The Alpha, a writers perspective

Dec 13, 2013

Access granted, Commander.

Alpha access granted, Commander.

So the Alpha is out and congratulations to Frontier for bringing it out on schedule too. That’s no mean feat from a project management perspective.

You’ll have already seen videos and screen shots and there’s little point in me duplicating the work that others have done, you’ll find it on the forums of course. Suffice to say, the Alpha is remarkably polished, the game runs on hardware that isn’t too ‘uber’ (I managed to run it on my laptop with low detail and a low resolution – from which my screenshots are taken).  From weapons, to flight model to the overall sense of immersion there is a lot to take in and discuss, but overall? The Alpha looks extremely good.

Frontier have done a magnificent job.

It's dangerous, it's Elite Dangerous!

It’s dangerous, it’s Elite Dangerous!

I’ve played for fun of course, and it is FUN. The game is already infinitely better than the original (no surprises there!) and the sequels. I’ve seen nothing else that is directly comparable. It’s clear the game has been very well tested already.

I’m looking at this from a writer’s perspective, what does the Alpha tell me about what I need to change in my book?

In short – rather a lot.

Load already!

Oh look… an Orange Sidewinder!

The first thing that jumped out at me in playing the game was the sounds. The cockpit of these ships is a noisy place, computers hum, consoles and holofac displays flicker and beep with soft meaningful tones. Target reticules spin and dance with urgent audio imperatives. The engine noise is a masterpiece, a sort of rough echoing turbine like drone which rises and falls with the thrust applied.

Weapons fire echoes through the ship, from the heavy thump of the autocannon to the energy discharge of the laser weapons. Incoming fire scythes away your shields with a subtle hum, whilst direct hits to the hull sound like you’re driving through a fierce hailstorm. Sparks fly as your ship is damaged and urgent warnings flash across your HUD. It’s frenetic.



The second thing was the mechanics. Weapons rise out of the hull and take a few moments to lock into place. At full throttle the ship judders and trembles, the basic Sidewinder we’re flying seems to be quite a rough machine. Hit an object or a ship and your vessel spirals out of control for a few moments. Weapons overheat, shutdown and reload all accompanied by warning messages and sounds. Shields collapse, recharge and reform with a tense wait for them to come back online. In extremis your life support fails; the cockpit breaks, smashes and fire leaps out around you.

Burst lasers

Burst lasers

Then the environment itself. Right now, with just the basic fight mechanics, the universe seems quite closed, the planet may just be a backdrop. I tried flying towards it for a while, but top speed is pegged at just a few hundred metres/second and there is no option to hyperspace or ‘frame shift’ at this point, so it’s impossible to tell if it’s an object or not. Relative to the asteroids in one of the scenarios your speed seems quite low.

Other ships ‘pop’ in from a hyperspace cloud of some sort. This happens at distance, so it’s difficult to see much, but you can observe the cloud forming and then dispersing afterwards. They trail some kind of vapour from their engines, smoke or waste products perhaps. The toxic cargo canisters in the first mission leak some unpleasant looking green goo.

Curse the Federation scum!

Curse the Federation scum!

Relative to the other ships though, the speed seems quite well balanced. It doesn’t take too long to engage and you can stay in their general vicinity without too much trouble. This has been very carefully judged. There’s not much of the irritating jousting from FE2 and FFE.

With the ‘flight assist’ mode on, combat is rather ‘planes in space’ and will be familiar to players of the original Elite and most flight sims. The throttle works in a novel way though. This sets a speed and then the ship matches it, so your vector adjusts to whichever direction you are pointing and then the engines shutdown when you match that vector. It makes the job of flying the ship very easy indeed. I used the default roll and pitch to fly and it’s very similar to the original game in this configuration. Both axes are ‘damped’ so that when you release controls the ship steadies out and flies in a straight line. The throttle also allows you to reverse so you can fly backwards, adding a new dimension to getting behind an assailant.

Managing onboard systems

Managing onboard systems

On top of this you have lateral and vertical thrusters, which are set to give you movement in those axes when keys are pressed. The ship comes to a halt when you stop pressing. This is very useful for fine control and should make docking rather convenient.

Switch off the ‘flight assist’ and a whole new world of experience opens up. Now you thrust in the direction you are pointing at that point in time. Pitch, roll and yaw rotate your ship, but no longer alter your vector. You can accelerate away, pitch over and point back the way you’ve come, firing at a pursuer behind you. Pitch, roll and jaw aren’t damped either, so your ship can be rolling in three axes at once.

I've got a bad feeling about this...

I’ve got a bad feeling about this…

I can’t master it yet, but the potential is there for some really serious skill for those who can get their head around it. From a fictional perspective, it provides a way to have an ‘Elite’ pilot who has mastered these techniques, differentiating them from the ‘rookies’.

It’s a clever blend of realistic Newtonian physics and fun gameplay; a difficult line to tread and one that has been very carefully covered. It’s very good indeed. If I had a complaint it was that the Sidewinder is very twitchy in roll, but rather sluggish in pitch. That may be by design though.

I’ve played about 5 of the missions. I’m currently stuck trying to take down a rather nasty Anaconda equipped with a turret mounted beam weapon. The game is proving to be a challenge, but not too difficult. The AI seems pretty good so far, and it will be interesting to see what a multiplayer scenario feels like in the future. They transmit text insults to you as well… 😉

Take that you mean ol' asteroid!

Take that you mean ol’ asteroid!

There are energy distribution options, you can cycle power to the engines, onboard systems and the shields via a very clever and intuitive set of controls (visible on the lower right in the HUD).  There are system management options in terms of repair, priority and power distribution, alongside a more comprehensive scanner system, both presented by ‘holofac’ displays to the right and left of your immediate view.

The scanner itself is very familiar lollipop/golf club arrangement, but is overlaid with some targeting information. I find this a bit small (having been used to Oolite) and it seems to have some sort of dynamic range setting which I haven’t quite understood.  You can zoom in on it as part of the cockpit view however.

I let them kill me you understand, for research purposes...

I let them kill me you understand, for research purposes…

I have a few scenes in cockpits of the Elite ships, and will be adjusting them based on what’s been seen so far. There’s a lot to do – my combat scenes need a thorough redraft already, though for now I’m making copious notes as I think there’s going to be a lot more detail in the upcoming Alphas.

Back to that manuscript once more!

In other news…

I released a new trailer for Elite : Reclamation, having a brief glimpse at the plight of one of the other characters rather than my anonymous heroine this time. I hope you like it!

Finally, our audiobook and special edition Kickstarter approaches the halfway funded point, with just less than halfway to go. We’re a little behind schedule here, so we’re hoping we don’t get too lost in the excitement of the Alpha itself.

If you can sign up for our social media thunderclap, that would be great too! Spreading the news is what it is all about and it would be much appreciated.

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