Friday, 24 October 2014

Moments in Elite: Dangerous

While I appreciate that Freebooted has historically been an EVE Online blog exclusively, my current love affair with Elite: Dangerous has left me considering expanding my content. After all, five years dedicated to a single game does seem a little... obsessive.

Of course, I'll continue to discuss EVE Online - I still feel like I've got plenty to say - but I don't think there's any harm in looking at new entrants to the increasingly busy sci-fi gaming niche from time to time.

Besides, as I discussed in my previous post, Elite: Dangerous seems capable of ticking boxes that EVE has always neglected as a game which can deliver content and stories on a more personal level. Certainly, the broader slate for fiction E:D offers has already spawned a number of novels. The game design also lends itself more readily to some narrative structure than EVE, which is something I hope to see.

For me, the real hook in Elite: Dangerous is what Frontier Developments CEO David Braben describes as the 'moment-to-moment' gameplay. There's an immediacy and a connectivity to E:D's world which really breathes life into the game experience, creating unexpected events with exciting, satisfying and/or hilarious outcomes.

Already, I've had several 'moments' which have given me stories to tell. I'm not proud of all of them, but the game environment certainly seems like a fertile bed for all manner of unscripted occurrences and those arising from seeds planted by the designers.

For clarity, I've mostly been playing in 'private group' mode, so all of my interactions thus far have been with NPCs (friends currently seem to be invisible/in a different instance), but to my rookie eyes, I wouldn't be able to tell player from AI anyway.

Here's a few of my more memorable (or shameful) moments:

Moments in Elite: Dangerous - The Cobra Money Pit

Oh, Cobra Mk. III, icon of my childhood and versatile chariot of the stars, why do you hate me so?

An early goal I'd set myself was to get into the signature ship of the original Elite. In Elite: Dangerous terms, it offers a solid platform to experiment with a variety of playstyles: bounty hunting, trading, exploration - it can do it all. But ever since I bought one, I've had nothing but bad luck, leading me further and further into debt.

Admittedly, it started with a degree of over-exuberance on my part. After making my purchase and spending far too much of my remaining credit balance on pimping it out, I was eager to get out on its maiden voyage and test out my shiny new Cobra Mk. III.

With a complacency undeserved by my pitiful piloting skills, I performed my usual high-speed launch from within a space station: a quick vertical blast to clear the launch-pad, engines gunned to max, landing gear up and the turbo hit to shoot through the letterbox-shaped exit like a rocket. But wait a moment? That exit looks awfully black. I still don't know what kind of ship I had the head-on collision with, but judging by my almost instant explosion, it was far bigger than me.

Sharp-eyed observers will notice this isn't a Cobra cockpit, but you get the idea.
Having had to take out a loan to avoid finding myself back in a lowly Sidewinder, my second Cobra outing started off well. After flying to the nearest planetary belt and finding a busy extraction point filled with miners, police ships and the occasional troublemaker, I started to really get the hang of combat (or so I thought). Sidewinder after sidewinder fell to my pulse lasers, while my inability to hit the side of barn with my fancy new cannon perhaps gave me a hint that I wasn't quite the killing machine I'd begun to think I was. It was a hint I chose to ignore. The first Cobra pilot with a price on his head soon educated me otherwise. Scratch another Cobra (and thousands in uncollected bounty rewards).

A new Cobra required new prey. After swapping out the cumbersome cannon for a pair of gimbled multicannons, I returned to the asteroid belt and warmed up on a few Sidewinders, much happier with my ship's ordnance.

Then, I stumbled across a pair of gigantic Anacondas whose misdemeanors had already drawn the attention of the local enforcement patrol. As the bulky vessels lumbered through the belt, smaller ships nippling at them like piranhas, I decided to get in on the action. Tearing toward them with all guns blazing, I watched as their shields just shrugged.

I did manage to get a couple of good salvoes into my target before my screen suddenly filled with a criss-cross of laser fire, all coming straight at me! How many guns on those things? Enough to rip my shields away in seconds, it seemed. Nose bloodied, I did a quick about-turn and managed to get out of range to lick my wounds.

