If space is infinite, why does it feel so restrained in video games?
For all the sci-fi games that let you roam across the void, so few actually explore the feeling of space. In games like Mass Effect or Starfield, space is a backdrop against which to set an epic story or send you on planet-hopping errands. Elite Dangerous — which joined PS Plus Extra this month — is the rare game that grapples with the character of space itself in all its majesty and boredom.
To be fair, there’s plenty of action to be had in Elite Dangerous if you want it. Pirates looking to empty your cargo hold, shootouts with the space cops, invasions from insectoid aliens — it’s all there to give your blasters a workout. The expansive nature of Elite Dangerous means it can be played with absolute aggression, whether you’re hunting bounties or helping yourself to asteroid miners’ hauls.
It’s that same freedom that makes Elite Dangerous the perfect chillout game. While you’re able to go guns blazing across the galaxy, the game in no way pushes you in that direction. At its outset, you’re handed the sci-fi equivalent of a Toyota Corolla and a check to cover a few tanks worth of gas, then you’re left to do with it what you will.
If anything, the pacifist route gives you even more options than the soldier’s life. Without ever launching a single missile, you can survey new planets, carry cargo from one side of the galaxy to the other, or even act as a space Uber driver ferrying passengers between outposts.
Where dogfighting challenges you to hone your pilot skills and assemble the best loadout of lasers and shields you can, the joys of the quiet life in Elite Dangerous are much different. There’s plenty of challenge there, too. If you’re going the space trucker route, you need to learn which systems need which goods, strategically stock up on valuable merchandise, and find the best way to move from station to station without burning too much precious fuel.
No matter how peaceful a life you choose, you’re still fighting against the unforgiving vacuum of space to make it work. Fly too close to a sun en route to your next drop-off and you’ll get stuck in its gravity well, wishing you’d chosen the relatively safe option of fighting pirates instead. And if, as you load your hold with resources mined from asteroids, you find yourself on the receiving end of a marauder’s weapons array, you’ll find your mining laser does you little good.
But the benefits of taking things slow in Elite Dangerous make it all worth it. Timing a perfect exit from hyperspace, cruising into an open spaceport, and docking without a hitch takes just as much technical mastery as taking down a pursuing attack squadron. (Just remember to put your landing gear down — that’s the part that always gets me.)
Without the distraction of cannon fire, you’re also better positioned to appreciate the beauty of the cosmos. A planet slowly growing then rushing up to meet you as you land. The distant glow of stars all blinking into view when you leave hyperspace. Even the rhythms of ships entering and exiting space stations or the sudden glitter of explosions and laser fire when someone runs afoul of the authorities have their own unique charms.
So many sci-fi games are all about the high drama of political intrigue and high-tech combat. Elite Dangerous thrives in the quiet moments of mundane existence among the stars. Combining all the fantastical escapism of space travel with the relaxing rhythm of a job sim, playing Elite Dangerous as a peaceful citizen of the interstellar community might just be the best way to explore the stars.