Elite: Dangerous Horizons Review
It’s finally here, the next outing in the Elite: Dangerous adventure!
To be totally accurate this is a new ‘season’ of content under the Elite: Dangerous banner. Elite: Dangerous season one consisted of the original game, 1.1 brought us community goals, 1.2 the Wings update, 1.3 was Powerplay and 1.4 was CQC. Along the way there have been extra ships, fixes and various improvements to the game, with the occasional (and sometimes) controversial tweak or balance. Some of these, IMHO, have been excellent, others less so. You can read my previous blogs for the gory details… 😉
Season one has finished with the 1.5 release, which was known as ‘Ships’, containing the Imperial Cutter and the Federation Corvette, besides a new Viper and a new Cobra.
But Horizons marks the start of season 2. It’s effectively Elite Dangerous 2.0.
This brings us, at last, the ability to land on planets. Airless rocky worlds for the time being, with the complexities of atmospheres and non terrestrial worlds to be addressed at some point in the future.
Unlike before, when an approach to a planet would simply drop you out of ‘supercruise’ with a ‘Too close!’ warning, now you enter ‘Orbital Cruise’ which allows you to fly around the planet or moon. Dropping below this altitude takes you into ‘Glide’ and as you exit this, you approach the surface at a speed which matches the normal capabilities of your vessel.
Of course, before you do any of this you need to equip your ship with a ‘Planetary Approach Suite’ (which appears to augment the thrusters aboard your vessel for the rigour of landing and decelerating) and if you want to get outside and have a look around you’ll need a Surface Reconnaissance Vehicle – SRV (or ‘Buggy’ as most are referring to it… as long as you’re outside FD’s hearing range 😉 ) and a hangar to put it in. This takes up a slot in a ship, so you may need to compromise your loadout to get one or more aboard.
Flying down to the surface is fascinating. There is a moment when the planet in question stops becoming an astronomical body and becomes a landscape, but it’s subtle and ‘in the moment’, not a function of the game chopping from one mode to another. The whole experience is seamless, even if the ‘glide’ and ‘orbital’ modes will need a little handwavium to explain. Your HUD changes to match the horizon and your ship begins to feel more like an aircraft as you orientate yourself to the ‘ground’.
With procedural generation every chasm, crater and rill remains every time you visit, which means the landscapes out there are genuine ‘places’ worth exploring, though naturally there will be a vast amount of emptiness – which is pretty much what you’d expect in real life. Looking at it with astronomical eyes I can see the care and devotion that’s gone into the surface generation, there are all sorts of interesting features.
The lighting is spectacular and some of the surfaces exhibit dust and haze, giving them a moody and sombre ‘atmosphere’, particularly if lit by a star of unfamiliar colour. You can fly across the surface in your ship – I tried it in my Imperial Clipper… based on my experience I suggest you use lightweight and agile vessels. 😉
As you close in on the surface you are prompted to find suitable terrain. This can be a little annoying, aim for the flattest location you can is my advice. Eventually you’ll find one and then… touch down, with a fading whine of exhaust thrust. (Assuming you haven’t forgotten the undercarriage, ahem!). You’ll notice a ‘G’ meter, which gives you an indication of local gravity. Some good work has been done here as the gravity well of each body is mapped. Gravity is very much present at some distance, and increases as you descend, exactly as it should be. Some worlds have very significant gravity and this impacts the behaviour of your ship – you have been warned!
Once you’re down, and assuming you’re equipped. It’s time to deploy the b… SRV. This isn’t quite seamless, but it’s not a ‘loading screen’, it’s more a function of the ‘get out of your seat’ functionality not yet being available. You can see that this is a future possibility. You end up in the cockpit of the SRV and are lowered majestically through the hull of your ship and dropped onto the surface.
At which point you’ll discover that you don’t have any keymappings for driving. So take five to figure all that out. I think the UI for the keymaps needs some tabs, or shortcuts… it’s rather unwieldy now. The SRV has two sets, one for driving and one for the turret.
It’s rather magical seeing your ship from the outside. I spent a good five minutes just having a look around at it. I’m sure you will too.
