FROM THE ARCHIVE: Frontier: Elite II – A Retrospective Review

Frontier: Elite II is a 1993 PC/Commodore Amiga-format space simulator game, produced by David Braben of Frontier Developments, formerly known for co-development of the seminal and groundbreaking Elite, and the first solid three-dimensional game ever produced, and published by Gametek and Konami.

Continuing in the steps of its predecessor, Frontier: Elite II starts you off with a spaceship and a small amount of money. The plot, in so far as there is one, puts you in the role of one of the grandchildren of Commander Jameson from Elite, bequeathed a small amount of money and the space fighter that you begin with, but the rest of the story is left to the player to imagine, for this is a sandbox game of the greatest order.

With only the vaguest of directives instituted in the game – make money in any way that you see fit, and eventually aim towards Elite combat rating – Frontier is an example of sandbox gaming taken to the extreme. There are several possibilities for making money, ranging from the legal to the very-much illegal, and from the safe to the overwhelmingly dangerous. Trading, bounty hunting, asteroid mining, piracy, smuggling, military missions – all of these are possible and perfectly legitimate ways of making a profit.

The game encourages the objective of making money by giving you a very modest starting spaceship by game standards, and the suggestion is that you will want to upgrade your spacecraft to a larger, more powerful model as soon as possible. In order to facilitate this, there are several trading routes in the game which are very safe, if rather boring ways of making a quick profit and getting to the larger spacecraft as quickly as possible. But if the starting player wants a challenge, this is facilitated just as well, with highly dangerous anarchic trading routes, or illegal goods which can make a player a quick profit – if they can avoid the police.

The other objective in the game, to reach Elite combat rating, is significantly more difficult, and it will only be the committed player which will achieve it. Piracy, bounty hunting, military missions and trading in anarchic systems all bring the potential to reach that objective, but they all bring substantial danger to the forefront of the game.

Frontier delivers an almost-unrivalled variety of gameplay, delivering every one of its ways of playing the game with detail and balance. Certain choices, like trading routes through stable star systems, are particularly good for making profit, but lead to repetitive grind; others don’t make very good profit, like piracy, but greatly increase the excitement of the gameplay, along with bringing the possibility of improving the combat rating or military rank of the player.

All of this is delivered in easily one of the largest universes ever seen in a computer game. The role-playing genre often advertises their games as having gigantic game-worlds; even the largest game-world ever seen in a role-playing game, that of The Elder Scrolls II: Daggerfall, is dwarfed by the universe of Frontier. Using procedural generation, an enthusiasm in astronomy and the skills necessary, David Braben created possibly the closest simulation of the Milky Way galaxy in a computer game. The universe is so large that no matter what spacecraft you use, there is no way to reach the edge of the galaxy, short of hacking the game files. The universe is so large, it makes every other space simulation look puny in comparison.

This picture doesn’t even begin to show the scale of the universe.

Not only is the universe gigantic, almost absurdly large, but even using procedural generation, the star systems aren’t cookie-cutter images of each other. The central star systems, surrounding our very own sun, have been named and detailed appropriately, while even the outer systems, which have been named and generated procedurally, carry enough surprises to make even the longest-playing Frontier player want to go out and explore.

It’s certainly possible to explore as well. Despite the vague directives issued at the start of the game, it’s possible to ignore even these once enough money has been obtained, and a player can simply load up their spacecraft with fuel and explore the periphery at their leisure.

All of this is possible because of the gigantic level of detail that has gone into this game. David Braben was already known for pushing the boundaries of computer game design, but Frontier: Elite 2 really stretches the limit. A universe so large the limits can’t even be reached, enough spaceships to cover every eventuality, realistically-sized planets with their own characteristics, and unflinching realism – I’ve only begun covering the amount of detail in this game.

Not only does this detail stretch to elements of the gameplay, it stretches to those little elements which improve the atmosphere of the game. Every shipyard in the game will have a few obsolete ships which are useless or mostly-useless for any element of the game, just because that’s what you’d expect to find at a realistic shipyard. Surrounding the space stations of Frontier are gigantic unplayable cruisers and transport spacecraft, too large to fit into the space station, just because you’d expect them to be there in reality. Unlike many space simulators since, you can realistically land on planets, without there being any animations to simulate your landing, or planetary restrictions – what’s the point of having realistically-sized planets without the ability to interact with them?

And that brings me onto a point where the detail is so obvious as to completely change your expectations of a space game. This is one of the most realistic games I have ever played. While Elite was a playful game, taking inspiration from science-fiction sources such as The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, Frontier is altogether a far more serious affair. From the police who will catch you for crimes ranging from smuggling to landing without permission, to the realistically-presented planets, to the Newtonian physics which dictate the way the game is played, you will never pick up another space game which puts this amount of detail into making the game realistic.

The Newtonian physics are the most stunning element of this realism, and one of the most stunning elements of the game altogether. In this game, it is possible to hang in geostationary orbit. It is possible to gravitationally slingshot around supermassive stars and large planets. Bear in mind that this game was produced in 1993, and that in the same engine, it is possible to read the accurate time off a clock on the surface of a planet, and you have one of the most technically advanced experiences ever forged on a personal computer.

But I haven’t yet got to the most impressive part. All of this, the huge detail, the gigantic universe, the realistic gameplay – this all fits into a single floppy disk.

Remember these?

David Braben, in 1993, on Intel 386 and Commodore Amiga machines, managed to do more with a single megabyte than most developers can do with a gigabyte or more. He managed to fit an entire universe full of realism and detail onto a storage medium so obsolete and so small by today’s standards that most modern boot-loaders can’t even fit onto one of them. That is the most impressive feature of this game, and it hasn’t been matched since.

But the sort of unflinching realism that David Braben created comes with its own set of compromises. The Newtonian physics make combat realistic, if not particularly intuitive, and without the autopilot feature, which realistically takes up space in a spacecraft, it’s all too easy to shoot off past a planet, wasting time and fuel. The police, who fine you for obvious things like smuggling, also fine you for realistic but frustrating elements like firing weapons outside a space-station, or launching from a planetary space-station without obtaining the appropriate permission. Spacecraft have to be serviced every year at least, a feature which contributes to the impossibility of reaching the edge of the universe, and one even has to pay every time they land at a space-station. For the person searching for a truly deep and engaging game, these features add atmosphere. For those looking for a quick thrill, these features just serve to frustrate.

Coupled to this is a somewhat unintuitive control system, which one must read the manual in order to discover properly, and the necessity to switch manually from automatic speed control to manual controls in order to get the upper hand in space combat, and it becomes apparent that Frontier is a game with a steep learning curve. That said, the controls never make the game unplayable, and they suffice acceptably.

Being from 1993, there is one other issue that does make itself particularly apparent, and that is the low level of graphical detail. While, thanks to the release of the Frontier source code, third-party developers have devised versions with higher resolution, the game is never going to compare to modern games in that respect.

A screenshot from GLFrontier shows the low level of graphical detail that you’re in for.

Regardless, Frontier: Elite II is one of the most fantastic games I’ve ever had the pleasure of picking up. Despite its age, the gameplay still rings true today, while the experience is unrivalled by any space game made since. David Braben transcended his former classics with a game so detailed and unique that it’s impossible not to be entranced by its charm, and thanks to the release of the source-code, it is possible to play a slightly updated version right now.

While the original source of the game is no longer available, there should be archives of it around the internet; for a more modern approach, do a search for GLFrontier for a version of the game more suited to modern operating systems. Fame and fortune await you; the choice is clear, choose Frontier!


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