At one time, flying games soared in popularity. Franchises such as “Afterburner” and “Ace Combat” enthralled players at the arcades. But over the years, their stars have faded, and the genre has been eclipsed in popularity. But if anything is true about video games, it’s that the business is cyclical. And it seems as though the flight genre is once again on verge of a takeoff.
With promising indie projects such as “Star Citizen” and “No Man’s Sky,” developers have tapped into a reservoir of gaming demand. And if virtual reality headsets such as the Oculus Rift and Project Morpheus fulfill their promise, they will give flying games in general a huge boost. Few genres are as well-suited for delivering an immersive and believable experience.
But while those developments are still months away, players can get a taste of where flying games are going with “Elite: Dangerous.” Created by Frontier Developments, it’s a hard-core sci-fi space simulator game that puts players in the cockpit of a ship in the year 3300. From there, it’s up to the players to figure out what they want to do. They can turn to trade and be the equivalent of an interstellar trucker, hauling goods from one star system to another to earn money for a new ship or upgrades. Others may try out the combat route, hunting pirates or giving piracy a shot themselves. Or they could pull a Christopher Columbus and explore the billions of stars in the Milky Way.
It all sounds intriguing, especially since "Elite: Dangerous" is equipped to support the Oculus. But there's a downside with a campaign this deep: The learning curve is steep. Flying a ship in "Elite" can be just as complicated as piloting a real jetliner. Players must learn how to control the pitch, yaw and roll of a plane to keep their aircraft under control. That's especially so if they want to outmaneuver bogeys in dogfights. They'll need to calculate whether they have enough fuel for trips using the Frame Shift Drive, which lets them traverse space. They'll even have to learn how to dock and launch from a space station, which gave me flashbacks to crashing my F-14 on the deck of an aircraft carrier in the 8-bit version of "Top Gun."
It's demanding, but figuring out how to pilot a ship is rewarding. But that's just the first step. "Elite: Dangerous" is the type of game that swallows players whole. Players will have to understand the political faction system as they vie for favor among the three major forces: Federation, Empire and Alliance. Since the game is open-ended, each player decides his or her role in this universe, and players' collective actions influence the growth of the world. That's one of the benefits of having a game that works as an online multiplayer or solo.
Although "Elite: Dangerous" shows promise, it's far from a finished game. Frontier says it will add new features, such as the ability to land on planets. When it comes to visuals, the space stations' designs and the vastness of space are breathtaking, but the scenery can feel lifeless at times. There are often no people to offer scale and or color, and most of the time, players maneuver the game with menus. This is a flight simulator game that's a work in progress, but already it's well worth the time for players itching to go into space.