If youíre still playing Elite: Dangerous, you probably think you've seen it all at this point, size and scope aside. You may very well have attained that special status that few games allow: to borrow from Everclear, you might be everything to everyone. Itís possible that youíre a legendary space trucker; youíve learned to play the market and make all the right decisions that led to you maximizing your profits and becoming a wealthy merchant whose sea is none other than the great void. Itís equally possible that you are an interplanetary scourge, known for ripping peaceful marketeers out of their planned travel routes to steal from and/or murder them. Perhaps youíve settled into the role of an interstellar taxi driver or chauffeur, fattening your wallet with fares both ethical and not so much. Or maybe youíve channeled your inner Han Solo, and your wares have neither the most legal sources nor the savoriest of destinations. Who knows? Maybe youíre all of that at once and more.
Time to add another moniker to your reputation: slayer of hostile aliens. The Thargoids (introduced long, long ago by David Braben and Ian Bell) have returned with a vengeance, and their presence is, shall we say, comprehensive. But if youíve stuck with the game up until this point, chances are good that youíre ready to put down this extraterrestrial threat.
Is Elite: Dangerous: Horizons Ė The Return worth it? Thatís a difficult question to answer, given the nature of its release, which Iíll get into by the end of this review. Ultimately, it depends on the currency youíre willing to part with. If you own Horizons, you already own The Return. Thereís no purchase to be made and thereís no risk involved. The only thing that it requires is your time and investment, and at this stage in the gameís lifecycle, itís extremely safe to say that your mileage will vary. I will say this, however: if youíve wanted a universal threat to deal with in the otherwise freeform Elite: Dangerous, this is the closest it has ever come to delivering one.
Close Encounters of the Sixth Kind:
If you played Elite at all (the 1984 one), youíve likely heard of or even encountered the Thargoids, the hostile alien force known for appearing and attacking in their iconic eight-sided craft. Theyíre as tough as they are mean, so this is no early-game series of minibosses. This is a veritable legion of dispassionate, frequently homicidal creatures, and theyíre clearly on a mission of some sort. So itís up to you and the commanders to do everything in your power to identify and subsequently deal with this existential, all-encompassing galactic threat; whether by brooking, repelling, or otherwise exterminating. After all, what good is all that wealth and respect youíve accumulated when youíve been reduced to a puff of cosmic vapor?
Letís get one thing out of the way really quick: the Thargoids are scary. This is largely due to how theyíre presented and the threat they represent. Their technology, from their ships to their weaponry, exudes an almost indifferent hostility thatís far creepier than any overtly evil entity in fiction. They glide around in these flat, metallic ships that look like a cross between a hockey puck and a sunflower. But what's particularly interesting about their involvement in Elite: Dangerous is how no one encounter is just like the other. My first one felt accidental, as it should have. I was meandering around, investigating non-human signals, when a Cyclops-class Interceptor unceremoniously glided up to my craft. Think of this thing as a high-tech beehive if you want an explanation of its behavior, hostile or otherwise. Either I was just too small potatoes for them or something else was at play, but all it did was scan my ship and move on to investigate a nearby bit of debris. That's a really interesting way to introduce the unknown.
When in Rome:
The Thargoid menace is a difficult one to pin down, much less combat. And when you take into account the player bases that have made Elite: Dangerous their collective homes, it becomes even more potentially convoluted and conflicted. Just as the political machinations of various factions color the larger universe at play, so too do they influence how this threat is confronted. Depending on what kind of playstyle you adopt and what kind of community experience you have, the answer isn't exactly straightforward. Do you plow forth with your AX Missile Rack and Multi-cannon and make them intimate with the infinite? Or do you hope for a different solution? The Thargoids aren't particularly known for their aptitude for diplomacy; their silence is practically deafening, in fact. But they are clearly doing what they're doing for a reason, and there's no shortage of players who would rather understand than destroy. Whether this schism in the player base is intentional or not, it's an interesting observation.
Given the nature of Elite: Dangerous' supplementary content, it's easy to view much of what The Return entails as table-dressing for something much bigger. Sure, the mission design is a step in the right direction for players who desire more structure to their sandbox, but it still feels like it's scratching the surface. Teasing. Considering the technological and creative hurdles involved in a project as massive as this one, it's understandable. However, it's illustrative of what is easily the game's biggest problem; I'll explain further at the end of this review.
One thing is certain: if you want to see all you can possibly see in The Return (or if you can even get the point where you mildly suspect that you did), not only must you have already spent a ton of time with the game proper, but you'll also have to have made an extraordinary amount of tangible progress in your personal quest for craft, personnel, and status. This may make or negate the value of this additional content for several players. Perhaps, in principle, it's the status quo for MMO-like experiences, but at the same time, World of Warcraft expansions were actually finished by the time they hit the shelves.
The Return feels more like a process than anything else; a process that has barely begun even as of this writing. Right now, there's so much up in the air (as it were) that it's impossible to even get the most basic, elementary read on everything that this patch actually entails. Details are being purposefully withheld, and for good reason. But when you take into account the practically limitless playspace of Elite: Dangerous, it's incredibly difficult to form expectations, much less reconcile them with whatever you encounter after the patch. It's a mystery that's still being picked at, and it's likely going to be this way for a long time. This release is borderline impossible to review in any meaningful way apart from something like a daily video log that runs for months on end.
Which brings me to my biggest issue with releases like these. As much as I love Elite: Dangerous, Iím not at all a fan of Frontierís approach to post-launch support. Expansions I have no problem with. But here, each expansion is partitioned off into what feels like a series of patches and drip-fed into the core experience over a very long period of time. While they add to and ultimately improve the game, it poses a series of conundrums to me as a reviewer. One: itís extraordinarily presumptuous with regards to its player base's level of investment. Two: it makes the game feel like some sort of unfinished Early Access project that was already released at retail price. Now, I can have a lot to say about an expansion, most of the time: the adjustments made in the interim can be sweeping, comprehensive, and sometimes game-changing. But when it comes down to it, I believe that whatís new in Elite: Dangerous: Horizons: The Return does not lend itself well to the consumer-focused way in which we review products. Itís so slight in the long term that thereís not much of substance I can say, and it is impossible to gauge its total value until whatever Horizons is supposed to entail draws to a close, or to anything resembling completion. I can discuss it for pages and pages of text, but I would not be saying anything worthwhile. Do I recommend it? Thatís beside the point, as players who own Horizons automatically own it; you cannot and will likely never be able to purchase The Return on its own. I can only look at it in the context of Horizons as a whole and gauge whether or not it improves upon or detracts from whatís already there.
Considering that The Return is part of Horizons, the biggest question should be "Does this make Horizons worth the purchase?" For my part, that answer is no. That being said, my level of investment has significantly dropped off in the interim, and Iím under no delusion that this isnít coloring my perception of it. In the end, if you still play Elite: Dangerous, the time you spend with The Return will probably be just as well-spent as it's ever been. If you donít, itís difficult to say exactly how strong its pull will be. It all comes down to investment, expectation, and time on hand. If you take all of these factors into consideration, youíll have a good idea of whether or not youíll want to make the purchase based on this alone.