Elite: PowerPlay Review
I’ve held off on this one for a while to try and be as objective as possible about it. I’ll come true, my initial reaction was:
What the &^*% are they doing to the game? 🙁
Which, let’s be honest, isn’t very constructive or worthy of publishing online, at least, not on my blog.
PowerPlay has been controversial. Before we get to that, there are some excellent bits of the 1.3 (and subsequent minor updates) that are worth calling out. Reduced stuttering in-game (for most anyway), enhanced audio, new missions structure, ability to hunt missions targets in supercruise, new AI for the NPCs and new ships – even if the Imperial Courier isn’t an Imperial Courier ;).
So, given all that. What do we have?
PowerPlay is the first time that actual faces have been put into Elite (I know there were some generic ones in FE2/FFE, but they weren’t characters). We have ten individuals who have ‘power’ in the Elite universe and will doubtless shape the destiny of human controlled space in the game.
They are a mixed bunch. Some have commented that they aren’t mixed enough. Diversity issues in the 21st century aside, we basically have mix of characters who players are encouraged to ‘pledge’ their allegiance to.
First reaction from me? Disappointing that they are all ‘in-house’ characters. There were plenty of larger than life characters produced by the writers of the official books and it’s shame that not a single one was included. Many fans were dismayed by this too. Another opportunity to embrace and re-enforce the existing lore was missed.
On the plus-side, as is usual with Frontier, the art work is excellent. The characters look interesting, different and are well portrayed, even if some of them do seem to bear a striking resemblance to other well known personalities.
Given that, we have individuals that represent the Empire, The Federation, the Alliance and some Independents who are strong enough to have a significant influence.
Unfortunately, we don’t have much of a backstory for these characters. Some have had a bit of an entrée from the GalNet articles, but really not very much. Thus they’ve all ‘appeared’ in the game with almost no preamble. We don’t really know how they came to ‘power’ or what their intentions are. To have got where they have, they’ve got to have been schemers and players, so we can’t judge them on what they say, only on what they do. Without a backstory we can’t really judge them. I haven’t pledged for this reason. I don’t have a reason to trust any of them.
There seems to be something of an intention to have ‘Game of Thrones’ in space. That could be fun, but Game of Thrones isn’t a fabulous franchise because it has a bunch of people in it, it is fabulous because of all the fascinating and believable characters who you either love to love or love to hate. The PowerPlay characters are currently completely flat and two dimensional. In short, there’s nothing much to care about at the moment.
On a positive side again, player groups are forming around the PowerPlay characters, as evidenced on many SubReddits that have formed to cater for them. I will watch that with interest to see how it develops. This fostering of player interaction is a great thing.
Once you’ve pledged for a power, you have to run missions for them. There is a lot of debate on this. Some liken it to yet another ‘grind’, or call it a ‘timesink’. You can find this endlessly debated for and against on the official forums, I’ll not repeat here.
I’m not a big gamer myself, but I can sympathise with painfully dull gameplay required to get to a certain point in game. From my own experience, it’s taken me six months to get a decent A-spec Cobra from what was quite a privileged kickstarter enhanced start position. I’m finally able to play Elite as I want to.
These missions influence (and I stress the word ‘influence’) what a power will do. It may prepare a system for invasion, conquer it or lose it to another power. This can be seen on the galactic map, changing week to week. The more time you have, the more influence you’ll be able to apply. It does favour those with more time to spend in-game. Powers basically just control territory and that territory will shrink or grow over time.
That’s all they actually do. There’s no other ‘colour’ to their actions, and no real purpose to their actions. Why are they trying to expand their influence? Characters with no motivation just aren’t realistic.
Systems grabbed by powers will alter their trading status, meaning that savvy traders (who aren’t pledged) will be able to take advantage of the flow of galactic politics.
Another problem. These ‘Powers’ are squabbling over a few dozen light years of space, ostensibly fighting for resources. Why? They are surrounded by an unpopulated galaxy utterly full of resources. With the new hyperdrives, even a 1,000 lightyear trip is little more daunting in 3301 than a trip around the M25 would be to us today. The powers should just expand outwards rather than wasting resources fighting each other. It’s plainly a mechanic to keep PvP players in the same area. It makes no sense as part of the lore… infact it tramples all over it: the original three superpowers, the old worlds, the books, the history…
Add to this the peculair way that the players decide the ‘powers’ actions at the end of each week. We’re supposed to pledge ourselves to leaders who aren’t actually ‘leading’, They’re just figureheads, the sum of players’ actions.. Amazing attention to detail has been lavished on many other parts of Elite and yet PowerPlay seems to lack internal consistency.
