When the Premium Beta was released, I began my Elite: Dangerous (ED) journey ‘for real’. My initial reaction was that it looked no different to the Alpha 4 release, but to be clear, it isn’t the same as the Alpha 4.
Premium Beta, thus far, has only the 5 star-systems that the Alpha 4 release had to visit/explore. There are no new events or activities available within these systems, as far as I am aware, but much has changed that is not immediately ‘visible’. This includes tweaks to the commodities market, an updated backdrop, and some fixes for the black market. Along with this a number of bugs were fixed, including, for example, FPS performance drops when lots of cargo is dropped, preset bindings being lost, and so on. Also, having only played the Alpha 1 combat scenarios prior to the Premium Beta, I can see how the NPC AI has changed substantially, with a wider range of behaviors, and (sometimes) stronger tactics.
Up front, I will admit my overall impression is still one of delight and awe at the beauty and mechanics of this game. I am not so blinded by my joy, however, that I cannot also see some big problems that need resolving.
1. The flight model: Key to the success of the game, Frontier have done a wonderful job on the physics and ‘feel’ of flying the ships. It’s not a game where you can just pick up a game-pad and expect to ‘pawn’ the majority of opponents; neither NPC or players. It takes a while to understand and apply usefully the ‘flight assist on/off’ toggle that drops you in and out of a newtonian flight model. But it works, and feels sufficiently ‘spacey’ to satisfy both hardened ‘space-simmers’ like myself, and those who want a somewhat more simple flight model. (Not everyone wants to PvP all the time!)
2. The visuals: The Coriolis space stations are a sight to behold, even with a fair number of placeholder graphical components remaining. The Orbis space station, due for introduction soon, looks even more amazing. Planet textures, lighting effects, star-fields and ship hulls also dazzle and impress.
3. Hyperspace and supercruise: OK, so this is the main part of the game where known physical laws are broken. FTL travel is enabled, to make game-play possible across multiple light years, including a multi-player component. Frontier have, however, found a beautiful and enjoyable solution, working closely with the the Alpha backers and others to fine-tune a solution. Hyperdrive is a cool way to jump to nearby stars in a few seconds, and will present interesting game-play around different drive ranges and fuel use. Supercruise gives the ability to fly at super-luminal speeds, and is just about difficult enough to remain interesting, but not so hard that it negates the opportunity it provides to marvel at the grand scale of the space one is traveling through. Again, this offers game-play both through fuel issues and the risk of interdiction en-route, aside from other possibilities like setting up a deep space rendezvous, investigating strange signals, and more.
4. The sound engineering: It is not often I even notice sound in a game, unless it sucks. ED has been widely praised for its sound-scape, however, and I am not surprised. From the echoing announcements in stations, to the “whumph” of the hyperdrive kicking in, the sounds are immersive and believable. Yes, I know there is no sound in space, but there is a back-story to explain the simulation of sound external to a spacecraft flying in vacuum!
5. It works already! Yes, there are problems, and I explore some of these below, but it is interesting to hear the level of complaint when people hit some kind of gameplay obstacle or bug. This is usually not a “This game sucks!” form of protest, but rather a “…please can you stop the game crashing,” or “…can you reimburse the credits that just mysteriously vanished?” Whilst many testers are busy pointing out that such problems are to be expected in Beta, which is true, I can also see a huge positive in these reactions. Despite the very small volume of space available at present, and the bugs, people are already enjoying mini-games. Even if such mini-games only involve a little PvP or NPC hunting, or just bimbling about trading from station to station, people feel compelled to invest their time. ED, therefore, really does have a solid core of game-play mechanics that engage many from the instant they materialize in a beaten up Sidewinder outside Azeban space station.
Bugs and difficulties:
This game is still at early beta stage, so there are still some major issues with bugs, and some are bugs that were supposedly fixed already. To an extent, the problems you experience may depend on your PC’s capabilities and configuration, and your internet connection. Here I mainly describe problems I have experienced, with some information about related experiences of others, where possible.
