Throwdown: Elite: Dangerous Versus Star Citizen

Disclaimer: Yeah, I know neither is finished. Yeah, I know there’s a lot left to do on both. This is a casual overview of what I personally feel about the two games after having spent some time with each this past weekend. 

Everything is cyclical. We suffered through a “Woodstock 2”, and some weird fascination with the 1980’s, and now that kids born in the 90’s are getting older, I suspect that we’ll have a revival of…eh…what did we get from the 90’s, exactly?

So goes video games. We’ve gotten revivals of adventure games, plaformers, and other early concepts that were only cool back then because it was the best technology could do. It seems that the next big new wave (see what I did there?) of resurgence is the space simulator genre, because aside from Star Citizen and Elite: Dangerous, there’s a lot of other spaceship cowboy games out there like Starpoint Gemini 2 and Entropy and more in the X series of games, among others.

Both SC and E:D have important pedigrees. SC is from Chris Roberts, who basically defined what we have come to expect from space sims, thanks to Wing Commander. Although Wing Commander might be considered to be THE reason early gamers shelled out hundreds of dollars for a CD ROM drive, the game wouldn’t exist if not for Elite, a seriously old school black-and-white wire-frame “3D” space sim and trading game from David Braben and Ian Bell. That each of these games are (more or less) coming back to the fore with a vengeance is good for the suffering space sim fan, but because the Internet demands the best, we’re forced to ask: which one is better?

Ohhhh…Loaded words, those. “Better” is subjective. I can only give you my point of view here, based on my experiences with each. I’d advise you to put your grimy hands on each (which I assume you have done if you’re a space sim fan, or are looking forward to doing otherwise) and make up your own mind.

Star Citizen

Even if you’re not a space sim fan, you probably know about Star Citizenalthough you could be mistaken in thinking that Robert’s was trying to build a Death Star based on the amount of money he’s pulled into to fuel this (some would say stupidly) ambitious project.

SC is actually one half of a whole: There’s Star Citizenthe “MMO-esque” online space sim universe, and Squadron 42, which we’re told will be a single-player or co-op experience (think Borderlands). Right now, Cloud Imperium (the developer, not an in-game faction) has released bits of the product to backers and early adopters, starting with an interactive hangar, and currently with Arena Commander.

Arena Commander allows backers who have supported the project at certain levels to get into their ship (or a loaner ship) and fly around, shooting drones or other players in “arena” combat. There’s also a free-roam scenario if you just want to get the feel for piloting without stress.

One of the technical selling points of SC is how their ship design and the physics model interact. As you maneuver your ship, rather than just applying the physics to the ship as a whole, maneuvering thrusters on the ship are used to actively push the ship in the desired direction. This can lead to scenarios where damage to your ship could prevent your thrusters from working, thereby causing you navigational issues. It’s a pretty cool feature that I’m sure will lead to a lot of swearing from players when they can only spin in place because they lost most of their maneuverability. Another mechanic tied to maneuvering is “G-forces”. If you accelerate too fast, too quickly, your camera starts to gray out, and if you sustain this state for too long, you can black out. While I appreciate the “realism” of this specific mechanic, I’m not entirely sure if I care for it. But we are talking about a game that forces you to open the hatch of your ship, climb a ladder, walk to your command chair, and activate the ship before you can actually play, so I guess modeling the whole experience is part of what we agreed to when we bought into this project.

I found Star Citizen to be the easier to control of the two games, and although it might be my atrophied skill with a flight stick, I found it a lot better to use the keyboard and mouse. The flight mechanics seemed to be well done at this point. I wasn’t always sure about speed, though; My speed seemed to change from where I swear I had left it. Might be due to the damage conditions I mentioned above, though, which would be really cool.

Using weapons is intuitive. You lead the target by firing at the boxes that extend in front of it, although there were two boxes, labeled 1 and 2, with no explanation of difference noted in the game itself. Your primary weapons are neigh unlimited, and your secondary weapons (on the Origin 300i that I have) have a much lower RoF and are, I assume, more powerful for it. Missiles require a lock on by clicking the mouse wheel, and the clicking again fires the missile. Since 90% of what you need for basic flight sits on the mouse, it’s really easy to get flying with Star Citizen.

