I am 22,500 lightyears away from Earth, standing on a rock no human has ever touched. Three stars bake the golden dust of this world, while another hangs anxiously in the sky. The mountain range stretches far, far out to the horizon, where it turns ashen white as rock gives way to polar ice. It took weeks (actual, real-time weeks) of travel to get here.
If I press 2, I pull out an assault rifle. The notion is laughable—I’m half a galaxy away from the rest of civilization.
This week marks one year of Elite: Dangerous Odyssey, an expansion to the spacefaring sim that made the ultimate pitch: the ability to finally step outside your ship and walk on the surface of billions of planets, moons, outposts and spaceports.
It’s a hell of a promise, and one I was well up for. For years I’d experienced Elite’s worlds from a distance, only ever seen from behind thick cockpit glass. But as launch trailers put more and more focus on Elite as team deathmatch, my heart sank—sinking further still after stepping into alpha tests that only let you ferry yourself from combat site to combat site via painstakingly slow taxi shuttles.
Further alpha periods introduced us to lifeless mannequin NPCs, and never really resolved the fundamental issue that trying to turn Elite into an arena shooter just doesn’t work. Guns feel awful to handle, fights are weightless (often literally), and outpost battles tend to just feature hordes of brainless NPCs wandering between capture points with shotguns. It is not great.
Of course, Odyssey was also profoundly buggy and broken on release, to a degree that studio founder David Braben personally apologised for its shoddy state. But it’s been some time since release, so this year I started dipping my toes back into Odyssey to see if the maligned expansion had managed to turn itself around.
Readers, the combat is still bad. When last I logged off I had just finished a 14,000 lightyear trip to Colonia, a small hub of inhabited space close to the galactic centre. Even out here there are outposts to fight over, so I hopped into a dropship to join the brawl.
All my issues with Elite’s combat still held up. But in the context of where I was and what I’d done to get here, it felt all the more frivolous. Here I was, on the farthest reaches of human exploration, skies painted purple with stellar nebula and an absurd density of stars, and I was shooting dudes with a shotgun in a warehouse. Buddy, if I wanted to shoot dudes with a shotgun in a warehouse, I could play any FPS made in the last 30 years.
It’s an absolute failure of imagination, but one that tracks with Elite’s trajectory as a game. Elite Dangerous is a game with a 1:1 scale model of the Milky Way, but has never quite figured out how to fill it, throwing in factional power-play, market manipulation, reputation grinds, bounty hunts, and now boots-on-the-ground shooting. Some of these are fine, often even fun, but they’re all ultimately a bit shallow.
They miss the fact that the best thing Elite has going for it is the ability to look up at the sky and realise that every last speck of light is a place you can visit. It’s an awe-inducing, existentially terrifying sensation that really paints the sheer scale of space, in a way not even No Man’s Sky’s quintillions of proc-gen planets can achieve.
And that’s ultimately why, despite everything I just wrote, I love Odyssey. I love the ability to finally be able to step outside my Diamondback and experience infinity from a human perspective. To realise that these planets really are planet-sized, that even hiking to the mountains on the horizon would take hours, maybe days of travel.
I’ve since left Colonia behind, along with all its rubbish wee deathmatch boxes, as I embark on a trip towards Sag A* (which was photographed for the first time this month). It’s going to be another long trip, but I’m excited to keep on trucking knowing I’ll be able to stretch my legs under weirder and wilder skies any time I need a break.
For that, I have Odyssey to thank—even if I’m still putting up with the absurdity of accidentally pulling out a pistol at the centre of the galaxy.