27 April 2015

Elite Dangerous: realising childhood sci-fi dreams

Hunting pirates in my Sidewinder in the Ho Hsi system
As I enter the mid-game of Elite Dangerous, with a ship valued in the (admittedly low) millions, I wonder if the money-making potential at the start of the game should be reduced a little - but only because the early game is so much fun. I really enjoyed ferry missions in my starter Sidewinder, lugging a measly few tons of cargo between closely-packed stars and building up the courage to fight a few space pirates in Sidewinders or Haulers. I know it only costs 32,000Cr but the Sidewinder is so much fun to fly it shouldn't be restricted to basically a learner role. I quickly made enough money to upgrade to an Eagle light fighter and a Hauler, but was sad to leave the little Sidewinder runabout behind. Neither of the next two spacecraft really grabbed me, but probably this was because I was also learning the roles they play as I flew them. I quickly learned that without gimbals on the Eagle's weapons I would have no chance finishing off my weaving and bobbing targets. Turns out I wasn't even trading with the Hauler 'properly'; the Transit van of the spacelanes should be used for rares trading rather than the basic short-range commodity speculation that I used it for. And my amateurish early forays into extracting minerals and metals from gas giant rings returned feeble profits. (But they were still great fun, drilling and scooping fragments to refine into saleable precious and not-so-precious chunks).

Skipping the Adder trader for the time being, once I had improved my dogfighting skills I moved on to a Viper interceptor, and enjoyed hunting for bounties at the Nav Beacons near the bursting radiance of a dozen nameless suns. Then it was time for the favourite ship of many pilots, the classic Cobra Mk.III multi-role vessel, otherwise known as Elite Dangerous' equivalent of the Millennium Falcon. No doubt it could also do the Kessel run in less than 12 parsecs. With this and a bit of help from the Elite Rare Trader website I was able to do my first rare goods trading routes, reliving the brand awareness from the original game - a spot of Leestian Evil Juice with your bar snacks, sir? It's a great feeling to be able to fling the Cobra into a spot of bounty hunting en route to a trading port, and then carry straight on to pick up the next rares cargo. And once I sorted out how to do Federal Navy rank progression missions, a rank of Midshipman earned me a Sol permit and the chance to visit the home of humanity on Terra and the capital of the Federation on Old Mars.

Visiting Terra in my Cobra Mk.III

Transporting the rare goods of far-flung systems like Ochoeng, Vanayequi and Aegaeon built my bank balance to a level where I could investigate one further aspect of gameplay - exploring the wide, trackless realms of the galaxy to chart new systems and worlds. Once I could afford the Advanced System Scanner I kitted out an Adder for what I thought was a short foray - as close to the 1000 light year course plotting range as possible. I've no idea whether I was heading spinwards or trailing, and the Adder could only manage a jump range of 24 light years, so it was a lengthy outward journey of more than 40 jumps. My destination was the prominent type-A0 star HD 17723, which was sure to have been visited before by other explorers. As I ventured further from inhabited space I began to encounter more and more systems that had never been scanned by other (human) pilots. It's a thrill to be able to tag your commander's name to a star or planet for ever more - not to mention the money from Universal Cartographics if you manage to bring the data back to civilisation. My trusty explorer Adder, Eravate 7781, sniffed out three impressive new water worlds en route, and dozens of high metal content planets, gas giants and icy moons. Taking a different route back to avoid traversing old ground, the Adder pointed its nose towards HIP 117746 and then onwards to the first Federation station that cropped up on the fringes of inhabited space: Jones Colony in the Privir system. How good it felt to be back amongst the activity and busyness of civilised space! And the 2.1MCr reward for my scanning data didn't hurt, either.

The Adder 'Eravate 7781' explores another gas giant's rings

Now I've sold both the Adder and the Cobra to outfit a mean fighting machine: a Vulture heavy fighter. Its massive twin pulse lasers have been plied in service hunting bounties in the Carener system, and last night moved to a new base at Zhen Dock in the Xihe system. From there the Vulture tested the waters in the cryptically-named nearby system of Huh, fighting in the civil war for corporate forces against a dictator faction. Maybe the next stop will be purchasing an Asp Explorer and heading back out into the galaxy on a voyage of discovery. Or maybe an adventure into Imperial space is called for. Either way, there's 400 billion stars out there to visit and only one lifetime to do it in. Fly safe, Commanders - and be happy that the game you always wanted to play when you were a kid has finally been made.

Lurking amongst the rocks, the Vulture awaits its prey
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