Times have been hard for Elite’s players lately, with very few actually looking forward to updates. Since the disastrous release of multi-crew last year with Horizons 2.3, all but the most ardent forum defenders have remained skeptical of announced updates. The much-heralded return of Thargoids in Horizons 2.4 “The Return” also proved to be less than encouraging, essentially introducing a new, predictable sort of combat zone where one can fight Thargoids, which are essentially invulnerable to weapons not of the “Anti-Xeno” AX type. Those AX weapons, incidentally, are also utterly useless against anything not a Thargoid, including PvE and PvP targets.
Crime and Punishment
A lack of PvP potency may not be an issue, however, as Part One of the “Beyond Chapter One” reveal livestream introduced the first glimpses of the new “Crime and Punishment” features. For years, solo and private game players, unsatisfied with the ability to play and let play, have complained about a lack of consequences for crime. And they haven’t been wrong: the current bounty system saddles players with a trivial debt, something like 6,500 credits for a murder depending on the star system, and easy ways to avoid paying these debts by committing suicide after being scanned by a friend. The new system, however, seems to end any kind of criminality through game-shattering changes to how crime works.
Previously, a pilot’s bounty followed him or her around from ship to ship. No matter what ship the pilot flew, they would be wanted – they would be kill-on-scan to police, and fair play for any player to attack. Now, this simple system is being replaced with a system of bounties and “notoriety.” Bounties will be calculated based on the ship’s value and that of its victims, and the notoriety level of a ship will increase the fraction of value added to the bounty with each crime. This level cannot be reduced except through dying, which adds the bounties to the rebuy cost of the ship that is killed.
Criminals killed will also no longer follow the “last port docked” respawn mechanic, but will instead respawn at “Detention Centers” where they must pay off their bounties and fines to undock (presumably if they cannot afford it, they will lose the ship). Additionally, players who are engaging in spree-crimes, such as to affect the BGS, will now be set upon by the “Advanced Tactical Response” team, which will be a “threat” but which, we are assured, will not instantly kill the criminal. While this kind of escalation and the introduction of Elite’s own CONCORD is not necessarily unwarranted, it does add to the difficulty of manipulating the background simulator, and so will remove one of the main tools for players trying to interact with the simulation.
More tellingly, and more actively hostile to players interested in the background simulator, is Adam’s comment in passing that ATR is intended to prevent players with “massively powerful ships” or who are “good at the game” from having an impact on the simulator. It is disconcerting indeed if Frontier’s background simulator design priority is to prevent players from being able to interact with it.
In fairness, this is not the only major change coming. Frontier has decided to add “wing missions,” missions for wings—groups of players—to take together and to earn rewards together. This sort of multiplayer gameplay is something Frontier generally doesn’t support, introducing huge penalties to players who would prefer to play with others (such as in multicrew) and abandoning or not supporting systems that players don’t use due to their broken state on release (such as CQC and, again, multicrew). Because of this history, forgive me if I’m less than gushing with excitement this time around.
Visual improvements and new ships
In Part Two of the “Beyond Chapter One” livestreams on Thursday, Frontier also revealed cosmetic changes to planets, including some visual improvements on planetary features such as volcanoes. They also promised to add more of these improvements as the year progresses. Though impressive, one wonders at whom these visual improvements are aimed. Of space flight simulators, Elite’s procedurally generated worlds are already by far the most advanced, and few people criticize Elite for its lack of visual appeal. While a cosmetic update is always appreciated, it hardly seems to be worthy of a headlining position.
The Thursday stream also revealed a new ship for the Alliance, but pilots of the Alliance Elite Diplomatic Corps are going to be disappointed to find that unlike the Empire and Federation, Alliance ships will not be gated behind rank, as there is no Alliance superpower ranking. While this means that all players will have access to the new alliance ship, the Chieftain, immediately, it also means that they will have that access without the rank and reputation grinding that goes with it, which means less reason for players to interact with the Alliance BGS in positive ways. The ship itself is fairly unremarkable, and seems entirely geared towards mounting Anti-Xeno weapons.
Megaships will also get some interactions, none of them particularly interesting. Because all of these interactions will be illegal, however, it’s a clever way to introduce all players to the new punishment mechanics.
The Tech Broker: a new reason to grind
Perhaps the biggest new feature in the Part 2 livestream was the introduction of the “Tech Broker,” a new station service where players can unlock and buy special equipment. Previously, players have complained, or at least expressed disappointment, in the way new technology (for example, AX weapons) have been unlocked globally through CGs. The CGs were not particularly entertaining – always hauling – and the “grind or don’t but if you don’t we won’t introduce content” method of game design seemed reckless.
Unfortunately, while the “Tech Broker” solution offers players the ability to unlock or not unlock new weapons (which can then always be purchased after unlock) as part of a “personal narrative,” the unlocks are the same old Frontier grind special. At first shine, we see the ability to unlock the “Shock Cannon,” at the low cost of 126 rare materials only findable through shooting rocks on planetary surfaces. While this is at least better than the Engineer materials, it’s still a commitment of several hours of mind numbing SRV planetary driving to unlock new weapons. Frontier has still not figured out that if you want to promise opportunities to “play the game how you want,” it’s poor form to require players who want to do combat to do other things in order to stay competitive.
In-Client Market Data (no, seriously)
New in 3.1 will also be the ability to view trade data in other stations, in order to be able to buy and sell commodities in real time profitably without third party tools. This is such a fundamental upgrade to a game that is often called “Euro Trucker in space” that it bears repeating: Five years in, Frontier has added the ability to view market data in other stations, so you can trade. Let’s just let that sit for a bit.
Finally, Frontier has promised changes to the engineering system, which replace the current “roll up until rank 5, and then roll again and again” process with a new system requiring three rolls at each level for each module, for a minimum of 90 materials to roll a module. On top of this, re-rolls will continue to push the parameters of tweaked equipment to their extremes, both positive and negative. This system is going to be discussed in depth in the third and final livestream next Tuesday.
Despite many years of feedback and the release of multiple “dead on arrival” content updates, Frontier still doesn’t seem to have gotten it right. Instead of developing content for a game desperately in need of new things to do, Frontier continues to focus on doing the same things with different flavor. Where Frontier is adding complexity, it is doing so in ways that are (literally!) punitive to the player. Perhaps the best feature announced for 3.1 so far – the ability to view market data at other stations in client – is also the kind of thing that should have been in on day one in a game where one of the only things you can do is trade. Here at least we see Frontier trying to provide content in the client instead of relying on third party tools, though the cynic in me wants to believe this is only to remove the leverage third party developers have used against Frontier in the past year in forcing Frontier to provide a workable API.
In the past I’ve ended pieces like this with hopeful optimism that Frontier will see a better way forward. Now, I look forward to every update with the kind of bewildered amusement usually reserved for sports blooper reel commentators. The current updates indicate a grim trajectory for the next year, with Frontier’s characteristic delivery of equal parts recycled mechanics and player abuse.