money, guess it would have been back to square one.
After the Lakon shunt I decided it was time to invest in my Cobra, as I was planning on having it for a while, so I bought some new equipment, not really sure what I was doing. Ended up upgrading a few systems and then launched. Or at least tried too. My lateral thrusters were not working and I slowly drifted around the inside of the station like a n00b. I spent several minutes re-plugging the throttle and stick etc, but all seemed good. Got fined by the station for loitering and was praying it would not open fire on me. Thought this lack of control was another bug, then I then looked at the ship system panel and noticed that some systems were offline due to lack of power. In the end I had to turn off power to weapons which get power to the thrusters. Then I was able to exit the station. Next issue was trying to get into hyperspace, not enough power. Then had to turn shields off, hell I would not need them in HS anyway. Then after dropping out of frameshift I would turn that system off and toggle the shields on. By the time I was close to the station the shields had powered up, it worked. Made docking more interesting managing the piloting, comms to request docking, power management etc, but was fun. Made it feel more like a simulator. By this point I was extremely good at docking and navigating so the extra complexity kept the interest levels up. I think that’s where this game is extremely good, you learn at your own pace and there always seems to be new stuff to master. Lesson here was to make sure the ships powerplant was powerful enough to run all the ships systems.
It was about this point that I decided to check out some of the USS or Unidentified Signal Sources that spawn when you are in frame shift. Curious as to what I would find. I dropped out by one and found the spooky floating remains of what looked like an Eagle, the ship type, not a bird. Floating about the remains were some cargo canisters. So having an empty hold I deployed the cargo scoop and slurped them up like Daniel-Day Lewis in ‘There Will be Blood’. It was a mixed bag including some minerals, components and most curious Ancient Artefacts. Now the problem with picking up any random canisters is they are instantly tagged as stolen. So selling them requires two things. You need to dock at a station with a black market and you need to enter the station without getting scanned.
Finding a station with a BM appears to be sheer luck, it does not seem to adhere to any logic. So if you don’t have a list of stations with these markets you just have to try some. The next problem is evading the authority’s scans. Generaly whenever you get close to a station the cops scan your ship to see if you are wanted or if you are carrying anything illegal. All the stations have huge firepower and you don’t want to get on there wrong side, it’s a pretty impressive sight when you see twenty something gun batteries opening up on one small ship. You may get off with a fine, but these tend to be large. Therefore don’t get caught. Here is my smuggling 101.
Your ship generates heat, each system that is on will contribute in varying degrees, shields generate a lot of heat. Heat against the near absolute zero of space is easily detected, This is what ships and stations look for. To cool down your ship has heat syncs that open to space, these are the gill looking bits on your ship. To evade a scan you need to cut your emissions to zero. To do this you have two options. Number one, close the vents, this is known as silent running. This works a treat, but as you may expect the heat then builds up quickly and when you get above 200% heat you run the risk of blowing the ship up. So this silent running is a short term solution, with normal systems on this will only be good for about 30 seconds or so. So think of it as the ship holding it’s breath.
Option two is to turn off all non essential systems and wait till the ship cools down, which can take a few minutes. You can speed this up by ejecting the heat sync if you have bought this option. Now that you are invisible to everyone, at least thermaly, you can sneak into the station undetected. Stations normally scan you when you are very close to the entrance, you can be unlucky and run into a partol out in deep space but it’s unlikely. Therefore the critical bit is just at that entrance. So here are two options:
Silent Running method. You need to be at about 7.5km from the station, request docking, thrust at full power for the entrance then when you are close (2-3km) turn on silent running, scream through the letterbox entrance, land and dis-able silent running before the ship explodes. One note here is that silent running turns off your shields so any collision could be fatal, especially at high speed.
Low power method. Start at approx 10km and park with your ship pointing directly at the entrance. Now you need to shut down pretty much everything, including life support, you will get two and a half or five minutes of reserve oxygen. Wait till the heat emissions shrink to zero. When you get near zero the cockpit glass will frost over. I also believe that the waveform type display on the right of the HUD above the fuel guage is a thermal heat signature monitor, the more active it is the more visible you are. At zero you should now be a hole in space. Turn on thrusters and with flight assist off, throttle to full with afterburners and then shut engines off. You have now put Newton in the driving seat and will be coasting at about 400 m/s at the entrance, hopefully. At 7.5km briefly turn on the comms and request docking. You may need to make a couple of correction burns, but remember to keep them short, the longer the thrusters are powered up for the hotter you will get. Also bear in mind that other ships will not see you and that your shields are down. When you get to the entrance turn thrusters on again and make your landing. As soon as you make it through the letterbox atmosphere will be restored.
Both these methods are not without risk, but it’s the only way to sneak stolen items in and is great fun, very Han Solo. I tend to use a combination of both methods. Turn off as much as possible, fly at full speed towards the station, then turn on silent running at the last moment. This way there is less to juggle and less chance of the ship overheating and exploding. I believe that you won’t get scanned by the station when you are inside, but you may still get scanned but another ship in the station.
Interdiction & Running Away
Whilst on another run I was approaching Eddington Market with 42 tons of Marine Equipment worth approx 202,000 Credits, literally seconds away from the station I was interdicted and pulled out of frameshift.
