This sounds like a superficial appraisal and something of a statement of the obvious, but visuals matter - not merely in the sense of who can boast the most polygons, or the highest-resolution textures, but rather it is the ability to create the world of the game and give it a sense of reality. Elite: Dangerous delivers this sense of a coherent visual world more than almost any other game I have played, and certainly on a far greater scale.
I hadn’t really seen it at first because for everything Elite: Dangerous has in terms of graphical clout it plays things very low key in its design. There are plenty of pictures and videos of Elite: Dangerous looking pretty on the Internet, but when you play it those moments are rare. The universe of the game is displayed in a naturalistic style and there is little embellishment of the wonders of the cosmos, it doesn’t bombard you with lens flare or cinematic flourishes. The spacecraft are mostly brutish and functional and your point of view is by default limited to the first person view in a usually austere cockpit. As such you can play Elite: Dangerous for quite some time before you see something that really causes your jaw to drop. You can get used to the way everything looks and start taking it for granted but then suddenly everything lines up just right and pow.
For me, it was seeing this bustling cylindrical space dock - the little trucks whizzing around on the roads between pads, the different ships lifting off and settling down, the landing lights and holographic projections indicating who should park where - while I was peering through of the windows of the Hauler cockpit, surrounded by it all. It was everything I’d imagined such a place to look like when I was a child, and more. I would have been more moved but I still couldn’t find my damn parking spot. I swear they change them around.
- Phil Hartup, 'Elite: Dangerous shows there's a lot of fun to be had in being an interstellar delivery driver', New Statesman, 30 March 2015