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Putting humans in Elite Dangerous might have been a mistake

Elite’s next big expansion is called Odyssey and will add first-person combat, explorable space stations, and the ability to walk on planets to Frontier’s space sim. The first phase of an alpha test launched yesterday, accessible to anyone who pre-ordered the expansion. And while I don’t want to be too hard on what is clearly a very early (and very rough) version of what we’ll see in the finished game, I’m not convinced that adding people to Elite was a good idea.

Character portraits and your own ‘Holo-Me’ avatar aside, Elite, as it exists today, is a largely faceless game. Its personality lies in its industrial design: specifically all those wonderful, varied ships, and the colossal, spinning space stations you dock them in. Frontier’s hard-edged sci-fi aesthetic is both beautiful to look at and thoughtfully designed, which lends it a feeling of tactile realism. I believe in the Elite universe when I spend time there. It feels like a place.

But leaving my ship for the first time in the Odyssey alpha, exploring the corridors of one of those massive orbital stations, I feel that immersion dribbling away. Traditionally, interacting with a station in Elite takes place entirely within the game’s ubiquitous holographic UI. But now I can wander around them in first-person, with bars, shops, public spaces, mission-dispensing NPCs, and other players occasionally running around. It’s a cool idea, but in this early build at least, the execution isn’t quite there.

The interiors have the sterile, lifeless feel of an airport terminal. I’m guessing that’s the idea, but it doesn’t make for a particularly inspiring setting. Elevator jazz and generic rock that sounds straight out of a stock music library is piped in. I can hear the distant, muffled murmur of conversation, which makes me feel kinda sleepy. I see adverts for ship manufacturers and soft drinks looping on screens around the NPCs, who sit scrolling on tablets, chatting over drinks, or milling around aimlessly. Sometimes they bump into each other, or walk down the stairs with an animation that’s so broken it makes me laugh out loud.

character models have an uncanny, smooth-skinned, almost cartoonish look to them. They’re a bit too Pixar for their surroundings, which jars with how understated and functional the rest of Elite looks. Suddenly, this universe that I’ve always been utterly convinced by now feels, well… like a videogame. There’s something about seeing people in this world—standing in front of you, not just a vague silhouette through a cockpit window—that really destroys the illusion for me. But only because everything else in the game looks so damn good.

I realise making characters feel like living, breathing people in a videogame is really difficult—especially in a procedural galaxy where there are potentially tens of millions of NPCs. Which is why I feel like bringing a human element to the galaxy in Elite Dangerous is a bad idea, because Frontier is never realistically going to be able to make them all interesting or individual. They’re always gonna be machine-generated automatons churned out by an algorithm, used as set dressing to make these spaces feel more alive than they actually are.

It feels less like a bustling starport, and more like one of those 3D chat rooms that were all the rage in the early 2000s. But I can see these spaces being great for groups of players who want to meet up before a mission, hang out, and trade war stories. That sounds like a genuinely great use of the feature. But it doesn’t change the fact that they just don’t feel like a convincing, organic part of Elite’s larger universe. Not yet anyway. This is an alpha and there’s always room for improvement. But right now, I think I’m happy just staying in my ship.