At its inaugural expo event in London this weekend, Frontier Developments outlined the next 12 months of updates for its currently alien-infested space sim Elite: Dangerous. There's an awful lot of exciting stuff in store, ranging from new ships and guild-owned space stations, to planets that aren't so distressingly beige.
Four updates, going under the catch-all name Beyond, are currently planned for release in 2018, and all will be free to those that own the Elite: Dangerous expansion Horizons. There's a real mix of additions throughout the year, but the general focus appears to be on delivering new quality of life features and on deepening the game's core, rather than the kind of banner feature additions that have marked Elite's currently ongoing second "season".
Frontier's initial Q1 update for 2018 is designed to lay the groundwork for a much larger update due toward the end of the year. A lot of this stuff is exciting largely because it sees Frontier directly responding to fans, and shaking up some of Elite's more consistently maligned mechanics. There will, for instance, be updates to Elite's weirdly implemented 'Engineers' system, so that the time-consuming process of upgrading top-tier ship parts no longer has the arbitrary potential to result in a downgrade instead.
Elsewhere, the galaxy's AI authority ships will be improved to give the in-game concept of crime and punishment a better focus, and trading will be augmented with more detailed, useful trade data. This latter addition seems to suggest Frontier has finally conceded that consistently forcing players out of the game and onto third-party services to find the information they need might ultimately be detrimental to the immersion Elite strives for. And in a similar bid to break from Elite's sometimes frustratingly staccato rhythm, Q1 will see the introduction of Galnet Audio, enabling commanders to digest Elite: Dangerous' in-game news service via text-to-speech audio while flying around, instead of being forced to read the all-consuming print version while parked up somewhere.
Elite's Q1 update will also bring an enhanced focus on "personal narrative", giving solo players longer-term goals that go beyond 'grind to get all the ships'. This will offer a way to acquire some impressive-looking but mysterious new tech and appears to be tied into the re-emergence of the Guardians, a shadowy race that, based on everything we know so far, doesn't seem to get on too well with the Thargoids.
Additionally, the early part of next year will finally see the introduction of proper Wing Missions, offering meaningful in-game co-op activities for groups of player ships to engage in beyond mere aimless space wandering. There'll also be two new ships to start saving for - the Chieftain, the first Alliance-specific ship, and the Krait, based on a ship design from the original 1984 Elite.
Perhaps most exciting of all though (depending on your own personal priorities, of course), is the news Frontier will be radically improving its planetary rendering tech in the Q1 update. Notably, this will see increased planetary diversity in space, so that you'll encounter more visually stimulating planets on your travels that go beyond the current plethora of uninspiring beige cheese-moons.
The middle of Frontier's year of updates is a little less clearly defined at present, although more new missions, ships, and scenarios are currently on the cards.
It's in Q4 that the big guns come out, with the promise of some significant upgrades to the core game. A new Codex, a kind of in-game encyclopaedia used for logging discoveries and hinting at anomalies, will be introduced, and both exploration and mining will receive a major overhaul, making two of Elite's most undercooked career paths considerably more substantial.
Meanwhile, Elite's planetary overhaul will continue. An improved lighting model will offer visual enhancements to both space and planetary surfaces, and new rock formations and ambient effects such as fog and vapour should make planets feel more diverse, authentic, and less like slightly knobbly pudding. There's also concept art for what looks like a land-able ice planet, replete with imposing ice formations.
Q4's biggest addition though is Squadrons, essentially large-scale in-game guilds with proper player hierarchies. Excitingly, squadrons will be able to purchase Fleet Carriers - large, dockable vessels that then function as the base of operations for Squadrons - offering members the same respawn, refuel, and rearm options found in current stations.
If all that seems a little too far off to truly excite though, Frontier has teased a few tidbits of things to come in its currently ongoing 2.4 Thargoid narrative. These include a new ship (which may or may not be the highly anticipated Type 10), plus what appears to be a new, and considerably more ferocious-looking brand of Thargoid. There are also hints that large-scale Thargoid attacks on stations might be imminent, with Frontier's 2.4 sneak peek trailer showing a station interior on high alert.
So all in all, 2018 should be a busy year for Elite, and one that has the potential to be its most meaningful yet. Many of Elite's season 2 updates, such as planetary landings and multi-crew, while exciting in their own way, have felt underdeveloped, falling considerably far from reaching their full potential. A year of free updates designed specifically to plug in the gaps might just leave Frontier's ambitious space sim in the healthiest state it's ever been.