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Back in the 1980s, the Dark Ages of video gaming was coming to an end and visionary programmers were beginning to realise that there was huge potential in home computers. Developed by David Braben and Ian Bell, two university mates, Elite grasped this potential with both hands, and gave the video game world the wake-up call it needed.
Set several centuries into the future, man has conquered inter-stellar travel, and has begun colonisign the galaxy. Space flight is now a means of making a living, and Elite thrusts you into the role of a young pilot, proudly at the helm of your newly acquired Cobra Mk III spacecraft. The universe is your oyster; time to fill up on pearls by whichever means you see fit.
This game is staggeringly massive, even more so considering that it was originally constructed on a BBC Micro with only 32K of RAM to play with. By utilising wireframe graphics, space and all the space stations, starships and debris are all rendered in realtime, 3D form. The gaming interface takes the form of a cockpit head-up-display (HUD), you control your craft in a non-Newtonian manner. Here, space is treated as a fluid and it handles more like a flight-sim, rather than trying to emulate real space flight. Pitch, roll and velocity control the craft, with other functions available such as firing weapons, jettisoning cargo and abandoning ship in your escape pod... if you can afford one. Handling your craft is tricky, especially the micron-precision docking sequence. You never directly land on planets, but in the space stations that orbit them. In a routine that is directly inspired by Kubrick's 2001, the slowly rotating stations can be your demise if you're not careful.
There are numerous options available to you to make your fame and fortune in the Elite universe. Legitimate trading is the obvious choice; buy low and sell high between the different markets on star systems. Or become a pirate, and blast peaceful traders apart with no remorse to salvage their goods to sell on for maximum profit. Asteroid mining is also an option, as is becoming a bounty-hunter; monetary rewards soon rack up the more pirates you kill. Legal systems are in place to discourage indiscriminate killing, with squadrons of Police Viper craft ready to destroy anyone with a criminal record, which can be acquired by killing innocents or trading in illegal goods.
The money you earn can be spent on upgrading your ship, and buying more goods to trade. The former is vital if you're going to last any significant amount of time. Better shields, stronger lasers and more cargo space are just a few of the items available to purchase. However, these can't be bought just anywhere, as different planets have different technology levels, and only higher level worlds have the best gear to trade.
This is where the game becomes even more impressive. In order to replicate the vastness of the galaxy, Braben and Bell created an algorithmic sequence that randomly generated millions of potential worlds. These worlds vary in their market prices, their technology levels, and also their political stability. This information can be accessed while docked, before you make your launch to the world via hyperspace. Plotting your trade routes is important to maximise yield, and minimise risk of being targeted by pirates (or police).
The name of the game comes from its combat ranking system. By scoring kills, a player grows in reputation and after surviving enough dogfights, you may occasionally be rewarded with a 'Right on, Commander!' message, which means you have risen through the ranks. All pilots start off as 'Mostly Harmless' (one of many nods to major influence Douglas Adams), and more kills are required between promotions, with a mammoth 9600 kills required to reach the lofty heights of 'Elite', depending on which version you are playing. (And in answer to the question in the headline, what it really takes to become Elite is an excess of free time, and no other hobbies or commitments at all)
This was very successfully ported across numerous different platforms from the BBC Micro version to the PC, Amiga, and perhaps its best incarnation on the Archimedes (you may remember them from school, if you're of a certain generation). This version was the most challenging and rewarding, with sophisticated AI, fluid animations of all the spacecraft, and some tough secret missions to unlock. This can be run on emulators such as Archie or Redsquirrel, which can be tough to get working, but is well worth the effort.
Yet the real genius of this game is that it doesn't end once you have reached 'Elite' status - the player decides when they've had enough. By breaking the unspoken videogame rule that games should be colourful and simplistic, with no more than 20 levels and 3 lives, Braben and Bell opened up a universe of possibilities to games developers in more ways than one. It is evident that it opened up the genre of the space combat/trade game that has maintained a small but steady following, through its own sequels, Freelancer and EVE Online, but its influence extends way beyond its own genre. The technical prowess within Elite showed what was possible with 3D graphics and placed the foundation for subsequent 3D based games (Quake, MechWarrior), as well as randomisation algorithms (Diablo, Elder Scrolls). But more than that it said to games developers that the only limitations to games design were the amount of RAM at their disposal, and their imaginations. Such a shame that with an abundance of the former available, the latter is so scarce to find within the universe of videogames today...
