Genre Deep Dive: Space Trading and Combat Simulators-Can any game out there fulfill the promise of Elite?

Elite Dangerous, ©Frontier Devlopment

I have always considered myself someone with very particular tastes. When it comes to music, films, books, video games and all kinds of entertainment, I know what I like, and unfortunately, it’s often not things that are particularly easy to find.  When it comes to video games in particular, I love Sci-fi and I love big, open sandboxes which allow me to make my own stories. The games that truly capture my imagination are few and far in between. 

So you can imagine my surprise when I first heard about Elite, a game that ticked all my boxes, and offered some more things I didn’t even know I wanted. An infinite universe to explore, customizing your own spacecraft, doing whatever you wanted in a gigantic interstellar playground, absolute freedom, in a game from 1984. It sounded too good to be true, and in many ways, it was.

Though Elite was a technical marvel at the time, and remains an important piece of video game history, its gameplay, while fun for a bit, is deceptively shallow. Sure, the game’s world is technically infinite, but every single solar system is virtually identical. Sure, it allows you to do whatever you want, but there isn’t much to do, beyond trading and shooting. Later versions of the game added a few unique missions, and a barebones story, but the handmade content only served to further emphasize how shallow the procedural generation was. After the initial wonder wore off, 10 year old Alsgrid was bitterly disappointed with Elite. Of course, that would have been true regardless of how good it was. There is not game out there that can truly do what Elite promised. Or is there?

Before we get started with the list proper, let’s look into some honorable mentions, games that tick some, but not enough boxes to be considered part of the genre:

No Man’s Sky

©Hello Games, via Steam

At first glance, No Man’s Sky seemed like a game destined to follow in Elite’s footsteps, and fail in the exact same ways. It was huge but empty, the core gameplay loop was frustratingly simplistic, and it gave you very little incentive to do anything. In the 5 years since its release, however, the developers have done an admirable job of revamping and improving almost every single one of the game’s systems. However, they have also done an admirable job of steering it in a completely different direction, more akin to a crafting survival game than a space exploration one.  Although, it’s a game that I can wholeheartedly recommend these days, it also has more in common with Minecraft than Elite. Sure, there’s plenty of space exploration and trading to be done, but if you were to play it for that purpose, you would be ignoring the bulk of the game, and focusing on some of it’s more shallow aspects. For that reason alone, I think it deserves to stay in the honorable mentions.

FTL: Faster Than Light

©Subset Games, via Steam

Much like No Man’s Sky, FTL seems to fit the genre at first glance. You control a starship, you roam a large, procedurally generated galaxy where you can fight, trade and explore. But it’s a different breed of game entirely. It’s not that you have a very clearly established endgame from the start, or that the game pushes you to rush through rather than explore at your own pace, it’s not even the fact that the game doesn’t really let you go wherever you want, always making you choose a very limited selection of systems to visit in any given playthrough. No, what truly keeps FTL off the actual list is the fact that it’s a roguelike. Sure, it may seem that it’s not such a crucial difference. After all, plenty of games on this list have permadeath, or a restrictive save system. But while to those other games these are part of the difficulty curve, for FTL it’s an essential gameplay feature.  In true roguelike tradition, the best way to succeed is to keep failing. Progress is slow, but each subsequent playthrough is made a little easier by your previous failures. Therefore, your story and the story of your character on any given run are not the same. Your story is made up of dozens of tiny stories, all but one with a very unfortunate ending. FTL is an amazing game. But its core mechanics are at odds with what I feel Space Trading games are all about: telling your story in the universe.

Nexus:The Jupiter Incident

©HandyGames, via Steam

This is a truly hard game to pin down. It’s not exactly an RTS, but it’s also definitely not an action game. There are very few RPG mechanics, and it’s much too combat focused to be called a space sim. In an alternate universe where every RTS played like Homeworld, this is what a MOBA game would like like.

Unlike most other games in the honorable mentions, this doesn’t fit the classification of an Elite-like or Space Trading game at all. However, apart from being a hidden gem, I chose to include it for one very important reason: it plays a lot like the X series, one of the pillars of the genre, but it focuses solely on combat and story, which makes it a very interesting alternative for anyone put off by the infamous complexity and opaqueness of that particular franchise.

Crying Suns

©Humble Games, via Steam

On the surface level, this game seems very similar to FTL, so much that it’s inclusion as an honorable mention might seem superfluous. However, despite being billed as a roguelike, or rogue-lite, and the presence of randomized, procedurally generated elements, it places much less emphasis on repeated playthroughs, to the point where you can straight up finish it in one try, as long as you get a solid grasp of it’s mechanics early on.

What truly disqualifies this game from the list proper, is it’s focus on linear, story-driven progression. While it’s a wonderful tale, with an intriguing premise and top class world building, stuffed with Easter eggs and references to classic sci-fi, it’s also a single story, primarily focused on a small cast of pre-created characters, which is at odds with any sort of freeform sandbox experience. Crying Suns is a wonderfully made game, with one of the most unique art styles I’ve seen, and while it is, in essence, a game both about trading and exploration in space, it doesn’t really fit into the genre.

This was about it for the honorable mentions. Next Thursday, to start off the list, I’ll be looking at Elite Dangerous and Star Traders: Frontiers.

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