Elite: Dangerous Return to the Spotlight
By Rahul Chacko | Published: 03rd September 2014 06:00 AM |
Star Trek tells us that space is the final frontier, but sometimes it’s easy to just take that as a catchy tagline for a TV show. That simple statement captures a lot of the sentiments behind humanity’s fascination with the black infinity that surrounds the rock it calls home.
It’s hardly a surprise that this fascination is even more prevalent in gaming since technology is so intertwined in both subjects that the marriage is a comfortable union right away. Spacewar was one of the earliest examples of a computer game, coming out over half a century ago in 1962. Space Invaders was a staple of the early wave of arcade games. The gaming timeline till the current day is littered with space-based games, some of them like Jedi Knight and Bridge Commander fleshing out existing franchises, while others tackle new properties.
The one that I want to focus on goes into the latter category — a legendary space piloting/trading simulation by the name of Elite. David Braben and Ian Bell came up with Elite for the BBC Micro computer in 1984, influenced by the sci-fi pop culture works of their time. Where it scored most points was the freedom it gave players about how to go about making their way up in the universe, from trade to piracy, military duty to bounty hunting and other options in between. Keep in mind, this was a good 20 years before GTA and the ‘sandbox game’ genre was a household term, and it still had more freedom than some of the games that are considered ‘open’ today, if you could look past the wireframe rendering.
Elite had two sequels in 1993 and 1995 respectively, but the audience for 90s space games was firmly in the sway of Origin Games and Chris Roberts, gobbling up the epic space opera symphonies that the Wing Commander series. Wing Commander didn’t advocate for the open emergent style, preferring instead to keep players in a tighter gameplay experience and spending more time on epic stories by hiring name actors like Mark Hamill and Malcom McDowell for their cinematic cutscenes. Incidentally, Wing Commander 3 is free on Origin now, so if you want a taste, now would be a convenient time.
Today, it’s enough to cause a wry smile when you see that the two biggest space games on the horizon are Star Citizen (headed by Chris Roberts of Wing Commander fame) and Elite: Dangerous, which is Braben’s return to the spotlight. Both games are crowdfunded and largely reliant on the public sentiment that space games are a dying artform these days and should have suitable representation in the public eye. In terms of funding, Star Citizen dwarfs Elite’s bankroll, with their coffers recently overflowing past the $50 million mark. Elite has to make do with the comparatively paltry amount of $1.5 million that it generated through Kickstarter. However, it has its advantages – one being that it’s further in development than Star Citizen, with a fully functional beta recently released exclusively to backers. Two, it has existing support for the Oculus Rift, the virtual reality headset with a ton of hype behind it thanks to Facebook’s acquisition of the company. Three, Braben has the pedigree in pulling off this kind of grand macro-scale experiences with his series.
Chris Roberts, in comparison, is going to be going slightly outside his comfort zone. His games after Wing Commander, such as Freelancer, integrate a narrative into a living world decently well, but they never seem to be as large as you would expect space to be.
It’s good news for space game fans, because with Elite, Star Citizen and other notable entries like Limit Theory and Enemy Starfighter coming out, we’re going to be spoilt for choice.