Immersion and strategic challenge are probably the two things that get me into a video game. Some games provide one or the other; not many provide both. Right now Elite: Dangerous is pushing both pedals clear to the floor.
Steam says I’ve played for 72 hours but that’s not actually true; Steam’s logging the time based on how long the launcher has been open. But I’m probably pushing 30 or 40 and am enjoying it enough that I’ll almost certainly pick up the “season pass” expansion.
Elite: Dangerous is in some sense the ultimate sandbox. It has all the hallmarks of sandbox gaming, in that it is almost entirely undirected. You set your own goals and do what you want within the confines of its universe. But the key is that its universe is so unconfining — the entirety of the Milky Way galaxy, a hundred billion stars or more, all out there waiting to be explored. No other game has anything close to this kind of scope. And it’s visually pretty stunning.
To be sure, there are holes in it. Balance is an ongoing problem as it is in any game of this kind. The multiplayer tools are rudimentary; planetary landing and other features are locked behind the Horizons paywall. Right now you don’t even have an avatar (that’s coming soon, though.) There’s a cash shop, but importantly it resides outside the game and offers only ship cosmetics, paint jobs, cockpit decorations and the like. The development cycle is slow but steady.
Elite: Dangerous offers several modes of play, including the full-on MMO Open, solo and a closed group mode. The notion that this is an ideal arrangement is growing on me; if you’re getting griefed you can just laugh it off and hop over to solo for a while. If you want to run with people of like persuasion you can hop into one of the dedicated private groups. Regardless, everything is happening in the same universe.
In terms of the mechanics that the player interacts with immediately, it’s not as deep as EVE Online… but it adds the huge additional dimension of actually flying your ship instead of picking selections from a menu. In EVE you are the captain, giving orders; in ED you are a pilot. Too, a massive background simulation is running behind ED that the players can interact with and affect; in EVE one never really has the sense that there’s anybody but players impacting the universe.
Elite: Dangerous is one of the most immersive things I’ve played. There’s a joy in warming up your HOTAS and actually having to take off and land your ship, or in navigating to a new destination in deep space, or in hopping to a new system and finding something you didn’t expect.
The learning curve is pretty high, with the additional complication that some of the learning is in the actual flying of your ship. In that sense it is somewhat twitch-based, but not to a degree that it bothers me. And I’m pretty far from the best pilot in the galaxy.