Also not an actual shot of the action described, but mashing the screenshot button just wasn't a priority. Sorry.
At this point, the sensible thing would have been to find somewhere to dock and repair and that was initially my intention, until my ship's computer announced 'target shields depleted'. How could I resist a siren call like that?

I dived back into the fray and unleashed the full fury of all my pop guns. The combined damage of my attack and several others slowly whittled away at the Anaconda's hull. The giant vessel changed course, heading deeper into the asteroid field in an attempt to escape. With its hull integrity down to nearly 50% I suddenly found myself the focus of its fire again.

At that point I suspected things were about to end badly for me when the Anaconda suddenly ploughed straight into an asteroid whilst under my fire. The sight of the glorious explosion and the blackened Anaconda hull fragmenting into pieces and spiralling away was made all the sweeter by the announcement that the kill had earned me 58,000 credits, over twenty times the kind of bounty I was used to (and far more than I had in my account).

This was the one time I didn't allow my hubris to get the better of me (I briefly considered taking on the second Anaconda) and immediately returned to a station to capitalise on my good fortune.

My good luck didn't last.

I have since lost at least three Cobras, variously to:

  •  A security vessel flying straight through my line of fire as I bore down on a kill, quickly seeing me eviscerated by the irate copper and his colleagues. That's entrapment!
  •  A panicked attempt to dock while being scanned with illegal cargo on board (why is it 'stolen' if I found it laying around in space? What about salvage rights?), resulting in me bouncing around inside the docking bay before getting hosed by the sprinkler system of doom.
  •  An anti-climactic end to an epic (read: hilariously inept slow-boat circling) engagement between me and another Cobra pilot which was going to the wire until he decided to commit seppuku on my windscreen, sending us both into oblivion.

I still love my Cobra though, even if it's propelling me to bankruptcy.

Put some clothes on love! (Still not a relevant screenshot, aside from the fact that on one disastrous launch attempt this was where I ended up.)
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Moments in Elite: Dangerous - Hidden Stars

Something that has continued to impress me is Elite: Dangerous' astroscape (I'm not sure that's a word, but if it isn't, I'm coining it). From the 2001: A Space Odyssey-esque station approaches to the vast, undiscovered planetary systems which all move and orbits in real-time, the entire gameworld is captivatingly real. It still feels spartan, but then it is space, which to be fair is not known for its dense flora and fauna. But there is an ever-present suggestion that there is always more to discover, just hidden beyond sight.

As I cruised around in the star-spattered blackness, jumping from system to system in a Sidewinder collecting data on various astronomical bodies to sell, I found the experience to be cathartic. The slow-paced, solitary occupation of the interstellar cartographer is a far cry from the adrenaline highs of the bounty hunter or the number-crunching role of the trader.

This was freedom.

Clearly it's not a playstyle that would suit everyone. Some might call it dull. Indeed, I'm sure I would tire of it if I pursued it exclusively, but from time to time it's nice to just head out into uncharted territory just because it's there.

But I became hooked when I entered a system whose star had an elliptical orbit path according to my HUD overlay. Curious. I'm no astrophysicist, but I was pretty sure that meant there must be another mass for it to orbit, yet no second star was apparent. Checking the system map confirmed the presence of a second, unknown star.

Not a binary system, just an example.
After some head-scratching, I engaged my supercruise and sped away from the visible star until I could see the entirety of its orbit path, then did a hard right. As a drifted at superluminal speeds across the periphery of the system, I scoured the backdrop, hoping my theory would prove true.

Then I spotted it. Among the hundreds of distant points of light, one crept across the darkened sky, belying its appearance as just another far-off system. By using a bit of lateral thinking and nothing more than my own eyes, I'd discovered something my instruments couldn't – the second, far smaller and less visible twin star.

Using the parallax effect to spot pixels may seem like a trivial achievement, but for me it was very satisfying and, perhaps oddly, gave me hope for Elite: Dangerous' future. It suggested to me that this won't be a game which spoonfeeds its audience with pop-ups, tooltips and walkthroughs, but one which revels in its own depth and mystery.

I'll be even happier when system maps actually look like this rather than the current beta placeholder.

