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Thursday, July 18, 2024

If Starfield takes one thing from Elite Dangerous, I hope it’s bus driving

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My enormous space bus is easing its way into a slowly spinning space station when I get a mission-critical message from one of my passengers. As I always do when something unexpected happens in Elite Dangerous, I panic. I throw my bus into reverse to disable the autodock computer just meters from the entry to the station, and then try to veer away from the station’s entrance. It doesn’t work and it’s not pretty. My big, long space bus bumps and clunks around inside the narrow entrance for an embarrassing amount of time, and I even clip another ship as I’m turning it around to exit.

A minute and several expletives later, I hover safely outside the station and open the urgent message from my passenger. He’s offering me a payment bonus if I get him to his destination quickly.

Dude. Space dude. I was literally seconds away from landing at your destination when you decided it was a great time to send me an urgent message offering me a bonus for landing early? Man, space bus driving would be a great job if it weren’t all for the space bus passengers.

After seven years away, I recently got the urge to start playing space sim Elite Dangerous again, and I attribute that sudden urge to Starfield. After the gameplay trailer dropped I just wanted to fly a spaceship. Any spaceship. With speculation that Starfield will launch in March of 2023, I’ve still got potentially nine months before I can fly a customizable ship in Bethesda’s space RPG, and that’s just a little too long for me to wait. So, I hopped back into Elite and did what any adventurer would do with an entire Milky Way Galaxy to explore. I became a bus driver.

Don’t make me tap the sign

I know the games are nothing alike: Elite is a pretty hardcore spaceship sim, and Starfield is a Bethesda RPG with, I’m guessing, arcade-like controls. But I love that Elite has career options besides space battles, search and rescue missions, bounty hunting, and smuggling cargo. Those roles are exciting, but there’s room for mundane careers that just feel like regular jobs, but in space. Mining. Trading. And passenger missions, which I call bus driving. And I hope Starfield, like Elite, has room for those of us who don’t necessarily want to save the galaxy or experience high adventure but just want to have low-key, humdrum jobs in outer space.

Elite’s passenger missions are pretty simple, at least until they get complicated. Add a passenger cabin to your ship, dock at a space station, and poke your head into the passenger lounge. There you’ll find people willing to pay you to give them a ride somewhere. Oftentimes they’ll pay more money than the cost of an actual spaceship. Some want a lift to another space station or planetary base, others want a sightseeing tour with several stops at points of interest, and some are bulk transport missions to shuttle workers or other groups on a one-way trip.

It’s hard to find a good selection of fares until you’ve built up a reputation, but after some grinding that slowly improved my standing with various factions I was able to afford a Dolphin, which I promptly painted bright yellow (which required microtransactions) so it’d look like a proper space bus. After adding several cabins I was able to start hauling more passengers, which, much to my dismay, eventually led to problems. Some passengers are panicky and will eject if you take hull damage. Some turn out to be wanted felons which makes you a target if you’re scanned by officials. And others are demanding and will send you extra instructions while in flight—sometimes even when the flight is seconds from ending.

But mostly the missions are pretty uneventful, which is exactly what I’m looking for. Let others roleplay as assassins and infiltrators: I just want to put in a couple hours of work on a nice quiet route, get people where they want to go, make a bit of scratch, and avoid any unnecessary drama. That last part can be tricky. Since my ship’s computer calls everything a “mission critical message,” every notification from my passengers feels like an emergency and I’m prone to freaking out.

Eventually I wound up like I suspect most Elite bus drivers do: grinding the boring but reliable missions out of Robigo Mines. It’s an easy route, where multiple groups of passengers all want the same trip to view the same planetary beacon a couple quick jumps away and will pay a small fortune for it. The Robigo Mines station never scans your ship so you don’t need to worry about ferrying wanted criminals, and no one ever asks for anything special during the mission. Each trip takes under fifteen minutes, and with shields and cargo bays removed from your hull you can fit extra passenger cabins, fill them up, and earn ungodly amounts of dough in a short amount of time.

Which is what I did until I could afford a Orca, an even bigger space bus than my Dolphin, with room for luxury cabins for snootier passengers. The downside is that I can no longer do the Robigo Mines missions because my Orca is too big to land there, meaning I’m back to accepting fares that occasionally make me panic, like when one passenger wanted me to score them narcotics and another told me to “eliminate all enemies” while we were still taking off. Did I mention I removed all weapons from my ship? The only way I can eliminate anyone is if they park their ship in front of mine and I crash into them. This is a bus, not a star destroyer.

Despite the occasional hiccup, being a bus driver Elite Dangerous is mundanely awesome, a series of achievable missions that don’t take much time or commitment but profit enough that I can keep upgrading my ship and sometimes even buy a new one. I hope Starfield will have similar occupations that don’t necessarily involve adventure, drama, and extreme danger but still make me enough money to build and customize the ship of my dreams. I really don’t need to be the Dragonborn of outer space. Just being a simple bus driver is fine with me.

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