New posts on Wednesdays if I can muster up enough desire to write about video games on Wednesdays. The Mass Effect schedule will resume soon, life was a bit weird the past two weeks.
A week ago today (Sunday the 25th) I was supposed to be at a work meeting and then I had a rarely-planned work party later in the day. It was supposed to be a thing where for just 3 or 4 hours I’d go be with my coworkers and relax at my boss’ house. The team I work with rarely gets to spend time outside of work having fun all together so I was really excited at the chance to get out of the house for the first time in about a week and go hang out with my coworkers.
That unfortunately didn’t happen. My dad had a breathing incident that morning, no one could be over here to take care of him, and to be honest I was little too worried about someone else not being able to take care of my dad the way me or the other primary caretaker typically could. In the following days I’d spend more time at home barely able to take time out for myself than ever before and then Tuesday morning my dad’s final turns towards the afterlife started. Simply put: I barely touched my computer from Sunday through Thursday night when Dad passed away. I played some games when I could but was too wrapped up in worrying about what needed to be done or getting things done to focus on what was uploaded to YouTube that day. And so after five days I had accumulated quite a backlog of videos to watch.
This past Fridaymy best friend Micael and his partner Kaden bought me Elite: Dangerous, a game I had in my wishlist mainly because my other friend rane0 had often played it as a game to enjoy while watching YouTube or Netflix. Little did I know the wonderful space sim world I was going to be diving into across my weekend and in the coming week. See my brother took it upon himself to do most of the funeral arrangements. And with the paid week off I have from work right now due to Dad’s passing, I decided to take the opportunity to rest. I sought the best ways I know myself to unwind: Hang with friends for the first time in a while, catch up on YouTube, do chores, take care of myself, and play some video games, oh and work on my mixes of course. It’s not an easy thing to forget the images and experiences taking care of a loved one on hospice, it all flies by even though it feels like forever. Regardless, shifting from the ugly picture of a loved one slowly dying to thinking on memories of your loved one just brings into focus the reality that your loved one is gone. That too isn’t the best feeling in the world. And while I’ve mostly accepted that feeling I don’t want to spend all the time off I have sitting in my house staring at pictures and losing my mind either. So…Elite: Dangerous.
It’s a space sim played by many people online. It’s not as grand scale as EVE Online but you basically live life as a “space trucker”, a “space miner”, or a “space fighter”. With my YouTube backlog and the ordeal I’ve just been through I thought “space trucker” would be a fantastic mini vacation for myself as I caught up on YouTube and took some time for myself without sitting in sorrow over my dad’s departure. Fly from system to system, deliver packages (whatever they be), fly around, you know, the fun stuff. To be honest I added this game to my wishlist just off of screenshots and Rane’s insane number of hours spent playing it. I really didn’t know it was this deeper space sim. Growing up I had spent plenty of hours playing TIE Fighter and X-Wing Alliance (two games that practically REQUIRED a joystick AND keyboard combination of controls to manage your ship effectively). Imagine the glee I found when hitting up the training missions and realizing that I could use boosters to push myself in any direction but wouldn’t have perpetual forward motion until I carefully adjusted the throttle on my spaceship. I do recommend the training though, even though it’s not clear and you’re just pushing buttons thrown up on your screen (or not) until you figure out how to actually play the game it’s a safe place to mess up, start over, try again without any consequence. Even the training can be a challenge as you train yourself to dogfight, where to look, how to find your enemy or properly use your weapons or approach the enemy force (hint: Pick the small ships first). It was in the last combat training mission where I found myself doing close pass byes to a larger cargo frigate after taking out a 2-ship escort just barely missing physical contact with the enemy and flying right over their front end. At that moment I said, “Okay! I’ve definitely got the hang of this.” What better way to focus the training of the game: What you need to know to survive the most unexpected danger of space: Other people.
