Lost in the Dark

Elite Dangerous: Beyond Chapter 4 released yesterday. It contains a host of things, all minor enhancements in the grand scheme of things. I left off in Elite some 5,000 light-years from the “bubble” of settled space, exploring. So the overhaul of exploration was of some concern. Would my existing exploration-related modules work or just disappear?

Inconveniently, returning to Elite after an extended absence (I’d been out more than a year) can be a little bit of a project. Updating the game is effortless thanks to Steam, but I also had to update Voice Attack and the voice pack (which I had to contact HMS to do) and do the tiresome HOTAS setup again. I’m flying with the relative cheapie Thrustmaster T-Flight, which lacks all the hats, switches and buttons you’d want for Elite but at $50 is priced at a level commensurate with my level of involvement in this type of game. It is probably more accurate and efficient to use a mouse and keyboard, but the HOTAS adds immensely to immersion, and immersion is what Elite does best.

All this done, I got back in before the patch but didn’t have enough playtime to get back to settled space before the update hit. So I was concerned that I’d just be stuck out there with no usable modules and nothing to do except head back.

This turns out not to be the case. It is a thorough overhaul, but the old Discovery Scanner functionality has become a general ship function (supposedly people with the module got refunded its cost, although I didn’t check that,) but that activity is radically different now.

System scanning pre-update was basically binding the scanner to a fire group and then holding the button down in the system. This revealed, assuming you had the most powerful scanner, all bodies in the system on the system map, which you could then look at to figure out which ones you wanted to fly out to and explore. This no longer happens at all.

Now one enters a special Discovery Scan mode, in which you get an overlay atop your surrounding space. You execute the system scan and learn the system ecliptic and some number of “signals,” which could be bodies or other weirder things. Scan waves pass over this space, briefly revealing highlighted patches, which you then have to match up to spectrograph signals to reveal the system’s planets and other bodies. Only stuff you have scanned in this way shows up on the system map, unless (maybe — I’m not totally clear on this) that system has already been explored by someone else.

The Detailed Surface Scanner still exists as a module, but it functions very differently. Used to be you get close enough to a body and point your ship in 9its direction and wait for the scan to finish. Now, at a presumably similar distance, you enter a surface scan mode in which you have a map of the planet in front of you and you launch micro-probes (of which you have an unlimited supply) at it. Each probe will map the planet’s surface near where it hits, and can reveal surface features that only seem to be present on some bodies. If your probes map 90% of the surface you’ll get a “mapped by” tag for the planet.

Particularly in systems that are either large or contain multiple interesting bodies, this takes much longer than the old push-the-button system scan. It will vastly slow down the speed of exploration, and will definitely change its tone, with explorers skipping over the abundant but genrally unprofitable M systems in favor of G and K starts that have a larger change of having interesting planets. Very probably some players will not like it, and players who aren’t (or who don’t aspire to be) fairly serious explorers probably won’t learn it.

Provisionally, though, I like it quite a bit sor far. Now, I haven’t really explored the Codex (another new feature,) have only monkeyed with surface scanning a little bit, and haven’t yet turned in my (fairly large) bank of current discoveries, so I reserve the right to change my mind, but right now it feels more like exploration and is more immersive. Which is, after all, the best part of Elite Dangerous.

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