Frontier has announced that its first Elite Dangerous open beta of 2018, designed to gather pre-release feedback on the new Beyond update, will commence on January 25th.
Beyond is the name of Elite Dangerous's incoming season of content updates, and it differs substantially to the previous Horizons season. Where Horizons was a paid-for expansion, focussing on big marquee additions to the Elite universe, Beyond is a series of free updates largely built around long-requested quality of life improvements to the core game.
When Frontier announced Beyond at its inaugural expo event in London last year, it explained that the new season would be split into four parts. It's the first of these, known simply as Chapter One, that will enter open beta on Thursday, January 25th.
Chapter One introduces the Chieftain ship - a new Alliance craft designed by in-game manufacturer Lakon Spaceways - that's "more maneuverable than ships of similar size and weight, and [...] can more than hold its own in a fight", according to Frontier.
Elsewhere, Chapter One brings some much-requested updates to Elite's core mechanics, including accessibility enhancements to the game's Engineering system, an overhaul of mission rewards, and major changes to Crime and Punishment.
It will also, at long last, see the arrival of proper Wing missions that can be tackled by a fleet of up to four Commanders, all offering shared rewards.
There are welcome improvements for traders too, and Commanders will soon be able to access trade data from any system they've visited previously. As Frontier puts it, this should help players "make more informed decisions when shipping goods across the Milky Way".
Chapter One will also introduce GalNet Audio, enabling Commanders to have Elite's in-game news service read out to them during a flight. This may prove more significant than it sounds, and could potentially help draw more focus to Elite's ongoing narrative elements and events, given that Galnet will no longer remain exclusively in the domain of those willing to park up and wade through pages of text, instead of playing the actual game.
Last but not least, Chapter One will feature the first steps in a major visual overhaul for Elite, designed to give more vibrancy to the galaxy. This first pass will focus on improving planetary visuals from orbit (and will hopefully put an end to Elite's relentless procession of boring, beige planets), with surface level improvements due toward the end of the year.
The upcoming beta is notable for being the first free, open beta that Frontier has staged in some time - in the past, Elite's beta events have required a small admission fee. "Because of the huge number of core feature enhancements, the introduction of a new ship, and other numerous additions and improvements", explains Frontier, "we want to be sure that as many of you are able to experience and test the beta first-hand, for that reason we have decided to open this beta to all players of Elite Dangerous and Elite Dangerous: Horizons on PC."
This more inclusive approach will hopefully help Frontier make adjustments and design decisions equally suited to a more relaxed audience, and not just the play-styles of those able to dedicate huge portions of time to the game.
Frontier says it will publish a full list of beta changes on launch day, Thursday January 25th, and will offer a closer look at Chapter One's new features in its livestreams on Tuesday January 16th at 7pm GMT and Thursday January 18th at 7pm GMT.