But I didn’t have the hang of it actually. See with training out of the way it was now my turn to learn the system-to-system mechanics of the game. And boy are there a lot. See with the Star Wars X-Wing series the space simulator never got past the “jumping between systems” scale of things, which basically meant that you’d be returning to the same base most of the time by the end of the mission, landing was done with the push of a space bar as long as you were flying slow enough, communication was contextual and simple, and multiplayer was dogfighting. And this is where I, among probably many other people, think that Elite: Dangerous might actually be a game that (given more time, adjustments made to certain features, etc.) could be at least 50% more of the game that people wanted No Man’s Sky to be and even contain the features the lead directors talk about. Because Elite: Dangerous is a big and (maybe even accurate) replication of our milky way galaxy. And that’s just crazy talk to me but well just spend a few minutes in the game’s galaxy map (which you will do when first looking for missions to take on) and you’ll just notice the sheer density of how many systems there are to visit, explore, and traverse in this game. No the game doesn’t have that space-to-earth transitionary element to it but it already had the gigantic spcae thing done and apparently expansion packs DO let you go to planet surfaces for mining and resource gathering or missions. To be honest as much as this realization slowly creeped into my brain about the amount of work that has gone into building this universe for an MMO of sorts to exist, the more blown-back I am that I haven’t seen millions of No Man’s Sky haters all carrying Elite: Dangerous on their shoulders with memes and clickbait articles telling me 10 reasons why E:D did it better before it was cool.
Regardless, the game’s huge. The most wonderful kind of huge: Space huge. And so I started picking up missions and getting the ropes of how to accomplish them or what missions I wanted to do. As a space delivery guy I wanted to be the most boring version of the Firefly, no space pirate stuff, no trouble, just floating on between the stars taking packages from one place to another and getting paid for it. I tried doing missions involving finding lost things but it seems to require that you go to a star system and float around each planet and its orbiting moons/space rocks/random lost space debris and see if you can find the item. This may seem menial but it’s also confusing and makes you feel like it’s not worth the effort when sometimes a star system can have 15-20 asteroid formations, 5-10 planets with their own orbital moons or space debris to search through. I’ve heard bounty hunting is really cool and I’ve heard space-mining is more boring than space-delivery so I chose the road less pulse-pounding. I just wanted that YouTube catch-up tool, or that “just got home from a long day of funeral service stuff, don’t feel like getting wrapped up in exploring Wikis just to find out where to go next in Mass Effect”. It’s almost contradictory of me though since navigating so much of this game (being a sim) is not straightforward.
Your ship can dock at various stations and orbital platforms and cool hexagonal hubs in many systems across the galaxy. You start off docked at one and at any station there’s an available mission board where you can choose to accept missions and go get them done. Of course this is built as an MMO of sorts (internet needed but you can play without actual people if you want) so the grind missions all have a realistic timer on them. The factions or industries you accept jobs from need stuff done within 24 hours typically. So I typically loaded up three deliveries at a time, turned left in my space interface and pulled up the galaxy map to pick a destination and try to plot out my path. I learned a little later you can have the game plot your course for you (but only if the servers cooperate and before you get the good tech: Only close enough systems). So you lift off from your current “truck stop”, leave the area, raise your landing gear, speed up enough to get some distance from the station at which point they’ll release their mass lock on you so you can jump to inter-system-travel mode or just make an immediate jump to lightspeed/hyperspace and hop over to the next system over on your journey. Destination arrived, you go to the small planet system where the station you’re delivering the goods resides, slow down enough for you to enter the system safely (or you’ll just ZOOM on by using the force of gravity and centrifugal force if I know my science right….I don’t), and once you’re close enough you can enter the “tiny area of where you are” and fly towards your next orbital platform/space station/destination. Then you turn over to your panel on the left of your cool spaceship interior and tab over to nearby ships, and send a request to land (that’s right: You gotta ask permission before you waltz in). If you’re close enough to the place they’ll grant you a bay, tell you where to land and ask that you don’t speed on your way in. You will, you’ll also forget to put your landing gear down sometimes or land in the wrong bay for a moment or accidentally hit the button to discharge your turrets thinking for some reason it’s your landing gear or throttle and suddenly an entire space station blows you to smithereens.
