The pleasure of space trucking in Elite: Dangerous

Andy Kelly at

You can be anything in Elite: Dangerous. A fearsome pirate. A daring adventurer. A galactic explorer. But I’ve decided to be a trucker. See, combat is not my strong point, and most enemy encounters end with me warping away like a massive space-coward. So I’ll be making my living in Frontier’s huge galaxy as a trader. It’s a perfectly legitimate way to play the game, and although not as exciting as dogfights and bounty hunting, is weirdly compelling in its own uneventful, slow-paced way.

I’m playing with a flightstick. You should too if you have access to the beta. It’s perfectly playable with a gamepad or mouse and keyboard, but having a throttle and stick makes you feel connected to your ship in a way neither of them even come close to. I’m using an outrageously expensive Warthog, but if you’re looking for a cheaper alternative, Saitek’s X52 Pro is good too. It’s the quality of the simulation—the sensation of weight and motion—that makes Elite so much fun to play, even when you’re doing something as tedious as ferrying random cargo between space stations.

Multiplayer is a lot busier now that Frontier have dropped that infamous £100+ beta price tag to a more reasonable (but still pricey) £50. I notice this when I’m trying to undock from a station and find myself in a queue waiting for other ships to move so I can slip through the tiny entrance slot. Seeing all these player-controlled ships buzzing around makes the world feel so much more alive than in the alpha, but you can play the game alone or with a closed group of friends if you want to.

Bulletin boards were added in a recent update, which generate combat and trading missions and give the game some much-needed structure. You’ll earn credits more quickly doing special deliveries picked up here instead of buying and selling commodities manually. I’m still in my starting ship, a Sidewinder, which only has a small hold, but it doesn’t matter. Some of these jobs are giving me 2-5k for delivering a single item between systems that are only separated by one or two jumps. Soon I’ve earned enough money to buy a bespoke trading ship, the Zorgon Peterson Hauler, which has 16 cargo capacity compared to the Sidewinder’s 4. At just 25k it’s a perfect entry level space-truck.

All of the ships in Elite have their own personality. After hours in the basic Sidewinder, strapping myself into the cockpit of an Eagle—a low-cost, high-speed fighter craft—was a thrill. The sound design in the game is incredible, especially the engines. The Sidewinder screeches like a Star Wars podracer; the Eagle has the roar of a sports car; the heavy duty Hauler groans as you heave its bulk through space. The cockpit layout varies between ships too, and the Hauler’s interior has clearly been designed to echo the cabin of a truck. There’s no third-person view, so you have to get a feel for your ship’s size and shape. Squeezing through those narrow docking slots in a larger craft is nerve-racking.

The actual process of trading is fairly uneventful, but even so, you can’t just switch your brain off and hit cruise control. Once you’ve undocked and set a destination, you activate your frameshift drive—I have this mapped to a satisfyingly clicky metal switch on the Warthog’s throttle—and jump to the next system. You’ll cascade through a tunnel of swirling light and colour, like that bit at the end of 2001: A Space Odyssey, before being spat out at the other end next to the system’s star. You can only jump a certain amount of times depending on how much fuel your ship can hold, so for long journeys you’ll have to stop off at stations along the way to refill your tank.

Once you’ve reached the system that contains your delivery point, you’ll have to activate frameshift again and enter supercruise mode. This sends you flying through space at several times the speed of light, and the trick is to carefully manage your acceleration so that you don’t ping past your destination. You’ll get better at supercruising the more you play, but it’s still a slow process. I wouldn’t mind if they sped it up a little in future updates. You’ll spend a good portion of your time as a trader in this mode, hurtling down the cosmic equivalent of a freeway. My advice? Play music in the background. Just pretend you’re listening to a futuristic radio station if you’re worried about killing immersion. Otherwise you might get tired of all those long, silent drives through space.

Drop out of supercruise and you’ll see a station spinning in front of you. There’s a frustrating delay when you shift from deep space to an ‘instance’ around a station when playing online, which shatters the illusion of your journey being seamless, but I’m sure they’ll fix this. Approach the station and, once you’re within 7km of it, use your computer to request docking. You’ll be assigned a landing pad and given about ten minutes to get inside the station and land. This is absolutely my favourite thing in Elite: Dangerous. Approaching the giant, rotating station, sliding through the slot, and carefully settling down on the pad is such an amazing experience. I’ve docked hundreds of times and I’m still not bored of it. The orchestral music that plays as you enter the bowels of the station is brilliantly stirring, and I love the echoing announcements that cheerily warn you not to break the law.

Once you’ve landed you interact with the starport through a menu. Here you can refuel, repair your ship, buy and sell commodities, invest in a new ship, or pick up and turn in missions. Frontier’s grand vision for the game talks of disembarking at stations and walking around them, talking to other players, but this is a long way away. The menus are fine, and easy to navigate using the buttons on your fightstick, but could do with some more personality. You feel like you’re interacting with a computer, not a massive space-colony where millions of people live. It won’t take you long to generate enough income to buy your first Hauler, but there are bigger and better trading ships to strive for. The Lakon Type 9 is the daddy, with a 440 cargo capacity, but it’ll set you back over 3 million CR.

The only real danger you’ll face as a trader in Elite is being interdicted. Ships will occasionally pull you out of supercruise, and they’ll either be pirates who want to rob you and blow you up, or security ships scanning for illegal goods. You can warp away, but their interdiction hardware will dramatically slow down the charging process for your frameshift drive. You can fight back, but I’d rather just run away. I’m not playing Elite to be Han Solo or Starbuck; I want to be a regular working space-stiff who just wants to keep his head down and quietly make a fortune. The fact that I can do that, and still enjoy myself, is testament to just how deliciously freeform Frontier’s ambitious space sim is. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’ve got a shipment of fish to deliver to the Eranin system.

Here's the Elite: Dangerous edition of Andy's Other Places series.