Despite - or perhaps because of - the crowdfunding approach, this is Elite without compromises or concessions
If you grew up with games in the 1980s, it's likely that the Coriolis Star Port's been spinning through your imagination ever since. It's still dazzling to see the place rendered and textured in Elite: Dangerous, though, those unmistakable wireframes newly covered with beacons, gantries, and glittering towers. Coriolis has been waiting for you all this time, and it's a treat to be back. Line up with the docking bay, and you'll find that the feel of your Sidewinder jetting itself into position is exactly as you remember it. Once inside, you can still spend your precious credits, too, outfitting your craft for the battles that lie ahead, and stocking up on any supplies that might be worth a little bit more out there than they are right here.
Fans have waited so long for a proper Elite sequel, and what's most surprising about Dangerous is that it feels so pure. It's still a gloriously chilly space opera that relies as heavily on the science as it does the fiction, and it still pitches you into a universe where the harsh realities of capitalism are as inflexible as the laws of physics. Frontier's been trying to get this game made for years and, playing the current beta, it's hard not to argue that crowdfunding, on this occasion, was probably the best way to proceed. Sure, the need to avoid undercutting backers has put the pricing into some properly unpleasant contortions along the way, but despite the delights of being charged Ł200 for access to an unfinished project, I'm not sure I can imagine Elite, with all its wonderful obstinacy, making it through the gauntlet of a traditional publishing deal intact - or at least without a few concessions to current fashions getting clamped on along the way.
Cynical or not, going direct to an audience that absolutely understands the proposition has seemingly allowed Frontier to deliver its game uncompromised. The new additions, like online multiplayer and Oculus support, all make sense, and there's no attempt to build something that will be palatable to the widest possible audience - while truly satisfying none of them. Dangerous is definitely not for everyone - and that's a real strength. .
In a surprisingly crowded landscape, Elite still stands out
One of the best things about Star Citizen, No Man's Sky, and Elite: Dangerous is that none of these games cancels the others out. Together, they show the depth to be found even in a genre that's broadly concerned with zipping around the cosmos in a nimble little spaceship. Star Citizen seems to be focused on the adrenalin and spectacle of lining someone up in your sights and lavishly blasting them to pieces with plasma. No Man's Sky currently lives for that moment when a misty sphere on the horizon becomes the horizon itself - when you're diving down through the clouds of another Instagram-hazed Galapagos Island to see what freaks you'll find chewing the treetops.
And Dangerous? Dangerous is pure Kubrick, revelling in the size and the emptiness of outer space, where the shadows are deep, deep black, where the distances really count, and where your first few seconds in a cockpit loaded with prompts regarding 'mass-locking' and 'hardpoints' can deliver a genuine burst of panic. This is an online game where you can find a lot of easy reasons to rarely see another player, and a dog-fighting game where the periods in-between the laser fire and the daylight robberies will play out at a stately pace and on a truly grand scale. And while the missions you pick up in a Star Port may hint at the easy nihilism of most contemporary open-worlders - rough these guys up, steal me a whole load of this - even here it's worth remembering that Elite was always first with this sort of stuff when it came to video games. Elite's a pioneer in the field of amorality, and it's finally coming home.
A game about the economy is as topical as ever
And one of the great things about amorality, of course, is that it never goes out of style. Back in the Thatcher years, when David Braben and Ian Bell were trying to add something meaningful for you to do in amidst all that blasting and hyperdriving about, trading must have felt like the perfect solution. There was no such thing as society, right? But that didn't mean that the universe couldn't be one big marketplace.
Unsurprisingly, this aspect of the game has barely aged. With all the unstable bubbles and super-predators of contemporary finance, it feels entirely natural to drop into a Star Port, load up on weapons, and then give the commodities market a quick once-over to see whether you're about to make a fortune by dumping tea and coffee everywhere. Like the jazz playing in the Mos Eisley Cantina, allowing economics to provide both the lore and the law for Elite's fiction has allowed the often gimmicky and myopic world of popular sci-fi to seem timeless. Greed never really changes, so Elite's central compulsion makes as much sense now as it ever did - and its risks and rewards need little in the way of a tutorial to explain them.
If anything, Dangerous might be playing it a little safe at times. With its dark pools, microsecond fronting, flash crashes and high-frequency traders, the current financial world has far more to do with speculative fiction than the time-honoured act of merely dragging mineral oil from point A to point B and then pawning it off on some chump. Michael Lewis would probably think Elite is all very quaint.
Check out that hyperdrive
Frontier's current beta allows you to tackle single-player combat scenarios or team up with friends and explore a huge, detailed stretch of the galaxy, but its defining pleasure is one that you can access without guns and without pals. Dangerous is serious about outer space, and it's serious about depicting the sheer distance between one star and the next. This means, as with the original game, you're going to spend a lot of time travelling by hyperdrive.
And travelling by hyperdrive is a thrill that no amount of cheap sci fi TV series can quite diminish. It's a wonderful combination of ritual and spectacle that really powers home the immersive possibilities of the entire game. Select a target, align yourself, retract landing gear, charge the drive, and then throttle up to engage. THWUM: you're off, lights zipping past, nebulas spiralling, stray stars emerging for a few seconds from the Hubble mists before dropping back once more. Finally, as briskly as it started, the whole thing ends, and you come to a rest in front of - wow! That's a pretty serious sun. Oh, you're on fire again.
For all I know, hyperdrive's essentially a loading screen, giving you something pretty to look at while it readies your new location for you. Regardless of what's going on behind the scenes, though, it serves a far more important purpose, too. It makes the dream of hopping about the universe a tangible, creaking, juddering reality.
After this, I want The Outsider even more
There's a tacky bobblehead doll on the dashboard of my Sidewinder - only appropriate, really, given this is, as much as anything, a game about space truckers and their inane and lawless adventures. Even more appropriately, if I look closer, that bobblehead seems kind of familiar. It's Toku, the Schulzian hero of LostWinds.
It can be a little weird to think that LostWinds and Dangerous come from the same studio - that one developer in Cambridge can close in to work on the fine detailing of a melancholic children's fable while also shifting back and bending the vast, uncaring forces of the galaxy to its will. As much as I loved stuff like LostWinds, I'll admit that I'm not sure I entirely believed the team at Frontier had it in them. Had those years of Kinectimals and Disneyland Adventures left them with enough of the weird existential stoicism needed to create a game about being beaten up by a universe that doesn't even know you exist?
The answer, so far at least, is yes, and the sheer energy and purpose of Dangerous has left me yearning for that other troubled Frontier project, The Outsider, to come out of retirement. Like deep-space commodities trading, its idea of an open-world conspiracy thriller embedded in the spin-cycle of 24 hour news media seems unlikely to lose its relevance any time soon. Meanwhile, its aim to stitch meaningful and coherent stories around the player's actions seems as crazy and exciting as ever.
Besides, once you've simulated a small fleshy body being blasted into the centre of a sun, you're probably ready to tackle Washington DC.