One thing that I’m not a fan of is the overall simplicity of the game. However, this is Arena Commander. It’s an “arcade shooter” with some additional mechanics thrown in. It’s not supposed to be more than it currently is. You launch, find your targets, and engage. End of story. I already mentioned the black-out mechanic, but I’ll reiterate that I’m not a fan. I’m also not a fan of abysmal load times. I had issues installing the game, first off, with download speeds reported in the kilobytes for a seventeen gigabyte product. The game itself also takes a long time to load. Again, it’s a WiP, so I’m not going to say “fuck it” and chuck the…media I don’t have…out the window.

Elite: Dangerous

I was on the fence about Elite: Dangerous for a while. I had backed SC during it’s Kickstarter phase, and thought that it’s ambition would be enough to satisfy my Wing Commander slash Freelancer (both Chris Roberts products, BTW) cravings. Then I saw a video in which the player had to actually land his ship, complete with landing gear and everything, and realized that I needed this game. I bought the Mercenary Edition pre-order, but over the weekend I upgraded to the pre-release Beta Access tier so I could play the game as it stands.

I never played the original Elite. I think in 1984 I was on the Commodore 64 playing mostly RPGs. It wasn’t until the late 80’s when a friend bought a Tandy 386 that I looked at simulations like MechWarrior and Wing Commander. I had another friend who was really into the hardcore sims like flight simulators and military wargames, but I couldn’t even lift those manuals let alone keep all the jargon straight. The late-model sims I played had just enough keyboard commands (via keyboard overlays!) to keep me feeling like I was pushing buttons and flipping switches, but not so many that it was all I was doing.

But this genre kind of fell out of favor as gaming transitioned to an almost all console, all the time market, where you had to be able to do everything with just four buttons, a D-pad, and two thumb-sticks. Using a complex series of button and trigger combos, sim games could be played, but to me, part of the “simulation” nomenclature means having a certain feeling of complexity that comes from replicating the mundane as well as the exciting, and playing DDR with your thumbs and fingers doesn’t have the same resonance as flying your hands over your keyboard does.

Like SC, there’s two components to E:D, an online massive universe (I mean, massive — supposedly there will be 400 billion stars to visit) where you have to suffer…I mean, play…with other people, and a solo component where you can play alone or in a “group” where, from what I understand as I read it, allows you to play exclusively with your friends, a la Freelancer.

E:D‘s flying seems a bit more complex than SC‘s. One benefit is that my Thrustmaster T.Flight HOTAS X is recognized as a pre-mapped input device (unlike in SC) and all of the buttons are more or less spoken for. However, the controls default to some weird combos. Pitch is forward and back, roll is side to side, and yaw is either twisting the stick, or using the rocker on the throttle control. However, it doesn’t feel right in this configuration, for some reason. This threw me off because I wasn’t able to effectively steer using the stick, which was made all the more difficult when trying to align myself to the small entrance to the station that was constantly rotating. I re-mapped the yaw to the X-axis and the roll to the twist/rocker, and I think that feels better.

One benefit, though, is that you can opt to have the game present a “pre-flight checklist” before you leave the station. This is an actual checklist that has you activate each of the items listed. You have an entry for each button action, and when you hit that button, you get a check-mark. Only when everything is checked can you leave the station. It’s a good sanity check for when you return to the game after absence, or need to get used to the control schema.

You have to actually raise and lower your landing gear. Hardcore! When you leave the station, you need to fly through the station’s aperture to leave, and again when you land. You can (and will) encounter traffic trying to use the exit in the opposite direction (word on the street is that griefers in the online version are making sure you know this fact). When landing, you need to go to the proper platform, lower your gear, and actually land on the platform before the magnetic locks take over and put you on the ground. When you leave a station, fly near a sun or planet or other object, you have “mass locking”, which is gravity that prevents you from using your jump drives. Just fly away far enough, and you’re golden.