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Moments in Elite: Dangerous - The Dodgy Hauler

After cutting my teeth on the spry but limited Sidewinder, I wanted to try out other ships but lacked the capital to do it. The quick solution seemed to be to use what little I had earned to upgrade to a hauler, facilitating more lucrative cargo runs and courier missions. This would be my stepping stone to something more glamorous.

Sadly, the bargain basement hauler, the Zorgon Peterson, is a comical embarrassment to self-respecting spaceships everywhere. It's a testament to Frontier's craftsmanship that they can make the various ship hulls feel so different just by tweaking handling parameters and changing some audio and visual material. The Zorgon Peterson experience was certainly a far cry from the Sidewinder starter ship.

The moment I laid eyes on the cheap plastic interior, I knew I'd never bond with this ship. The dashboard and air-vents look like they're taken straight from a 1990s Japanese minivan. On launching, my heart sank further as the feeble engine noise became audible. Was this thing powered by an elastic band?

Having made my purchase and accepted a charter, I had little choice but to launch and drift forlornly into space, a hold full of cargo that someone wanted moved somewhere pronto. the little crapheap wheezed its way out of mass lock range and I engaged hyperspace.

Nothing happened.

I was informed by my HUD that something was deployed, preventing the jump. I checked and double checked: I'd definitely withdrawn the landing gear, I hadn't accidentally activated to cargo scoop, nor had I done anything involving hardpoints or discovery scanners (causing a known bug). I repeatedly pressed several buttons, but to no avail. I had no choice but to turn around and dock up. Maybe I could demand my money back.

The only problem was, despite my landing showing as deployed, I couldn't touch down. Clearly this hauler was a duffer. Zorgon Peterson are apparently the Skodas of the Elite universe.

Eventually I resolved the issue by shutting down the client and restarting, but by this time I was up against the clock with regard to my delivery. Despite my best efforts thereafter, I missed the deadline and got a hefty fine for my troubles.

So much for hauling being a moneyspinner, but part of me hopes they keep this bug in as long as it's specific to the Zorgon Peterson. It adds character.

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Tuesday, 21 October 2014

Can EVE Online and Elite: Dangerous Co-exist (on my Hard Drive)?

The thrum of my ship's engines subsides as it drops out of warp and my viewscreen is filled with asteroids silently floating in the void beneath the silvery disc of a distant moon. A quick glance at my instruments warns me of the presence of other ships. Compelled by my curiosity to explore every facet of this vast and bewildering spacescape, I guide my lowly vessel closer to investigate, wary of possible hostile action...

It's a scenario which could describe my early days in EVE Online circa May 2003, or my more recent first steps in the modern re-imagining of the game that started the digital space race in 1984, Elite.

In both cases, the sense of being a tiny denizen of a vast and undiscovered universe tangibly permeates the game experience, injecting an austere sci-fi concept with possibility and wonder.

Of course, in EVE Online, that promise which was made by such a broad, open universe built around emergent gameplay concepts evolved into the peerless, player-driven experience which has seen it enjoy 11 years of success and counting.

On the other hand, Elite: Dangerous is still in beta for another few weeks and unsurprisingly has plenty of bugs and missing content. But despite that, I've had the opportunity to spend some hours playing what is already a polished and sometimes awe-inducing first-person spaceship piloting experience. The audioscape in particular is entrancing.

Rekindling a Love for the Unknown

Hyperspace jumping through 'witch space' in Elite: Dangerous
As I took control of my light multi-role Sidewinder and participated in the variety of activities Elite: Dangerous already has to offer, I quickly found myself falling back in love with the game which defined my youth and arguably played as big a role as Star Wars, Battlestar Galactica, and Asimov/Clarke in making me a lifelong science-fiction enthusiast.

After all, for me, the whole lure of EVE Online was its intention to provide an online game which delivered the Elite experience of an open universe filled with opportunity and discovery. CCP Games delivered this in spades over the last decade, adding depth and breadth to the early, feature-light gameplay which captured my heart.

EVE Online's skyboxes are stunning.
Witnessing the growth of EVE Online from within as a long-time player has been has been unique journey through online gaming. Well ahead of its time and undisputed master of the emergent gameplay niche, few can doubt that CCP stands atop the industry when it comes to delivering the massively component of massively multiplayer gaming.

