After a 22-year absence, Elite's legendary alien menace, the Thargoids, are back. This isn't a surprise invasion, of course; developer Frontier has been teasing the Thargoids' eventual return in Elite: Dangerous for over two years now, with a masterfully orchestrated campaign of steadily escalating alien activity that did its job, leaving fans in an anticipatory frenzy. The tease is finally over though: Elite: Dangerous' 2.4 update ("The Return") released earlier this week and set the Thargoids loose upon the galaxy once and for all - and Elite's sometimes divided community has united to uncover the secrets of the series' most formidable foe.
Elite: Dangerous' long Thargoid reveal started back in 2015, with the discovery of Unknown Artefacts. These mysterious commodities offered the earliest hint of an alien presence in the galaxy, and marked the start of Frontier's patient, beautifully paced unveiling of the Thargoids' return. That initial discovery ignited an exploratory spirit all across the community, and soon eager explorers had uncovered strange alien "barnacles" on desolate planets, alien transmitters orbiting around ammonia-based worlds, mysterious signals and alien crash sites. Players have even witnessed the hazy green aftermath of devastating battles that gave terrifying hints of the Thargoids' power.
Things finally came to a head in January this year when first contact was made. A player known as Commander DP Sayre was unexpectedly hyperdicted - that is, dragged out of hyperspace by a Thargoid vessel - during a routine flight, and the resulting video evidence sent the community into overdrive. From then on out, the floodgates were open, and further proof of Thargoid activity piled higher and higher. Sightings increased, vast alien structures were uncovered, and ancient machines were bought back to laser-spewing life. The seeds were sown for the Thargoids return, and a newly energised community had united toward one grand, common goal.
Thankfully, you don't need to understand the Thargoids' origins and political ambitions to understand the excitement around them - which is probably just as well given the insectoid species has been accruing increasingly convoluted lore since the original release of Elite back in 1984. All you need to know that the Thargoids are a formidable, feared race, and that their arrival has the potential change Elite: Dangerous' dynamic completely.
As an unknown, outside threat, Thargoids certainly have the capacity to run refreshingly counter to Elite's comfortably predictable, sometimes introverted rhythms. But it might be some time before their true long-term impact is felt. Frontier has elected to continue its slow and steady approach to the Thargoids reemergence, and is playing it unusually coy with 2.4. Much of the update remains a mystery even after release, and many of its most significant additions will be slowly revealed during an evolving, months-spanning narrative focussed on humanity's fighting to retain control of the galaxy.
It's an intriguing new approach for a game that's stringently favoured DIY adventuring over a more crafted narrative experience in the past, and one that's ripe with potential. The only downside is in these early days, at the very start of Frontier's grand alien adventure, the impact of Thargoids on the galaxy feels fairly minimal right now. Primarily that's because almost all of the current alien activity is consigned to Pleiades nebula, a comparatively small area of the galaxy that's a notable trek away from the central cluster of populated systems known as The Bubble. As such, the Thargoids are virtually invisible to anyone not able or willing to make the long trip out to Maia and its surrounding systems.
For those who do make the journey however, there are already some interesting sights. The Pleiades nebula has received a bit of an makeover for 2.4, gaining imposing battleship patrols, ominous wrecks clouded in green Thargoid smog, planets mysteriously placed on lock-down by shadowy government agencies and more. Much of it feels like window dressing right now, but seeing all the pieces set in place for the potential war to come creates a palpable sense of tension. It's a impressive piece of scene setting, and Elite's new alien invasion, even in its embryonic stage, adds a welcome degree of uncertainty to the game's otherwise familiar rhythms and repetitive core loops.
Unsurprisingly, Elite's engaged community has already strapped on its science hat and started to test the limits of the galaxy's newest inhabitants, attempting to bait the Thargoids into further hyperdictions, and scouring the alien-infested Pleiades nebula for clues. In the short time since 2.4's release, players have, working as one newly energised whole, managed to accrue an impressive pile of preliminary research data, ranging from behaviour patterns and preferred locations to ship variants and potential combat tactics.
Some community members are attempting to decode mysterious messages, or secure alien samples using research limpets, while others probe Thargoid aggression levels and weigh up their defences. Intriguingly, it doesn't appear that the aliens have much interest in conflict at present. Most community reports seem to indicate the Thargoids are largely benign at the point of contact, either ignoring players completely or simply scanning their ships before turning their attention back to other, more interesting tasks.
Which isn't to to say Thargoid ships aren't easily antagonised: attack them or invade their space and you'll face the full, devastating force of their alien arsenal. Thargoids are frighteningly well equipped for combat and have so far proved impervious to destruction, despite the community's best efforts. This apparent immortality appears to be by design at present, however, with fans speculating the Thargoids will remain indestructible until Frontier is ready for the next stage of its grand narrative to unfold.
Not all investigations have been aggressive in nature; some commanders have attempted to befriend rather than besiege the Thargoid menace. One of the community's earliest experiments involved systematically ejecting different commodities out into space, dropping them in front of Thargoid visitors as a kind of intergalactic peace offering. Current results appear to suggest Thargoids will eagerly hoover up escape pods occupied by human beings, will have a monstrous hissy fit at anyone carrying Guardian technology (they really don't like the Guardians), and are largely indifferent to tea.
Meanwhile, other players are turning their attention to more cerebral mysteries. One enterprising commander discovered scanning a Thargoid vessel would return a series of seemingly random numbers. It didn't take long for the community to decode these, revealing the phrase "HULL STRESS FACTOR UNCERTAIN", an apparent reference to a Thargoid ship description in the original 1984 Elite's manual. Whether or not there's anything more to be read into these four words at present though, nobody knows.
And that enthusiastic uncertainty is probably the best way to sum up the community mood right now. There's a gleeful, communal clamour for answers, but at this early stage in Frontier's planned narrative, there doesn't seem to be that much information to work with. As such, the Thargoids are likely to remain a tantalising mystery, beyond these few early scraps of information, for a little while longer - at least until commanders acquire the appropriate technology to deal with them.
And that might well happen sooner rather than later: a large-scale gathering event (known as a CG or Community Goal in Elite: Dangerous parlance) has just ended. This particular CG tasked players with locating Thargoid materials and delivering them to Aegis, the in-game research initiative founded by scientists from all three human factions. The resources will be used to develop new offensive and defensive technologies - and it seems logical that the real Thargoid fun won't begin in earnest until then.
Right now, Elite is playing a bit of a waiting game, and there's palpable excitement precisely because nobody is entirely sure how things will unfold. One thing is clear though: Frontier's new narrative approach has done wonders to draw the community together, and has created a welcome, and genuinely exciting focal point in a game that can sometimes feel a little too directionless for its own good. What happens next is anyone's guess; for now we can only sit and wait for Frontier, and the Thargoids, to make their next move.