When I dropped into normal space the NPC ship opened fire. My first instinct was to get back into FS but the drive needed time to cool down, about a minute. I turned off power to FS drive and toggled power to weapons and shields, then deployed hardpoints and… life support failed! Not enough power, still had not made enough money to upgrade my powerplant. No biggie I thought, computer reported I had 5 mins of air on emergency system, was a bit eerie hearing heavy breathing now with muted hits from the enemy fire. So rather stupidly I started attacking this ship, bad idea. My weapons only had enough power for a couple of shots when went offline to recharge. God dam this pathetic powerplant. I was outgunned and outmanouvered, well, lets be honest, he was basically much better than me, a freaking script. I had not played any combat since the demo a couple of weeks ago, which did not help matters.
The console was sparking and smoking, not a good look, things were rapidly going south. Made a few evasive manouvers and decided to get back into frameshift and get the hell out of there. So turned off power to weapons and turned on power to FS drive. It would not engage I was 3% shy on power!!! Things were very bonfire night inside the ship by now, shields had failed and hull was at about 60% and falling. Panic was now setting in, I had all my money in the cargo, which was not insured, it represented hours of play, did not want to lose almost a quater of a million. Briefly thought about jetisoning a few containers to get this guy off my back, perhaps he would focus on the easy pickings and let me go. In the end I turned off scanners and thrusters to get enough power for FS and sat there not moving as it spooled up, which seemed to take ages. In hind sight I should have turned off flight assist and boosted away then turned on silent running, would have given me a better chance. However things were happening way too fast and that did not happen. I did manage to jump out of there, just.
Was a great encounter and was the first time I had fired a shot in the game since I bought it two weeks ago, well, apart from a test firing by a station which got me a fine. The cinematic trailer for Elite Dangerous would have anyone think the game was all about fighting, could not be further from the truth. Mind you the trailer shows a lot of stuff that is simply not in the game, the walking around outside your ship, or indeed inside it, rapid yawing manoeuvres, slaved drives and the general look of the game. Hopefully there will be future expansions to add extra gameplay.
After making my first million with trading I decided I had enough of a security buffer money wise and that it was time to mix it up a bit and have a go at combat. If you get killed in combat you can buy back your last ship at a much reduced price, however you don’t want to be doing this often, especially if you have a ship you have tricked out with expensive goodies. Thought bounty hunting sounded fun so kitted out my Cobra with two beam lasers and two canons. Upgraded shields and hull and bought a kill warrant scanner which enables you to find wanted people easier and get higher bounty claims. The upgrading of your ship is very similar to the Mechwarrior way of things, where you have to balance heat, weight & power etc. My first couple of engagements were against mostly harmless NPCs but the third and fourth was with more competent ships. The video below shows an encounter with the latter two. After days of trading a good fight was way good fun, although I ONLY just got back to a port with a very broken ship. Next thing to buy is a better life support system and more shields. Perhaps some more time in the combat simulator also.
So you can probably tell by now, with this blog of almost 6,000 words, that I am pretty happy with Elite Dangerous. I have other things to try yet such as mining and exploration. I may even have a crack at piracy, however not too keen about having a big bounty on me, especialy if I bump into a gang of real human players eager to cash in on said bounty. The beauty is that you are free to pursue any of these lifestyles. Frontier are planning to make more ships playable and to make planetary landings possible plus the option to get out of that chair and walk about your ship or station, planet etc. Not sure when this is coming, but we are promised it is, guessing the next three months will be focused on the Mac version of Elite Dangerous, so not holding my breath. It’s quite an undertaking. I believe that the area of land in one of the ring stations is larger than the playable area in GTA V. That’s just one station, in any system there can be several stations and many dozens of planetary bodies and moons, and that’s just one of 400 billion systems. That’s an mind-numbingly outrageously super huge area of land. It will certainly change the game quite a bit, making it a more rounded experience.
There are also Easter eggs to explore such as black holes and neutron stars, someone even found Voyager 2, exactly where it should be in 3300 AD. You can even visit good old SOL, Mars looks a bit different as it’s terraformed and earth seems to have higher sea levels.
There is also an ongoing story of a power struggle between three main factions, the federation, Empire & Alliance, although I have honestly not looked into this at all. There are news feeds in game that you can read to keep up with all this. I think wars are waging between these factions and you can go and fight for one side or the other in a mercenary role or join the navy. Some systems in conflict will have capital ships in them, huge dreadnaughts of space. I have not encountered one yet, something for the future. Frontier have released this cinematic trailer below outlining some big guns encounter.
Elite Dangerous is not for everyone. I’m not even sure how to categorise it. It’s part flight sim, construction, strategy, trading, combat, exploration, a bit role play and many other things. Initially it’s overwhelming as to what to do and how to proceed. Hell, when playing I’m sitting there with ED on one computer and a spreadsheet open on my laptop and my tablet open on a Elite Dangerous wiki page to help answer some of my questions. Ultimately that’s what makes the game a good one for me, there are many different disciplines to learn and master which then open up other areas of play. It’s very engaging, immersive and I guess most importantly fun. With this ongoing story and expansion packs in the pipework and real people to interact with I hope the game has many years of entertainment for me. Given that the 1984 Elite kept me entertained for many years on a much simpler play style without any improvements over time & with joke graphics and sound by today’s standards, I think ED has some months of play in it yet, not bad entertainment for £35.
I can’t complete this blog without mentioning other games in this genre, there is the aforementioned Eve Online as well as Star Citizen & No Man’s Sky. The latter two are not out yet but could be an Elite beater. I rather hope that all these other games are hits and that they all duke it out to bring in players. This sort of competition can only be a good thing.
Now to get back to making that elusive Elite status. I failed in 1984, perhaps 2014 is the year I make it. Engage!
Docking in 1984