Hey - Do you already own Elite: Dangerous? If so, you're done. You already have this available to you. This is the Arena Mode (previously listed as CQC in the in-game menu), made available as a standalone product....
Yes, that's right. One mode in Elite: Dangerous is called Arena, where pilots match their skills against others in the Close Quarters Combat Championship. This is that game mode, all by itself.
The graphics are great, just like in Elite: Dangerous, which is no surprise, given that it's the same game engine. If anything, the structures and platforms for flying around may be easier to appreciate in Elite: Dangerous - Arena, since you don't have a speed limit and you can feel free to fly in, out, around and through the platforms. Additionally, since the arenas are constructed settings, some of them showcase some beautiful backgrounds, whether it be in an asteroid field or in the glow of a nearby sun.
Sounds are the same, too, but with the addition of a game announcer that gives you an audible heads-up on how much time remains in the match, and when your team takes the lead or loses it. There's also that urgent warning that you've left the arena. If you hear that one, turn around quick; you get a 10 second count before your ship self-destructs.
There's no planet surface exploration, no frame shift jumps, no missions. Just blowing up enemy ships while trying not to get shot down. So, why would anyone want to just shoot at other ships? Well, for one thing, some people really enjoy dogfighting in their spaceships. This lets you do just that.
While there are opportunities to attack other ships in Elite: Dangerous, there are almost always some sort of ramifications of doing so. Here, not only do you not end up with a bounty on your head, you earn experience, glory, and even credits that can be spent in your normal Elite: Dangerous game. If you find yourself on a station somewhere and needing a couple thousand more credits to afford that upgrade that you really want before embarking on the next leg of your trek, you could save your game, jump out and play Arena for a while to earn the credits you need for the upgrade, then jump back in and make your purchase. Nifty. I found that I was able to make just over 2,000 CR in just about an hour. And I'm not good at Elite: Dangerous - Arena. At all.
While the piloting skill is all Elite: Dangerous, Arena has a few unique twists of its own. For one, you have Power Ups. That's right, the look and feel of Elite: Dangerous - Arena is the realistic simulation found in Elite: Dangerous, but they've thrown in upgrades that could have been taken directly out of Mario Kart. There's one to boost your speed, one to enhance your weapons, even one for "Stealth Mode." The easy, realistic explanation of these features is, of course, that all of the ships have these enhancements built-in and at the ready and that flying through one of the labeled Power Up gates merely activates that enhancement for a limited time. At any rate, it ups the fun factor, adds tactical complexity, and helps to keep the gameplay dynamic.
There are three different types of bouts in Arena: Deathmatch, Team Deathmatch and Capture the Flag. These modes are true to their very familiar names. Deathmatch is an every commander for themselves brawl, where you are up against up to seven other ships in an effort to get the highest number of kills. Team Deathmatch divides the eight combatants into two teams of four and Capture the Flag also has four on four matches, but you fight to control the "flag," which, in this case, is a glowing ball of energy that will trail behind your ship if you fly through it.
I'm not much of a team player, so I don't usually play with a headset unless there's a really good reason to do so and, when there is, I usually have to root around to find where I put my boom mic. (I use my Astro A30s every day... but for listening, not chatting.) I found out quickly that if your going to play Team Deathmatch or Capture the Flag, you'll want to bring your headset with you. In my brief venture into Team Deathmatch, I found that players tend to be talkative and offer assistance... but you'd need to be able to indicate that you did, in fact, need it before it is actually given.
I am absolutely horrible at fighting and tend to put my efforts into exploring systems, investigating planet surfaces, trading and performing courier missions. Still, no matter who you are or how you play, you're eventually going to find yourself in a firefight. You can't choose whether you're going to be involved in the fight... just whether you're going to win. Well, maybe whether you have a shot at living through it?
At any rate, Arena serves as a much-needed Practice Mode for close quarters ship combat. The fact that dying in a match has no lasting effect, but merely affects your score is nice, indeed. You not only don't have to worry about spending credits to re-buy your ship, but you can swap out your ship and loadout before jumping back in, if you need to change up your play style. That is, of course, assuming you've progressed enough to unlock additional ships and loadouts.
