As someone who's played space simulator Elite Dangerous for hundreds of hours, it's a strange sensation seeing a blue sky in a game that is usually dominated by the inky, star-speckled blackness of space. Odyssey, a major expansion coming next year, introduces planets with thin atmospheres to the game's colossal scale replica of the Milky Way. And better yet, you can touch down with your ship, leave the safety of your cockpit for the first time ever, and actually walk on these, and other, worlds.
This is something Elite Dangerous players have been dreaming about since the game first surfaced on Kickstarter in 2012. "Some elements of Odyssey, in terms of actually walking on planet surfaces, have probably been, at least conceptually, there since the very beginning of the game's development," says Piers Jackson, game director at developer Frontier. "However, as for the actual build-up to having a significant amount of developers working on it, the tail-end of 2019 is when we really started ramping it up."
To prepare for players going walkabout on its planets, Frontier is overhauling the technology that generates them. "We're doing some pretty significant updates to the planet technology," says Jackson. "The planets are getting a big new refresh. With the new settlements, we're also having to add a whole pile of new gameplay areas across the universe. Some of those will be deployed onto planets without atmospheres that players are currently able to explore, and others will appear on our new thin atmosphere planets."
Settlements are one of the most intriguing new additions to Elite Dangerous. I've always loved how parts of Elite have the feel of a sci-fi Wild West, with rough, lawless systems on the fringes of the major population centres, and the ability to take on illegal jobs, Han Solo-style. Settlements are extensions of this, being remote, sparsely populated towns in the shady corners of the galaxy. Think Hadley's Hope in Aliens, but without the aliens. For now, anyway. Who knows what the Thargoids will get up to in the future.
"So maybe you've taken a mission to reboot a settlement," says Jackson, giving an example of one of how visiting one of these settlements in Odyssey might play out. "There's something wrong with the generators and everything is powered down. It's very eerie, none of the civilians or guards are there anymore. You turn up with an objective, or maybe just because you decided to explore there. But when you go to bring the power back online, you find the abandoned settlement has already been claimed by gangs of criminal raiders. They're after the spoils as well, and you have to make the decision to run away, stand your ground, or sneak around in a way that they don't spot you."
This is where Elite's new tactical first-person combat will come into play, which is another dramatic addition to the game. Running around shooting people might feel like a strange fit for a space sim, but Frontier is making sure the combat falls in line with the rest of the game in terms of simulation and depth. Some of the disciplines you've picked up in ship-to-ship combat will carry over to the new on-foot stuff.
"It is a tactical shooter that we're working on," says Jackson. "It's different in feel to the ship-based combat. Ship combat can be very protracted and drawn out. But we have taken the core elements, such as the idea that the on-foot characters can have shields. And shields use up energy, so players will have to think about when to deploy them. Certain weapons, like lasers, are good against shields, while kinetic weapons are good against armour and damaging the person underneath.
"The weapon choice you make, on a base level, is very important for the tactics you take into battle. Then you've got factors like your range, the proximity to the target. Do you take a close-range weapon like a pistol that you can draw quickly, or do you have a more long-range approach to the problem? So the tactics are varied depending on how you want to approach each combat encounter."
The feel of a first-person shooter is vital to its success, and I ask Jackson what approach Frontier is taking in Odyssey. Will it be a heavy, chunky shooter like Arma, or more accessible and fast-paced like Call of Duty? "It's probably in the middle somewhere," he says. "We're not going for anything in the feeling of an arcade shooter.
"The weapons, if they have weight, will have different draw speeds, different ADS [aiming down sight] speeds. So you will be able to feel the difference with each weapon. We're not expecting twitch-based gameplay in terms of being able to draw weapons and immediately shoot. But also, it's not sluggish. There is pace to this. We want a level of drama and excitement to come through in the combat."
Getting the combat to feel just right has been the subject of much iteration and evolution, and that work is still ongoing. "We've been working on the numbers for months, and we'll continue to tweak them until release. It is a 'feel'. We calculate a lot of these things as best we can up front, but you have to sit and play it and see how it actually feels, and what it feels like to be shot at as well. It's not just about you shooting, it's how the AI behaves towards you, how accurate they are, what their reaction times are."
Adding further depth to the on-foot combat is the addition of new suits, which can be selected and modified depending on your play style. "These become your role, essentially," explains Jackson. "They're defined partly by their armour and shield profiles, but also by the tools they allow you to use.
"The tactical suit is basically our combat suit. That gives you an extra primary weapon, and it has an armour and shield boost. But it's trading off against other things. It doesn't have all the tools other suits have. So depending on how you want to approach a mission or exploration or just all-out combat, you pick your suit and loadout to match."
Excitingly, there's no real separation between ship and on-foot combat. So if you're having trouble clearing out a settlement, a buddy can swoop in and support you from the air. "We don't separate the two," says Jackson. "So if players are in ships, they'll be able to fly over settlements and shoot at players below, and they'll be able to shoot back at them." This should make for dramatic moments and, almost certainly, some mischief among less noble players.