Curiously despite its vector graphics and overwhelming sense of deja vu as you visit one planet to the next, Elite remains one of the greatest games ever made. Such was its success during its day that club sprang up around it and its quickly became a cult - and I#m pretty sure its still widely played to this day. The idea behind Elite was simple but amazingly effective. Its a space trading/combat game where you take command of a small ship at the start and must build up some cash by buying goods at a low prices, flying to another planet and selling them at a higher price. You original ship is quite weak in terms of both defences and the size of the hull so you are slow to make money, but if you manage to stay alive long enough, then you'll be able to buy a bigger ships, better weaponary, a larger hull and all sorts of other add-ons to make your task a lot easier. And what is that task? Well, to become an Elite pilot of course, because whilst trading is the basis upon which the game begins, the real idea is the space combat. You are given a few routes to take. You can become a trader, a pirate or a mercenary, the choice is yours and you can switch between them as you will. Ultimately, whichever you choose, you will end up in a battle with other ships out there which appear as blobs on your radar screen initially but begin to take polygonal form as they get closer. The graphics aren't great but the ships are destinguishable and you'll soon recognise the menacing form of a Thargoid battle cruiser when one looms up on you...and swear under your breath at how poorly armed your ship is to deal with the menace. Pretty soon you'll find that most ships are not a match for you but they tend to attack in groups so you'll still have a little bit of a problem taking them out. When they explode they drop their own cargo which you can collect and trade at one of the space stations if you have the scoop accessory...you just became a pirate. Mos
t ships will not attack you unless you attack them first, they are traders, and if you attack them you'll have the intergallactic police after you when you come to dock at one of the space stations - they won't let you dock although its fun to fly into the airspace and take out hoardes of the police ships as they come at you in relelntless numbers - eventually you'll be forced to leave though. Other ships will attack you imediately upon site, these flash on your radar screen as their weapons lock on and you are free to blast these poor suckers into oblivion as they are pirates...you just became a bounty hunter and you will be awarded credits by the police for helping them out - how much depends upon the class of ship you destroyed(how tough they are basically). You also find yourself attacked by Thargoids...a hostile race with which humanity is at war. They come at you in normal space time adn are tough to beat, but possible with the right skill on your part. They also sit in hyperspace and attack you as you jump between planets...and this time they come in numbers...this is usually where your ass has the most chance of becoming grass...thank God for escape pods...you did buy yours right you old skinflint? Well thats basically the game. You fly between planets trading or fighting, sitting in space and waiting for the next poor sucker to come along and get whupped. Eventually you can save up enough cash for an intergallactic hyperdrive and skip to the next galaxy(nine in all) where you can plunder new areas. Why bother when they all look pretty much the same? Well because in each galaxy there is a mission to fulfill, like chasing a new ship which is kicking galactic butt and destroying it...that sort of thing - you stumble upon these missions when you dock at particular space stations - but they are few and far between. Ineffect its all very 'samey' but for some reason amazingly addictive and you real do HAVE to reach that Elite status...
so if you do purchase this then say goodbye to you friends and family for a couple of weeks...yes it does take ages to get to this level, its not a five minute thing but a real sense of ummm...achievement. Its great fun, hugely compelling and well worth hunting out. I like the Amiga version the best, I couldn't get into the Spectrum version and the PC version just wasn't 'Elite' if you know what I mean. A real classic. ;o)
A fact: Elite is the greatest game ever made. With that in mind, how can I possibly continue this review in an objective fashion? Well, bare with me, as that bold opening is based on the premise that, to paraphrase George Orwell, all Elites are equal. It turns out, however, that some Elites are more equal than others… So then, Amiga Elite; released in 1988 by Firebird, some 4 years after the BBC original, this really does look the part. Gone are the vector graphics of the original, replaced by flashy full-colour-polygon space ships and objects. The trading and navigation are spiced up by the additions of brightly coloured front ends, mouse support and the option to customise various keys. In short, everything that Mr Micro (the developers) could have done to bring the game up to the state of the art (for ’88.) And yet… it doesn’t feel quite right somehow. I won’t bore you with the mechanics of Elite – if you’re a retro gamer you will know them already, and if not there are a million web sites dedicated to the game, a quick search will give you what you want far better than I could. No, instead I will tell you what I think spoils the game. First, I must say that most of the conversion is spot on, they haven’t missed a trick. In fact, Mr Micro have even added a few neat tricks of their own. Ship identifiers, retrorockets, hidden missions and secret devices all add to the game for veterans of the previous versions. Sadly, all this is wasted by a major flaw in the biggest part of the game…. the space combat. Now I am all for tarting up graphics if the basic gameplay is unaffected or even improved. Sadly, in Amiga Elite, the new polygon graphics cause a big problem. Space ships remain grey blobs on the horizon, and can’t fight back until they are practically on top of you. Unfortunately this has been done to reduce the “draw distance” that the humble ‘miggy
can handle. This doesn’t sound like much, but to compensate for the fact that the baddies are so helpless, they have been beefed up in the shield department. Instead of a few shots to kill, as in all other versions, these guys will take punishment for an age before finally blowing up in a sparkle of pretty sparks and space debris. At first this seems to be a decent balance, because until you are quite a way into the game, you will have enough on your plate without trying to pick fights. But once you are getting good, and want to do a spot of bounty hunting, this becomes a serious chore. The dog fights aren’t difficult – just dull! Instead of struggling with the evasive manoeuvres and tactics, you will struggle with trying to stay awake as you blast away at a squadron of grey blobs. This is not to say that I haven’t enjoyed the game, I have spent (far too) many hours flying the galaxies and trying to improve my rating. And I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend it to anyone who hasn’t played Elite before (both of you!) as it is one of the friendliest versions to get into. It is just a real shame that some of the game’s greatness is marred by an attempt to improve the graphics – something which, as a retro gamer, I find hard to swallow.