But then you’re off, bouncing across the landscape in the 34th century version of a Jeep Cherokee, powersliding (mostly unintentionally to start with) and generally having a blast. You do have to take care though, some surfaces are rather unforgiving and the SRV is rather fragile when compared to a ship, it’s pretty ease to write off, Commander. (Sorry!)
It also has thrusters which allow you to jump over gaps and spin around in the air. Take some time to acclimatise to this – it’s pretty ease to trash your SRV with an ill-advised move.
So what is on the surface…?
Well, rocks for the most part, the landscape unrolls before you. You rapidly gain an appreciation of how big even small worlds are. It’s one thing flying around the landscape in your ship, but quite another to drive around it, even at a half decent speed. A valley which is a few seconds from end to end in your Cobra, is a ten minute drive for the SRV. Without an atmosphere it’s very difficult to judge distances and scale – something that Apollo astronauts noted when they visited the moon.
Your ship scanner gives you an indication that there might be something of interest in the locale and a rather nifty ‘wave scanner’ in the SRV gives you an idea of direction. This feature is very pleasantly realised, with a real sense of ‘hunting’ for things as you look around and home in on it. You can discover chemicals on the surface, which you can scoop and use to refuel, rearm and repair.
There are surface bases too, huge complex and very industrial looking places where ships are able to dock and refuel as they do aboard the orbital stations. These also contain hangers where the SRVs live when your ship is docked.
You’ll also quickly encounter the skimmers, which are hovering drone type affairs, guarding things and generally making sure that ner-do-wells get their comeuppance – though they’re quite easy to kill.
The different bases have various levels of security too, which means you have to employ different tactics if you take on a mission which requires you to do something nefarious. Disabling the defences from inside is rather amusing…
Beyond the bases are all sort of other things to look for, crashed ships, scattered debris and mineral deposits. They are a little too much ‘unidentified signal source on the ground’ at the moment, but that will hopefully balance out and be enhanced by some of the other content that will come along as part of the season. There are missions too, which are slowly evolving into something a little more complex than go here and kill nameless generic NPC. There’s much to do here still.
It would seem that the ‘story’ of season two is going to focus on exploration. Huzzah for that! A recent Galnet post indicated that today’s explorers would be following in the footsteps of those that had gone before in a ‘golden age’ of exploration that ended some 600 years before. Are they still out there and what became of them? Now we begin to find out. For players of the original game – generation ships have been mentioned, will we get to see what happened to them, or even encounter one?
Interestingly enough, much of the season one ‘story’ remains to be resolved. Various personages have disappeared in a variety of ‘accidents’ and, so far, have been forgotten about. We have a new Empress (Or Emperor as she insists on being called apparently) and the unidentified artefacts appear to be doing something rather odd in the Pleiades star cluster. Seasons one was very bitty, but it’s all rather intriguing. Galnet remains a rather clunky way of getting information out unfortunately and could do with a bit of love.
Horizons is a ‘no brainer’ upgrade for existing fans, and those coming to Elite from new will gain the original game and the Horizons ‘expansion’ at the same time, which will give them a lot to get to grips with. As before, the learning curve is steep and long, but worthwhile.
For me, the magic of planetary landings isn’t quite there yet, but you can see the art of the possible. It will be the atmospheres that do it for me, exploring the cloud banks in a gas giant, or settling my Cobra beside a lake and stopping for a picnic – deploy hamper! We will get there – but it won’t be in Season two, that awaits for some point in the future.
For the writer in me, a dogfight in a canyon, a reconnaissance on the surface looking for some obscure item and the surface bases give a new set of scenery to spark the imagination. There’s plenty to work with here.
This isn’t an end game. As with the original version I can see that some will complain that ‘there isn’t enough to do’ after a time. Procedural generation can lead to a tedious homogeneity. I can see that, but we’ll need to engage with what is there. I don’t have any trouble letting my imagination enhance the gameplay. We know the intention is for a decade long development of the game. What Elite: Dangerous looks like in 2025 I wouldn’t dare to predict, but it will be rather remarkable.
Frontier have achieved something quite wonderful, though it’s not perfect and not complete. Yet the building blocks are slotting into place. Bravo.