When using Arena as a Practice Mode for Elite: Dangerous, all of the physics and techniques will carry over, but there are a couple of things that differ in the full game and you'll want to bear that in mind when trying to take your skills and apply them in the full game. First, weapons locks in the full game are, well, high-tech futuristic weapons locks. They're pretty good at locking onto something and keeping their lock. Sure, there are countermeasures that can break those locks, but they're generally pretty good. In Arena, however, weapons locks are broken if you don't maintain visual contact. That means that if you need to shake someone who's firing at you, ducking behind an asteroid or through a structure is a great idea. Also, if you're trying to gun someone down, don't let them out of your sight, or you'll have to re-establish your lock. (Also, the "Power Ups" don't appear in Elite: Dangerous, either. That's strictly a feature of Elite: Dangerous - Arena.)
As for the difficulty level, it's high. You're dealing with other players, so you can't simply figure out how some A.I. plays and change your style to exploit its weakness; these are real, live, players with their own ways of playing and they will come and go as you play, so I wouldn't try concentrating on individual players' weaknesses. I'd suggest developing strategies that work well for you against most other players.
And time. Every match you play will award you with experience and rank up your profile. Every match will be a learning opportunity, whether your stats are higher in kills, assists, or deaths. Every match will award you some amount of Credits that can be spent in Elite: Dangerous, even if your performance was less than you'd hoped. Practice makes perfect. Keep working toward that.
One issue I had with Arena is the lengthy matchmaking process. I don't know if it's due to not enough players or if I'm trying at off times, but I'm trying to play during "nights and weekends," which is pretty much when I can... and when I would expect others to try playing. The upside is that once you're in, you're in for a decent amount of time before you'll have to wait on the matchmaking process again. Once you play a game, you tend to be able to keep playing additional rounds with the same group of people, perhaps with a player leaving and another joining... without any real wait. The initial wait to get into a match, however, can be minutes. It seemed to me that it takes longer for the 4v4 modes than for Deathmatch.
Any time you have a massively multiplayer game, you're going to have players possessing a wide spread of talent and progress. You will have those who were in for the beta and have been playing for hours each day since launch and you will have newcomers who aren't sure how to fire their weapons. (Wait... did that just eject all my cargo!?)
Elite: Dangerous - Arena attempts to address this issue with regards to combat, which, let's face it, is really the part that players would complain about. In fantasy RPGs, you don't mind the fact that there are other players who are running around in amazing armor and wielding fantastic weapons... you mind when they use them on you. Same goes here. It's okay if other players have more ships (and larger ones), but you don't want to jump into the game and have no idea how to defend yourself. With Arena, you can hone your skills, get familiarity with some of the fighter ships and earn Credits that can be used in the full game at the same time.
The biggest problem I have with Arena is that it is difficult to actually get into a match with someone, as matchmaking can take so long. This goes quadrupley for team game modes, such as Team Deathmatch or Capture the Flag. In fact, I only played part of one Team Deathmatch game before the host left and wasn't able to get in another one, and I was not ever able to get into a Capture the Flag bout. In my attempt, however, I have racked up hours of waiting in matchmaking to play Capture the Flag. I think eight hours was the longest stint. Getting into a free-for-all Deathmatch is considerably more doable.
If you really want to try out the team modes, you would probably be better off forming your own squad and then contacting other squads outside of the game and scheduling a match. Not being an overly social gamer, I don't have three other friends and four rivals who play the game to test out this theory, however.
My editor emailed our contacts about not being able to get into a Capture the Flag match and, according to them, it seems that it is most likely due to a lack of players trying to play that game type. As they put it, the problem is that the full game offers so much more, with endless space exploration in all directions, that players gravitate toward the full game. My online research indicated the same. If you want to play Deathmatch or even Team Deathmatch, you might not have to wait too long, especially if you try playing late at night. Capture the Flag, however, is reportedly nigh impossible to get into a match.
However, Arena is offered at a mere $7.50 USD. Furthermore, if purchased from the Frontier store, the entire purchase price of Arena can be used toward the purchase of Elite: Dangerous. You simply pay the difference between Arena and the full game to upgrade. Or, as they put it on their website, "All customers who buy Elite Dangerous: Arena from the Frontier Store will receive a discount equal to their original purchase price, when upgrading to either Elite Dangerous or the Elite Dangerous: Deluxe Edition." Steam has the same offer, of course requiring that you buy the upgrade on Steam: "All customers who buy Elite Dangerous: Arena will receive a discount equal to their original purchase price, when upgrading to either Elite Dangerous or the Elite Dangerous: Deluxe Edition." Don't buy the game at one of the two and the full version at the other or you'll lose this discount.
So, if you've been considering Elite: Dangerous, but you're afraid of having your Asp (Scout) handed to you, then Arena might just be the way to ease yourself in to your captain's chair, Commander.