What defines you? Are you one of those rocket jockeys that actually believes that space is the final frontier? Or, have you looked beyond the stars and realized that wide open plains and mountain ranges are the actual frontier to be explored and harnessed... space is just a means to an end...
Space in Horizons is the same as space in Elite: Dangerous. If you're not familiar with Elite: Dangerous, check out our reviews below, then come back here. What's new in Elite: Dangerous: Horizons is the ability to explore planets. Until now, you could roam the universe, but you couldn't get close to any of those heavenly bodies. Now, you can fly down to a planet's surface and take in its majesty as you cruise above it in your ship... or take in its resources as you get a bit more... intimate with it in your SRV, driving around on its rocky surface.
And what, exactly, do you see? Well, you're only able to land on planets without atmospheres, so the surfaces will tend to be much like Earth's moon, with environments composed primarily of rock and dust (smaller rock), with dunes (large collections of dust) and mountains (big rocks). However, the most daunting element to me was the extreme shadows. In a planet with an atmosphere, light bounces around a lot and you end up with a lot of ambient light, which makes shadows less pronounced. On a planet's surface in Horizons, if you're approaching a dune and the sun is over the peak ahead of you in the distance, you are approaching the big black. You might be barreling toward a ramped slope... or a cliff wall. You won't know until you get there. (You've got lights. I'd suggest you put them to use.)
The music that plays planet-side perfectly matches the wonder of exploring a new planet's surface, but can get in the way when you're trying to listen to the clicks, scratches and white-noise being spewed by the SRV's onboard scanner. While there is a visual indication on the scanner (fuzzy thought it may be), once you familiarize yourself with the scanner's annoying song, you could allow it to guide you toward your goal without glancing at the scanner. However, the drone and whine of the motors as they struggle to push you over the rugged terrain can obscure the sensor's sounds, so you'll have to deal with that.
You've always been able to dock with space stations, with their internal docking platforms that force you to navigate your way into a slot first, and to dock on factories, with their more terran-styled open-air landing platforms, but you always know that you're out in space. Horizons expands the list of things you can sit on to include large rocks. Really large rocks. Planets, in fact. And while referring to a planet as a "large rock" might seem a bit dismissive, I meant quite the opposite.
"Large rock" might be the best description of the planets you can land on, because both of those aspects must be understood. First, these planets are large. Not "choose from over 12 different cities" large, but "Holy $#!% this is a huge planet, I've been flying around it for hours and I haven't gotten all the way around it... or seen... anything" large. There's stuff down there, though... just not a lot that's visible from a decent (and relatively safe) cruising altitude of a few thousand meters.
As for the "Rock" aspect, if you were to land on the surface and drive about, you'd find a wide variety of things: rocks, ore, mining facilities harvesting ore from rock, crash sites of other ships that were trying to get on or off this rock to search for other rocks, sentries securing a perimeter to prevent anyone from fetching Occupied Escape Pods of the people from the above mentioned crash sites... that sort of thing.
Mind you, harvesting ore isn't all you can do on a planet's surface. There are sabotage missions that will have you infiltrating a facility and disabling sentry turrets to provide a distraction, missions that will have you searching for Occupied Escape Pods and Courier missions where you have to take something to a location on a planet's surface. However, all of these things are done with your ship and your newly accessible vehicle: the SRV.
The SRV is your 'moon buggy', a la Moon Patrol, replete with jump jets and a turret. However, this is a first person rover experience, no side scroller action, so you can expect to have either very slow movement or little control to speak of, as you slam over rocky terrain, fly off cliffs, and crunch into towering cliff-like structures. If you're really (un)lucky, like I was, you might end up stuck in what I've come to call "the devil's tumbler" - a narrow, deep valley that is too steep to escape in an SRV. I kept trying to escape until my unsuccessful attempts ruptured my hull. Sad, really.
Of course, you're not merely aimlessly roving around a planet's surface; you've got your trusty scanner built in the SRV. It clicks, chirps, scrapes and shows fuzzy images while you roam aimlessly about. The scanner uses audio to indicate things of interest, which can range from a spaceship to a settlement to a large rock with ore in it or even Occupied Escape Pods. Different types of elements create different types of fuzzy blips and auditory feedback, so listen closely to the clicks and scrapes and watch to see if the blips that show up on the scanner are at the low end of the band or the high end of the band (differing types of ore) or, perhaps, in the center of the band, which can be organic compounds, such as free-range cargo containers or, yes, the ever elusive Occupied Escape Pod. Oh, and you might want to stop your SRV to just listen from time to time, as your motors can make enough noise to obscure some of the finer details of those sounds. Oh, and I've had to wait out some background music, before. It's great music, but it can get in the way of those gosh darn sensor readings.