Yet as I delve deeper into this brave new (yet wonderfully familiar) universe offered by Frontier Developments' Elite: Dangerous, I already sense it offers something which has always eluded EVE Online. There is a connection, a feeling of being immersed directly into a future world of technology and spaceships, which I've always sought in EVE, but has always been supplanted by CCP's insistence that New Eden's best experiences are found in large crowds.

'Join a player corp as soon as possible,' players would be told, with the aim of projecting the rookie EVE capsuleer into the player-fuelled socio-political centrepiece of the EVE experience where the hook of social investment counterbalances its still problematic and bewildering new player experience.

The Needs of The Many

When they say EVE is big, they mean it. Big spaceships (10km+), big battles (2000 players+), big stories.
EVE is unmatched in providing a platform for vast player organisations to compete and cooperate, but the individual player experiences at the fringes are lacklustre and showing their age. The universe of New Eden is mapped, endlessly documented and no longer a frontier, more a vast, battle-worn arena given texture only by its residents. CCPs man-hours are largely devoted to refining this combat dynamic as they well know it's EVE's strongest gameplay card. But the rest of the experience may be forever playing catch-up.

That's not to say that I don't enjoy the asymmetric PvP element EVE provides - the ever present risk is exhilarating and the adrenaline shakes EVE can stimulate has yet to be replicated in any other gaming experience I've had. But those moments are fleeting (haha!) and a lot of gristle has to be chewed to find those sweet morsels. Even then, the disconnected and uneven gameplay that permeates EVE remains unaddressed.

The lost connection of EVE.
It's a challenge CCP continually works to overcome, and have been slowly making ground, but their greatest opportunity was squandered with the poorly executed Incarna expansion of 2011. Incarna aimed to provide human avatars and related content, but succeeded only in fomenting unprecedented player backlash and set EVE's development firmly on the remote spaceship path.

Admittedly, I am one of the pro-Incarna minority crowd, because EVE's abandoned 'walking in stations' gameplay promised to fulfil my hopes for the kind of immersion I had long hoped for from my EVE adventures. Indeed, my preferred spaceship experience is one far more insular, one which encourages me (and perhaps a small group of friends) to believe the surrounding environment, providing immersive escapism.

The Desires of the Few

The surface of a Coriolis space station in Elite: Dangerous.
As perhaps a more selfish player, Elite: Dangerous has already convinced me that it will deliver the experience I've been waiting for. It is still far from feature complete and certainly doesn't include any avatar gameplay, but as Frontier CEO David Braben has explained in recent interviews, they've built the foundations and the house, now they've got to move the furniture in.

And the empty house is already glorious.

The empty co-pilot's chair in a Cobra Mk. III 
Even with sparse content and limited ability to interact with fellow players, I've enjoyed some great personal moments that have impressed upon me the potential that Elite: Dangerous offers; a hair-raising escape from a dogfight that saw me outmatched and praying for my hull to hold out as my Frame Shift Drive spooled up, the dawning realisation that each star system's terrain is unique and in motion with gravity wells for slingshotting, surfing and providing navigational challenges, the satisfaction of using my eyes to spot the parallax effect leading to the discovery of new astronomical bodies. My ability to interact with and be a success in this universe isn't defined by how many corpmates I have, but how I choose to interact with the world around me, alone or with a couple of wingmates (once the buggy instance matching is fixed).

That said, Elite will likely never be able to scratch the empire-building, strategic itch that is EVE's oeuvre. It offers a far more modest, but intimate and personal story. They are very different games, and I am thankful for that. The two titles can co-exist on my hard drive without much overlap; Elite provides sit-forward 'moment-to-moment' gameplay, while EVE is a more cerebral, calculated, sitting-back experience.

In fact, from my perspective, Frontier has probably done CCP a huge favour: I can now enjoy EVE for what it is rather than what I'd like it to be, and the two games can comfortably co-exist on my hard drive, ripe for comparison but rarely competing, and perhaps even learning a little from each other.

To be honest, I'm relieved.