Thursday, July 31, 2014

Byte: More thoughts on Elite: Dangerous

I've spent about five or six hours today playing with the latest Beta release of Elite: Dangerous, and if you check out all the screenies I took and posted on my Flickr feed earlier tonight (see the widget above), you can see I've been having a little bit of a ball.

There have been a few substantial changes since the final part of the premium beta, the biggest one being the change I've been waiting about six weeks for: solo play. In short, it (almost) makes the game exactly what I wanted, back when I signed up for the Kickstarter. They've opened the game up to 55 systems, which while still a tiny playground compared to the game's stated aim of recreating a whole galaxy, does at least give you some sort of indication of the ultimate potential of the game. The revised galactic map is a great tool, now that it shows trade routes and available hyperspace links. It certainly helps in planning multi-stop trade routes, or aiding you in the decision as to whether you should take on that cargo haulage mission or not. Yes, the bulletin board is now available, bringing with it a cornucopia of assassination, anti-piracy, anti-faction insurgency or plain cargo haulage missions for you to engage in (or not, if you'd just prefer doing your own thing - they're entirely optional).

Graphically, the game has gone through a noticable overhaul, especially with the space station modelling. The Coriolis stations were pretty stunning to begin with, but now they're amazingly sexy - the intricacy of the texture design inside and out is extraordinary. The ship interiors also seem a little more lived in and realistic, though that could be my imagination. The stars themselves have also been improved, with greater levels of detail in the texturing of the photosphere, including magnetic loops and prominences, plus better coronal effects. I'm not sure if they'll be modelled in real-time in the future, but it would be awesome if you could see flares popping off a G-type star every once in a while.

Trading has also been revamped, with a greater range of products, and the trading interface has been substantially improved since the start of the premium beta, as it now shows buying and selling prices on the stock exchange, plus it also keeps track of how much you bought your cargo for, so you can keep tabs of your profit margin, which is essential when trying to find out which commodities are the most profitable between two trading stations. It really helped me today, and I was able to make a big stack of money in a couple of hours after fortuitously scooping up four tonnes of gold in LP 98-132, flogging them off on the black market for over 4000Cr apiece, which allowed me to finally upgrade my Sidewinder to a Hauler. That one stroke of luck, allied to me finding a safe, profitable trade route in Federation Space allowed me to make more progress in solo play in a single afternoon than I'd had in multiplayer since I'd joined the premium beta. I'm still about 100k short of being able to upgrade to a Cobra, but that shouldn't take too long, since running fish from Chango Dock to Aulin Enterprise nets 6000Cr profit per run, and I can make 500Cr per tonne in profit running Progenitor Cells (whatever the heck they're supposed to be) back the other way. I don't quite have the capital yet for a full cargo hold of them in the Hauler, but if you top up the different with Synthetic Meat, you're still making a tidy profit. And it's a whole lot less risky investing 30k in cargo when you don't have to worry about PKers hanging just outside the no fire zone, waiting to scoop up your progenitor cells. (You can always tell the PKers from the bots, since bots don't have their names prefixed with 'CMDR'), though even in solo play you can't afford to get complacent, because even the pirate bots will have a go at you near the space stations if you hang around too long getting in and out of the safe zone. Once I've earned enough money and gotten a properly kitted out Cobra, that's when I'll head off into the wide black yonder trying to stir up some trouble, because I quite fancy doing a bit of pirate hunting. All I need are a pair of gimballed beam lasers, a missile rack and a gimballed multicannon, plus a point defence system to take down enemy missiles and I'll be invincible. Well, maybe... Still, it's something to aim for, right?

Something else new to this release are the custom paint jobs for the Sidewinder and the Eagle. I'm not sure if I entirely approve of this kind of thing, but provided the game doesn't go down the slippery slope of Pay To Win and the microtransactions remain purely aesthetic, then I suppose that's okay. However, I would definitely not be happy to have to fork out extra real world money to get access to the best ships in the game (this is something that has ultimately put me off playing Star Trek Online, incidentally - there is definitely a Pay To Win element there with some of the top tier vessels), even if I am going to be playing solo (which takes away the element of being disadvantaged to other players). I think I've already spent quite enough money on the game already, buying myself into the premium beta. I suppose I can't blame Frontier Developments for trying to get maximum revenues from their game, but it does seem like a bit of a cheap money grab, especially when you recall that the different paint jobs for the ships in Frontier and First Encounters were randomised. If you wanted your ship in a particular colour scheme, you had to get lucky at the shipyard. I remember hunting high and low for days to get an Asp with shark teeth decals in First Encounters. Speaking of the shipyard, if there is something I'd like to see in a future release, it is the ability to preview the specifications of ships available in the shipyard. It would be nice to know exactly what you're getting in terms of hardpoints, hyperspace range and cargo capacity before you fork out the cash. Still, it's a minor gripe, and overall the game is shaping up magnificently well. I seriously doubt that I'll have to buy another game all year.

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