When you find ore (and blow it up and collect the broken off pieces), you can use these elements onboard your SRV to synthesize items to use for your SRV and your ship, including ammo, fuel and even infrastructure to repair your SRV. Further, these things can be made in different quality levels, if you collect the more rare elements necessary to create higher quality versions. The elements that are needed are indicated in the Synthesis menu in your SRV's Inventory Panel.
One fun aspect of planetary exploration is that they're modeling the planets differently. Earth-sized planets have Earth-sized gravity, but when you blow up a rock to collect ore on a small moon, you can take a break while you wait for the pieces of ore to finally fall back down to the surface. Icy planet? Don't expect your SRV to have traction quite as good as on a rocky, dusty planet. And I could swear that when I was driving my SRV over the snowy surface of Wanderer (Dahar System) that I heard the distinct sound of crushing snow, much like you would hear if you went for a stroll on fresh powder.
There are basically two sides to planetary landings: actually landing your ship on the surface of a planet and roaming around in a SRV. Landing your ship on a planet can be a bit frustrating, as you'll need to make sure your approach isn't too shallow and you'll really need to make sure you're approaching the planet near your destination. (You really don't want to realize you're on the other side of the planet - trust me.) Also, it can take a while to land on a planet - especially larger ones. And then, of course, there's the fact that planets provide so much more opportunities for spectacularly taking out your own ship. Where you might be able to bounce yourself off of the side of a space station or landing pad at a refinery, you can smack into a mountainside and roll yourself hard against the terrain. Word of advice: try to avoid that.
The SRV side of things is a dichotic symphony of action and boredom, loud motor noises and quiet sound-based sensor indication, weak motors and overcompensation motor controllers... all gift-wrapped in a mixed bag. It will take some practice to get familiarized with the controls, even though you can set them up however you like. I would advise not using the same keys to navigate through menus as you do to move the SRV about (WASD, for example), since if you ever want to load your SRV back on your ship, you'll need to get your SRV in the target boarding area beneath your ship and, while there, navigate to the option to board your ship. This can be very difficult if your SRV is moving while you're trying to select the option (which isn't available unless you're in position)... and it's really frustrating to flip back and forth between driving and looking at the menu to see when you've got the boarding option available. At the very least, set your SRV throttle to a crawl and have the hand brake assigned to a key that's doesn't interfere with your menus (such as 'X'). This might save your sanity. No matter how well you set up your controls, you will still occasionally recall your ship to pick you up in your SRV, only to have it land such that you can't fit your SRV under the ship and you'll have to send it off and recall it again. (Pro Tip: If you're expecting to have heat when you're leaving and need to leave in a hurry, park close enough that your ship won't dismiss itself and have it oriented away from your destination so you can quickly load back up when you're on the run.
The amount of content added by Horizons is mind boggling. No, you can't visit every planet out there; you can only visit bodies that don't have atmospheres, which includes everything from moons to planets much larger than Earth. That's literally billions of planets to explore and experience. It's huge, and it's only the first part of the Horizons season. Later in 2016, Frontier plans to include Multicrew (fly in the same ship as your friend), Loot and Crafting, the Commander Creator, among other yet unnamed things.
While playing Elite: Dangerous got me fantasizing about creating a simulator for the game, the Horizons SRV had me contemplating what it would take to send the audio through a device to process the sensor signals and give me more useful data. I know that might sound like I'm merely panning the scanner, but I'm actually rolling around the idea of splitting off the audio and piping it in to a second computer and running an analysis on the sound. Alternatively, Elite: Dangerous could provide upgrades for that scanners. That would probably be a better use of everyone's time, really.
If you haven't played Elite: Dangerous, but you've been interested, by all means, jump in with Horizons... it's a more complete experience. If you already have Elite: Dangerous and you've customized your control scheme, write it down before going into Horizons. When I fist deployed my SRV, I had no SRV key bindings set whatsoever. In order to get something useful in there quickly, I set my control scheme back to the default Mouse and Keyboard setup, then customized my ship controls again. You've been warned.
If you're tired of Picarding around the galaxies and you want to Kirk down to a few of the planets in search of green...er resources, you need to reach out for the Horizons... and probably pick up a ship with more cargo space than just a Sidewinder. Just a suggestion.