In-game, the interface is rather soulless. Pledge to this power, you get a perk. Earn enough merits and you’ll get a special power up. Secure enough ‘Command Capital’ and your power has a better chance of expanding its remit in the next ‘tick’ (a weekly review of the status of the Powers). It’s very much a game of ‘Risk’, just online and with the dice rolling replaced by in-game missions.
Is this good or bad? It depends on whether you like risk or not. I quite enjoyed Risk, but a turn-based, merit based, multiplayer game of risk, placed on-top of a sort of MMO which allows single player mode is a very odd and confusing thing. I’m not convinced it’s ‘Elite’ at all.
At its heart Elite is a single player game, or at least it was. You, the Commander, against a galaxy. Do what you want, go where you want to go. “Take a ship… seek your fortune…” etc. PowerPlay makes you a cog in someone else’s mission.
It also feels like Elite is being prepped for consoles. The UI in particular is big and bold with a very ‘console’ feel. Merits, command capital, special upgrades reached at particular points are all ‘unlock achievements’ and ‘open up the next level’ dynamics as far as I can see. They don’t have a place in my understanding of ‘Elite’. They are far too limiting.
I fear Elite is heading in a direction that I don’t personally want to go. This may be for sound economic reasons. There are only so many original 84-er players about, we have limited time and we’re probably no longer the target demographic. Compromises will have to made to bring Elite to the XBox and the PS4 and Frontier would be mad not to do that.
The end result may not be what I want and that may be just tough, but I’ll be frank. ‘PowerPlay’ isn’t what I was hoping from from Elite at this time. It doesn’t have the ‘heart and soul’ of Elite contained within it. Without knowing what else is on the roadmap (and David Braben has said he’s not sharing that), I don’t know whether to just ignore PowerPlay and enjoy the rest of the game, or hope that something else is coming.
It is worth pointing out that nowhere in the DDF, (which had some fabulous ideas yet to be realised) did anyone, as far as I know, ask for anything resembling ‘PowerPlay’.
It’s not fair to criticise without offering my view on what I think could be improved and should be in Elite.
Powerplay could be enhanced quickly by some in-game character bios. Flesh out these people for us. Are they trustworthy? Are they maniacs? Are they depressives? Are they naive, hyper-intelligent, brutal? We don’t know. Reward us with something more than a ‘special upgrade’. Medals, mentions, exclusive ranks, insider information… there are all sorts of possibilities. Allow players to collaborate effectively on tactical decisions rather than just push systems into a ‘top five’ by voting, in-game faction specific message boards, comms. There’s lots that could be done.
I still won’t like it though. 😉
It just isn’t Elite. Elite is about space, about staying alive in an implacably hostile universe. We can fly ships. We want to be out there doing the whole “Where no one has gone before…” thing. Exploration needs content – lots of it. That’s where I’d like to see the investment of time and energy. Fill those 400 billion stars with wonder, excitement and mystery. Fill it with the genuinely unknown, rather than just (admittedly pretty) procedurally generated stars and planets.
The best thing that happened recently was the bizarre unidentified artefacts. Unfortunately it seemed like that story went nowhere. Leading to speculation it was just dropped into the game as an aside. That there, precisely that – just more – is what I think Elite needs right now.
We need mysterious wrecks, hard to find signals, distress calls, odd bits of space that you can’t navigate or that screw up your instruments, more weird artefacts and clues that when you put them together… ?
Powerplay just *isn’t* Elite in any way shape or form. It’s constrictive, it’s regimented, it’s closeting, it’s turn-based, it’s artificial, it’s levelling-up with progress indicators and rewards… what next? Three lives and a high-score? The Galnet articles, which were providing a bit of story (even it if was patchy) have now dried up in favour of dull statistics based on the ‘actions’ of these powers. Sorry, this isn’t what I was hoping for and I’ll admit to being very dismayed with the direction the devs have taken.
Give us adventure, Frontier, not a online board game. That’s the essence of Elite.