1. Crash to desktop (CTD), hanging and freezing: I went through a period where I had very frequent CTD’s, which seemed to be related to networking issues when in asteroid fields with other players present (see point 2, below). I still get the odd CTD even outside the asteroid fields, mostly at the Federal Distress Signal in Eranin when other players are present. The game still has problems hanging at points where one is trying to enter a new instance with other players, typically when coming out of supercruise. This is frustrating, since the animation of one’s ship shaking is designed to cover a variable length of time whilst waiting for an instance to resolve, so there is no clue that the game has hung except an apparently infinite wait. Word is that Frontier is working hard to improve the net-code related to its mixed P2P and server based instancing approach in order to resolve these problems. This is a game-breaker, so a huge reduction in such events will be necessary before the game gets to full-release.
2. Low frame rates and jittery movement of other ships: I am not convinced these two issues are as related as they may, at first sight, seem. Frontier is quite open in admitting that low fps in certain environments (stations, asteroid belts, etc.) are in large part due to a lack of optimization of the graphical elements of the environments. In other words, many objects and textures are being drawn that the player does not need available, or cannot see in the near future at a particular point in the game. This problem should, therefore, be overcome in later releases, but I wouldn’t count on any graphics card with less than 1GB RAM playing this game smoothly. It seem low fps exacerbates the jittery movement of ships found in such graphically demanding environments. I have a video of how unplayable this can make combat, which I included in a bug report ticket, along with details of my internet connection. Indeed, this seems more a problem of latency in P2P communication, and/or communication with servers. Given that I live in Brazil, and ping times just to cross Brazil and connect with the US are pretty much fixed at between 1 and 2 seconds for me, I’m a little concerned that this problem may always be an issue for me.
3. Random reset bug: It takes a while to grind your way to enough money to buy the next ship up from a sidewinder and fit it out with decent weapons. Losing all this progress for no apparent reason, as recently happened to me, and finding yourself back in a sidewinder with only 1,000 credits again, can be disheartening. Of course, as mentioned in point 5, above, this frustration represents a positive too: If I feel frustrated that I have lost progress, then I am engaging with the game already. Again, this is only an early Beta, so such problems must be expected, and tolerated for now, but this problem also obviously another potential game-breaker that must be fixed.
None of the problems I have experienced in the first release of Premium Beta have dulled my excitement for, and love of, this game. Frontier have, so far, demonstrated a strong will to overcome and fix bugs and game-play issues, with a wise focus on prioritizing core mechanics first. It really does appear that David Braben is committed to making the game he wants to play, whilst also being open to listening to and adjusting game mechanics and features in the light of discussions and suggestions from the Alpha and Beta backers.
This game will not please all, and it does not need to. Anyone who wants an arcade style, instant gratification kind of experience, should not bother with ED. Those who want to wield huge power within the galaxy, and probably also wish to ‘fly’ huge capital ships, (though, as Braben points out, such ships would be flown by executive control, in ‘real life’), likewise will be disappointed. Those, like me, who wish to create there own narrative as a lone pilot, or a pilot working with a small group of friends, against a massive galaxy-spanning backdrop, now have every reason to believe their dreams will come true.
Exactly how the game will pan out is, of course, impossible to know. The galaxy will evolve as the small volume of space inhabited by humans pushes its way further across unknown space. If you want to experience the awe and fascination of such game-play in a real-time, full-scale representation of our Milky Way galaxy, then this is game for you. If you can cope with frequent crashes and resets, then you might want to consider jumping into the Premium Beta now (remembering that part of the relatively high price also includes an expansion pass, effectively pre-paying for all future expansions). You will learn useful flying skills, and get to see the fascinating development of the game, warts and all. If, however, you want a smooth and relatively problem free game-play experience, wait for the gamma release, at least.
EDIT: Premium Beta 2 has removed most of the serious bugs I mentioned above. See Premium Beta 2.02: A detailed review, for more details.