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Frontier: Elite 2 Review

  • Vintage: 1993
  • Developer: David Braben
  • Publisher: Gametek/Konami
  • Genre: Space flight sim

Frontier, at the time of release, was one of the most anticipated sequels of all time. Almost ten years in the making, when it finally did arrive some were disappointed. This may be due to Gametek’s autocratic approach to release dates, causing the game to be rushed towards the end of development and resulting in bugs making it into the final release. Those of you have played the sequel, Frontier: First Encounters will have seen that this situation did not improve for the next iteration of the game.

 

beautiful.

Aster sets over Merlin: beautiful.

Premise

You are the grandson of legendary pilot Commander Jameson and – after his recent demise – the inheritor of one hundred credits and the keys to a shiny new Eagle Long Range Fighter. His hopes are obvious: follow in his footsteps and continue the family tradition of ace piloting, exploration, profiteering and combat.

Elite II keeps the open-ended sandbox feel of the original and adds more realistic Newtonian physics and a more accurately modelled galaxy featuring our own Solar System and its closest neighbours. The rest of the galaxy is procedurally generated resulting in around one thousand billion systems!

The addition of realistic physics necessitated a change in control system. No longer is it a case of point and thrust, Inertia must be taken into account. If you set of in one direction but wish to turn around, you must apply equal thrust in the opposite direction in order to stop and then thrust some more to move off again (thanks, Sir Isaac). This new change is most evident during dogfights, The inertia and relative movement results in battles more akin to jousting. The two ships speed past each other, shooting and firing missiles as they approach then turn for another pass, repeating until someone prevails or flees.

 

Olympus Village is a bustling city at the foot of an enormous mountain on the newly terraformed Mars.

Olympus Village is a bustling city at the foot of an enormous mountain on the newly terraformed Mars.

One of Elite II: Frontier’s greatest appeals is that you are free to do as you choose in this huge universe. You can be a trader, a courier, a taxi, a hitman, a pirate, a miner, or a freelance mercenary working for the navy. Lets look at each of these in turn:

Trading is possibly the quickest and safest way to make a lot of money (in the core systems at least). Check each system’s stockmarket and work out profitable trade routes capitalising on major imports and exports. It’s pretty simple: buy low, hyperspace to another system, sell high. Of course, even more money can be made on the black market. Goods deemed illegal by governments – slaves, weapons, narcotics – will always fetch high prices. Are you prepared to compromise your morals for a quick credit?

Being a courier involves taking money for delivering parcels to people, usually in neighbouring systems. Sounds simple? Sometimes people need you to handle something sensitive: Evidence that might send someone down, or technologies that are most coveted by rival firms. In cases such as these, you can bet that trouble will be waiting at the destination system. Being a taxi is very similar, except you will need extra passenger cabins to house your fare.

Mining is predictably dull, monotonous work for very little return. This involves planting mining equipment on planet surfaces, taking care not to place it in someone’s back garden. Alternatively, you can blast asteroids with a mining laser and pick up the resulting debris with your fuel scoop to sell as minerals. Neither of which will make much moola. However, you can get your hands (or fuel scoops) on some free fuel by ‘skimming’ (ie. flying very close to) gas giants or stars. This is very useful when you are on long haul hyperspace journeys without a nearby space station to refuel.

Far more exciting, then is piracy. Simply find someone less deadly than you, blast them into smithereens, pick up said smithereens and sell them. Who knows? That adder might be carrying ten tons of luxury goods. If there is a bounty on the pilot, you will also be rewarded for the kill. Don’t do this too close to planets or stations, though: the police are likely to take umbrage.

Being a hitman is also quite hardcore, which is why this is only available once you reach a certain status. Your status is tracked by the authorities and improves each time you destroy a pre-defined number of ships. At the beginning, your classification is Harmless and progresses through Dangerous and Deadly all the way up to the most prestigious award: Elite status.

 

Annoy the police at your peril. Youd better have a formidable ship (and a formidable bank balance).

Annoy the police at your peril. You'd better have a formidable ship (and a formidable bank balance).

Many ship upgrades are available to help you vapourise your opponents and speed you up the rankings. These include; missiles, ECM, energy bombs, mines, shield generators, laser cooling systems and many more.