"With the settlements we're aiming for a Wild West vibe," says Jackson. "These are the frontier lands. And while you have planet ports and star ports with large populations, these are smaller occupational areas where people are meeting to work. They might have an industrial or agricultural style to them. The processes and devices you see there will reflect the actual nature of the settlement and its function in the universe."
Ports, however, are a different story altogether. "The star ports become more of a social hub than an actual piece of mission gameplay," says Jackson. "You'll enter into one, usually aboard a ship, and at that point you can disembark and move down into what we loosely call the social space. It has vendors and mission givers and it's the nexus the game then spans out from. In the same way you can land your ship and access all the star port services, we have on-foot equivalents of those."
These spaces retain the hard sci-fi look that defines Elite's world. In footage of the new social hubs I see a few locations not unlike Mass Effect's Citadel, with storefronts, holographic billboards, and people milling around. And looking out the window I see the familiar image of a port, with ships flying around, docking, and undocking. It really hammers home the sheer scale of these structures.
"If other players come to those ports, they can exist in the same area as you," says Jackson. "Otherwise we populate with NPCs. Some of them will be running stalls, selling you goods, or could actually be providing you with missions. Others will just be milling around getting on with their daily lives. But yes, you can definitely meet other players in these places, or meet up with friends if you want to have a multiplayer session. The interiors of the star ports will also have elements that reflect the nature of the system they're in, and that goes down to the advertisements that are on display there."
Life and soul
"We're very much aiming to try and bring the NPCs to life," Jackson adds. "The sorts of interactions you can do will be familiar to Elite players, in terms of the choices you can make. We handle this through a mix of menus and dialogue systems, but you will actually come face to face with these characters, and a large amount of the dialogue will be voiced. Obviously we can elaborate in a lot more detail in mission text, but yes, these characters are there and they will interact with you and talk to you."
The new star ports will also offer a choice of illegal and legal missions, depending on how law-abiding you want to be. And when dealing with shady space scumbags, you'll be able to squeeze them for a few more credits. "We have an on-foot equivalent of the bulletin board for picking up missions. But we also have physical mission givers that exist in the ports. The one real difference is that, because you're meeting face to face, you can actually negotiate for an improved payment."
Some missions will involve travelling to other systems, but you don't have to take your ship thanks to Apex Interstellar. "This is a new service that allows you to book a shuttle, and the shuttle will take you between ports and settlements," says Jackson. "It provides a mechanism for players, particularly new players, to move around easily within civilised areas of space. We're also facilitating physical multicrew here. So if you are part of someone's wing, you'll be able to board their ship, if they allow you to, and they can fly you from one location to another."
While combat is a new feature in Elite, there are still ways to enjoy the on-foot stuff without firing a single laser. "There are two big ones for our explorers out there, who are of course a big part of the community. For instance, we now give players a chance to earn a first footfall accolade. If you go off into the black and land somewhere, and you are the first player to set foot on that planet, that will be announced to you right there and then, and will be marked up against your name for other visitors."
You'll also be able to use a new tool to scan any life you encounter on the new planets. "We're giving players the opportunity to track down and scan organic lifeforms," says Jackson. "You can retrieve sampling information and bring that back into the human bubble and trade it." Right now this seems to be plants and other flora, but I wouldn't be surprised if later updates added more interesting wildlife. That isn't confirmed, but it seems to be the direction Frontier is heading in.
But don't worry: if you're a player who'd rather not leave the safety of your cockpit, you'll never have to. "We're not taking anything away from Elite Dangerous or Horizons as it currently stands," says Jackson. "If you want to continue playing the game the way you do now, it will be entirely possible to do so. But this is a massive update. Being able to get out of your ship and walk around, interacting with settlements, performing missions, engaging in combat. We're adding a lot to the Elite universe."
"The ship is still really important, but we now have an added level of importance on the player character," he adds. "And that comes in two flavours. One is the gameplay element, which is what suit am I currently wearing and what equipment am I carrying with it, and how do I use that to express myself in the game. And then there's how you represent yourself in the universe to other commanders you encounter."
A big part of Elite is, of course, showing off to others. In the same way you can kit out your ships with cosmetics, you can do the same with your suits. This will also give groups of like-minded players, whether they're deep space explorers, bounty hunters, or communities like the famous Fuel Rats, a way to adopt a uniform. "We allow you to apply cosmetics over the top of your suit, in the same way we allow ship kits to be applied. So you can express yourself however you want."
Frontier hasn't worked on an FPS before, so this is new territory for them as a collective—but not as individuals. "While Frontier doesn't have a vast amount of experience in first-person games, a large number of the Odyssey dev team have," says Jackson. "There are people, including myself, who have worked on first-person games, and we're all bringing our expertise to the table."
Odyssey is shaping up to be the most dramatic, game-changing Elite Dangerous update yet; even bigger than Horizons, which added the first iteration of planetary landings. Being able to disembark and stretch your legs, fighting, exploring, and making your mark on uncharted worlds is the stuff of science fiction dreams. When you first make footprints in the alien dirt on some faraway planet, you'll know you're the first person in the world—in the universe—to do so, and that'll be a truly special feeling.