Elite Dangerous' first big update of 2018 - known as "Beyond - Chapter One" - will release next Tuesday February 27th on PC, PS4, and Xbox One, Frontier has announced.
This will mark the start of Elite's third season of content updates, which differs from previous seasons somewhat in that it's primarily focussed on bringing much-needed improvements, adjustments, and refinements to the core game.
Chapter One, for instance, introduces the first of several planned visual updates to Elite's universe, in a bid to make it a more aesthetically interesting, slightly less beige place. There's also an overhaul of the Crime and Punishment system to address the way that the game responds to Commanders that harass - and explode - innocent players.
Changes to Crime and Punishment, says Frontier, are designed to make Elite "fairer and more competitive". There's a new AI-controlled Advance Tactical Response fleet that scours the galaxy in search of repeat offenders, new notoriety levels that make life harder for those that persist in illegal activities, and more. The idea, broadly speaking, is to make the game more accessible to newcomers, and a lot tougher on those Commanders that prey on them.
Beyond also introduces new Wing Missions - objectives specifically designed for groups of up to four player ships - giving some welcome structure to the Wings experience.
Now, Commanders can select Wing Missions from a mission board and their Wingmates can accept to join in. Each Wing member can have their own mission in play, so that several can be in progress at once, and completion results in rewards for all participants. Additionally, it's possible to turn missions in early, after a certain threshold, to receive a reduced reward.
Elite's rather wonky Engineering system - which lets players upgrade various ship components in exchange for gathered materials - has also been radically reworked. Previously, the equivalent of a dice roll would determine whether improvements were successful, and a bad roll could lead to a lot of wasted materials. In the new update, Engineer trades will always result in boosted stats.
Players will also be able to select from a choice of three rewards at the end of a mission, and tech brokers and material traders (which supply, convert, and exchange materials) have been introduced - making it less of a chore to meet those Engineering entry fees.
Elsewhere, Chapter One brings a number of long-overdue improvements intended to keep players more directly engaged for longer. The new Trade Data overlay, for instance, will show the most profitable routes on the map, as long as you've put in some legwork around the stars - a welcome step toward providing more advanced information in-game, instead of forcing players out to a web browser all the time.
There's also the new Galnet Audio feature, which lets Commanders have the previously-text-only in-universe news service read out to them while they fly around, meaning it's no longer necessary to grind to a halt whenever you want to catch up on the latest happenings.
Hopefully this will bring Elite's ongoing alien invasion narrative - which was previously all-too-easy to overlook if you weren't routinely reading Galnet - into sharper focus.
Speaking of aliens, there are hints that the Thargoid menace will grow bolder in Beyond, penetrating the most heavily occupied part of the galaxy, known as The Bubble, and making life much more difficult for everyone. The Elite community also has its suspicions that the series' third race - the Guardians - could be returning to give the Thargoid a stern telling off.
To help counter all this increased alien activity, Beyond will introduce the new Chieftain combat ship. Developed by Lakon Spaceways for the Alliance faction, this new vessel favours weapons and manoeuvrability over armour - so strong piloting skills are a must.
Last but not least, Beyond - Chapter One also features an optional new onboard computer voice. Victor, as it's known, can be selected instead of the traditional Verity when in a station's Livery menu. Frontier says that it's looking at adding more voice packs in the future.
Beyond - Chapter One will be free to all existing Elite Dangerous owners when it releases on February 27th - although certain features, such as the Engineering changes, will only be available to those that have purchased the Horizons expansion.
Chapter One is the first of four Elite Dangerous updates scheduled to arrive in 2018, with two smaller content additions due before a second large-scale offering at the end of the year.