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Elite: Dangerous - Arena

Score: 80%
ESRB: Teen
Publisher: Frontier Developments
Developer: Frontier Developments
Media: Download/1
Players: 2 - 8 (Online Only)
Genre: Flight/ Simulation/ Online

Graphics & Sound:

Elite: Dangerous - Arena is a small slice of an extremely large pie. I understand who it's for and acknowledge that I'm not in its target audience. I spend the grand majority of my time with the core game actively avoiding combat. All I want to do is establish a reputation as the best interstellar delivery boy since Philip J. Fry, make a cosmic assload (totally a real unit of measurement, by the way) of credits, and just generally be a good civic-minded gentleman to the denizens of our Milky Way. Every time my craft detects an attempt at interdiction, I never submit. I scramble for the escape vector like a bat out of hell, and even if I'm yanked out of supercruise, I don't even give my attacker the pleasure of a fight. I run. Because I have deadlines to meet, damn it. So as the name implies, Arena is exclusively dedicated to CQC (close quarter combat). By reducing the scale and limiting the scope of the game, developer Frontier Developments aims to cast its net a bit wider; after all, Elite: Dangerous is far and away one of the most user-unfriendly experiences to hit the market in years. Anything to help ease in new blood is a positive. And Arena does a fair job of that.

Arena is above all else, a taste of what the full game has to offer. It starts with the visuals, which feed directly into the combat systems. The game is meant to be played in first-person, and given the fact that each particular facet of the original game was absolutely stuffed with visual mechanics, you'll have to get used to a lot of things really quickly if you hope to succeed. The interface is designed to be as immersive as it possibly can. This means no contrivances, even those in service to accessibility. Artistically, it's identical to Elite: Dangerous. When I reviewed it last year, I heaped a ton of praise upon its jaw-dropping depiction of deep space. Every word in that review stands. While you don't get to experience the scale of the game in Arena, you do get to become acclimated to the excellent physics, which always impart a sense of weight and mass. Since managing your inertia is a huge deal in CQC, it's important that the physics are spot-on. Thankfully, they are. Environmental design is as complex as it could be without being unreasonable; combat is as much about positioning as it is lining up your hardpoints. The likes of icy asteroid fields and labyrinthine stations play to the strengths of the modes on offer.

For all its realistic trappings, Elite: Dangerous - Arena is more Armageddon than Gravity. For vacuum, sound travels quite well through open space. Maybe I'm being unfair to the game; who here enjoys seeing an artificial explosion without hearing it in some capacity? It's forgivable. As in the core game, Arena's sound design screams "future tech." As it should; this is, after all, a game about future tech. Action sounds, for lack of better words, dangerous. Again, it should: you, your comrades, and your enemies are encased in metal contraptions. Intense forces are exerted upon it, and that's not even taking into account the high-powered weaponry. All told, it sounds great. Just like the original release does.


Elite: Dangerous is a space simulator. There aren't really any goals apart from the ones you set for yourself. Your identity, your occupation, your story. It gives you ultimate freedom with which to do as you please, albeit with very real consequences. Elite: Dangerous - Arena takes one of several core gameplay pillars, excises it with surgical precision, and presents it to the undecided as a kind of try-before-you-buy experience. It figures, if you get a sense of how the game works, you might be tempted with the rest of it. Personally, I was sold the moment my crappy little Sidewinder charged its frame shift drive and completed a jump to a remote system five light years away. Not so much when that crappy little Sidewinder took one too many laser pulses and went the way of the Enterprise. But the fact remains: it's fun to compete, and Elite: Dangerous has the right framework for competition.

For its price, Elite: Dangerous - Arena offers more than enough content. However, if you fail to take that into account, you might be fooled into thinking that there isn't nearly enough. Three modes, all staples of the shooter genre. Deathmatch, Team Deathmatch, and Capture the Flag: that's all you have to work with. That being said, it's enough to sell the merits of the game's locomotion and combat systems.


Elite: Dangerous - Arena quietly insists that you watch its training videos before hurling yourself headlong into the fray. And as it was in last year's core release, it's not nearly enough. The entirety of the game is a learning experience, and its methods vary by the moment. In the grand scheme of things, it does not bother with tutorials. If you're a new commander, you're essentially thrown to the wolves, and all you can do is hope that those wolves are as lost as you are.

Experiment. Experiment. Experiment. Arena is all about trial-and-error and process of elimination. Play around with all of your ship's systems. See what works and what doesn't. It's true that you'll find a lot more that doesn't work than strategies that do, but in the end, this entire project is about discovery. Poetic, yes. Convenient, no.

As of this writing, it's extremely difficult to get into a match. I've spent an inordinate amount of time waiting and looking at the matchmaking screen. It's difficult to say why; but considering the impressive size of the core game's player base, it's easy to have a hunch. Just bear that in mind if you have your heart set on this particular release.

Game Mechanics:

If you've played flight games in the past, you might have some idea of how to approach Elite: Dangerous - Arena. Standard flight controls from most other entries in the genre (space or no) make the transition well enough. However, the act of playing the game is far more complex than simply attempting to maneuver to your enemy's six o'clock and blasting away. Your environment lacks gravity, leverages three dimensions, and burdens you with layers upon layers of systems to govern the way you move and wage war.

Space simulation is a far cry from the landlocked aviation excursions offered by most flight games, however, and it's something you'll need to get used to quickly if you want to get and maintain the upper hand. Sure, you'll pitch, yaw, roll, accelerate, and decelerate, but while every spacecraft in the game operates on similar principles, you will need to be able to execute complex maneuvers on very little notice. You may find yourself switching between flight controls on the fly; managing your lateral and vertical thrusters efficiently just feels fundamentally different from maintaining a steady airspeed, avoiding stalls, and keeping on a vector of constant movement. It just doesn't work like that in space.

Arena brings with it something that the full game naturally lacks: an even playing field. If you have the core game, you won't have anything to show for that here. What I find fault with is the fact that the developer decided to shoehorn in an unnecessary progression system. In most modern shooters, these exist to incentivize play and encourage return trips. But more importantly, these systems are designed to keep dumping rewards on the player until (in most cases) the next iterative installment arrives on the market. Since Elite: Dangerous is more a perpetual work-in-progress than an iterative experience, locking loadouts, ships, and gear behind level gates feels superfluous.

Elite: Dangerous - Arena is free to those who already own the core game, so its discussion is almost a moot point for them. This release is intended for those who haven't gotten their feet wet. It's a better starting point than the core game, but it still seems content to allow new players to figure everything out at their own peril. On its own, Arena costs $7.49 USD. For a demo of high quality, it's not difficult at all to recommend.

-FenixDown, GameVortex Communications
AKA Jon Carlos

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