After a while your ship will begin to feel cramped and you may want to invest in a newer model. Unlike the original Elite, you can purchase all the ships you encounter in the game (with the exception of the huge trading vessels seen near to trading outposts). Ships vary from small, nimble fighters to huge trading ships with huge cargo bays but little combat prowess.

 

Docking isnt the hold-your-breath-and-dont-mess-yourself ordeal that it used to be. Automatic pilot is available from the off.

Docking isn't the hold-your-breath-and-don't-mess-yourself ordeal that it used to be. Automatic pilot is available from the off.

Gameplay 

The game is controlled by mouse and keyboard. You hold the right button to manueovre your ship and pressing the left button while doing so fires your laser. [return] increases your speed and [shift] reduces it. Icons at the bottom of the screen give access to a wealth of information concerning your ship, cargo, passengers, crew, equipment, current system, navigation chart and a handy little gizmo known as the Stardreamer Time Control which allows you to accelerate time (handy for those lengthy planetary approaches).

Flight control can be a little awkward at first, especially during combat, where it can be difficult to bring your cannons to bear on your opponent. After some practice you will be blasting ships left, right and centre which is very rewarding. On other occasions automatic pilot is indespensible, and makes approaching your destination and docking a breeze.

 

A trip to Honest Johns shipyard to test drive a Tiger Trader (one missile pylon, three gun mountings, two cup-holders).

A trip to Honest John's shipyard to test drive a Tiger Trader (one missile pylon, three gun mountings, two cup-holders).

Sound

Spot effects for lasers, explosions etc. are present but nothing to write home about. Classical music accompanies key events such as combat, docking, hyperspace and is definitely inspired by 2001: a Space Odyssey (The Blue Danube plays as you dock). These tunes are nicely arranged but the sound chip is capable of more and a few samples would not have gone amiss.

 

You will never find a more wretched hive of scum and villainy. We must be cautious.

Arcturus spaceport: You will never find a more wretched hive of scum and villainy. We must be cautious.

Graphics

Frontier is beautiful. The 3D engine is astounding, though the framerate suffers at high detail levels. Play this on an accelerated emulator on ‘very high’ detail and marvel at the vistas available. If you are using a real ST, you are better off sticking to ‘low’ detail in order to keep the frame rate at a playable level especially for battles.

 

Whatever happens in Richardsons Mine stays in Richardsons Mine.

Whatever happens in Richardson's Mine stays in Richardson's Mine.

Conclusion

An enigma of a game not without its flaws but the sheer scope, depth and detail on offer here is astounding. It is very easy to get lost in this sprawling universe and with so much to do, if you ever find yourself getting bored there is always something new to try. This was quite a lengthy review but it only scratched the surface of what is available here. Many games since have tried to match the immersive quality and grand scale attempted here, but few get even close.

Review written by: StickHead

Score: 

Further Reading

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4 comments

  1. A great game indeed, but as you mentioned a missed opportunity. And I’m not solely referring to them bugs. The game lacked the soul of its predecessor, in a way I can’t quite define. Still, I’d love to see a new Elite. Possibly even one that borrows bits from Firefly…


  2. A very fair review of a very good game. I had high hopes for this when it was released, and although certain aspects where disappointing, overall it was a marvellous piece of software. For a start, it’s amazing that the whole game fits on a single floppy disk and loads into RAM in one go, even on modest spec STs. Another big plus for me was the sense of a real, living, breathing universe, crammed with people… you really did just feel like one of the millions! Also, the amazing attention to detail throughout the game, including the realistic planet movements – sitting on a landing pad as the sun goes down and the stars come out, just as the neighbouring gas giant pops up over the horizon is awesome to watch. The main negative was the combat, which was just not as enjoyable as the original Elite’s. I’d rather sacrifice some of the realistic physics of space-flight for more “arcadey” combat action. I’ve played a LOT of more recent PC space-sims but none of them impressed me as much as Frontier… I just hope Braben releases a new Elite game before I (or he!) leave planet earth for good!


  3. Also, why is “space” blue in Frontier!? Everyone knows space is black… most confusing!


  4. A faithful review – I like it 🙂
    Combat is more playable on higherend machines like Mega STE or Falcon.
    Additionalyl I second gnome, the game lacks something undefinable compared to the original Elite. But all in all it is really an advanced game for its time.



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