Jumping between system is either wonky, or I just don’t understand it. There’s two phases: the initial in-system jump, and then the between system jump. You travel between PoI in a system using the first, and between solar systems using the second. Each takes fuel (I believe), so you need to find a station and top off if you have to make long trips. I’ve frequently overshot destinations (when I could find them) and I really don’t understand what the UI is telling me (“slow down” is both descriptive and vague at the same time) or what I need to do in order to get to where I need to be. I do love this mechanic, though, as it reminds me of — once again — Freelancer, which my friends and I ran a server for, and played to death.

Combat is a little more frustrating than in SC, mainly because of the controls. I’m finding that personally, I’m having a harder time lining up shots, although the above-board availability of three axes of movement allows me move around objects like asteroids with ease. I was totally destroyed with consistency in the combat tutorials, though the death sequences are really nice: shields down, your cockpit takes gradual damage with the canopy developing cracks, until you take enough damage to explode. Thrilling!

Right now, E:D is further along in development than SC, which is frustrating for SC because I think E:D has less money, and went to Kickstarter after SC did. So they’ve done more at this point with less. You can take missions, transport and bounty, and even do some free-trading by picking up goods at a station for a low price, and then selling them for a high price at another station. There’s contraband (complete with police scanning your ship) and black market goods. Ships can be upgraded, and new ships can be bought. I haven’t gotten to that point yet, though I have done a few between-system delivery missions for easy cash.

Who Wins?

Right now, I prefer Elite: Dangerous because it’s more of “a game” than just an arena. But that’s not the whole story, because if we look at the road map for both SC and E:D, they have really similar ambitions, down to the potential for first person, out-of-ship action on planets and stations. I think maybe E:D has a better chance at appealing to the explorer mindset, as 400 billion systems is just an opportunity too great to ignore, while SC will appeal to fans of more traditional MMO-style “action and bravado” gameplay. I also think that E:D might appeal more to fans of EVE Online who want a first-person EVE experience, but I can’t articulate why I feel that way.

If you want the more complete experience right now, I’d suggest Elite: Dangerous because it’s further along. However, if you don’t want to spend the $75 USD for the beta, you can probably get into Star Citizen for less and get your ship exploding fix just the same. In the long run, however, it’ll require another look at both, side by side, to see if either one comes out on top.

  1. Best critique I have read so far! Excellent work! Have been wondering which one I should get and you explained perfectly the main points of each game. Thanks!

    • The thing about SC right now is that it’s got more “stuff” — earlier concept stage, sure — than ED. Their more money is apparently paying off by allowing them to focus on a lot of things simultaneously, like landing on planets and the FPS aspect.

      So I guess for those who value the full spectrum experience, SC looks like it’s going to deliver a lot sooner than ED, if ED manages to make it to the point where they offer planetary landings and ship boarding and all that.

  2. The tie-breaker for me is the rumor (and yes, I fully understand that it’s just a rumor at this point) that Star Citizen will allow you to dock on another player’s ship and enter a first-person-shooter mode in which you use conventional small-arms to kill the crew and take their cargo, maybe even the ship itself.
    There is, of course, no confirmation of this gameplay element being present in Star Citizen, but it remains a dream of mine nonetheless.

    • I have heard the same. That they have a working FPS system right now makes me believe that it’s totally possible.

      Of course, that’s not to say that Elite: Dangerous won’t do something similar. There’s some ships which have a secondary command chair, and there has been talk about multi-person crews on larger ships in E:D. But with Elite, there’s a level of history that it seems many people in the community don’t want to breach. The original Elite was about trading and gaining rank, and many people have been very vocal about not wanting the game to go much further than that. That’s why there’s no crafting (making mining a really confusing and pointless mechanic), and why I suspect any mechanic that takes the focus away from the original “point” of the game is going to meet some seriously stiff resistance from the vocal die-hards in the community.

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