And that’s just the basics of a delivery. As you upgrade your ship at stations for unique utilities or simply better gear to do the job and protect yourself (or if you’re BUYING a better ship) you have to make sure the stuff that needs to be equipped in inventory slots are set correctly. You have to make sure to refuel when at a station so you have enough fuel to make the next big star system jump until you find out what a fuel scooper is and how to get one, then you can fly close to the sun like Icarus (EXCEPT SNOW COLORED SUNS: AVOID THEM LIKE THE PLAGUE JEEZ THEY’RE HOT) and turn that energy into fuel like Wall-E. You’ll upgrade your weaponry to try and hold your own a bit more whenever invasions happen (happens more around busy hubs), find the much better efficient way to navigate star systems without using the galaxy or system map and look for nearby stations to fuel up on gas like the time Han was looking around for help and noticed Lando’s name come up. It has happened horribly to me at times too. Ship kept overheating, my recent additions to my ship created a power problem and I could only fly to another system by draining my shields and so I flicked my display over to my left panel and looked for the closest station where I could land, re-sort my ship parts and find a better setup that wouldn’t drain power on me. Last thing you want in space is to be out of fuel, unable to jump to another system where there is fuel, or be losing power while on your own. It was after a good chunk of doing delivery missions that I realized not only was I getting really comfortable flicking back and forth between my ship’s wonderful HUD and just going from mission to mission but I also getting a little bored of it. Like any giant world / MMO / big game: Pad the stuff to do to get more time out of it, but make the stuff you do so much less significant.
It was around this time that I was playing with the galaxy map, crazily zooming in and out of the milky way’s center and saying, “Man I hope my missions take me from this end, through the middle where there’s TONS of systems nearby to the other end and maybe throws me at earth along the way.” Then I laughed, looked at how much money I had already accumulated by flying by planets and mapping out systems by scanning each unknown planet in a system and selling the map data to the public, and said, “Why don’t I make this a trip?” And so I am. I picked out a few well known documented nebula, bookmarked them, made a 2-day journey over to the nearest giant “city center” in the game where factions do stuff or something and then mapped out my path to a “dark nebula”. I’m so excited to head through these things, see what they look like in game. The game’s pretty, though a bit oversold by its own store pictures, it’s beautiful watching a tiny star on the horizon grow into a giant ball of fire as you sit back and watch the distance counter run down, gracefully nudging your joystick to keep the course straight while catching up on YouTube. I’m going to have some wonderful journeys traversing our galaxy and watching daily videos.
I’m only about 15 hours in and there’s plenty more I could talk about. The sheer lack of direction for newcomers, the way the game fails to engage the players in its world’s ongoing story (like WoW does) or create a functional system that allows players to craft the world’s story on their way (like EVE does), the intensity of being pulled out of frame-shift (system travel) mode by an enemy looking to blow you to smithereens for your stuff, the rush of scaring them off, or the frantic feeling as you divert power to your systems or your engines, mash the booster button and look to escape to a nearby system instead. I could talk about how those mediocre training elements reminded me of Dark Souls 1’s flawed “too hard” moments that only made players who sit around to figure out what to do in the game love it. I definitely should talk about how beautiful this game is (but not all the time) and how you should actually avoid looking up pictures of the game because the developer images don’t show gameplay too much and gameplay images are only capturing the beautiful moments instead of the beauty you’ll realize in just sort of spacing out staring at a tiny star in the distance actually slowly growing on you across 10 or 20 minutes or how you start to notice the spatial orientation of the special locations of the galaxy. I can see the density of the stars increasing but it’s mostly horizontally aligned but I can also see the nebulas afar off that I know are going to get bigger and bigger in view as I get closer and closer to them with each jump along the way. I could go on and on about the wonder I found in games like Homeworld and X-Wing Alliance where universes were crafted and space backdrops were the body of water to traverse and navigate carefully while simultaneously the very thing you just wanted to stare at for hours and just go…a little farther to see what things will look like if you went deeper into the wondrous and vast sea. But now I don’t need to look to worlds like Homeworld or X-Wing Alliance. I can just play Elite: Dangerous and go to those places I saw growing up or when I look up at the sky at night these days.
For that alone it’s won me over.