Frontier is special. It's not often we're treated to a game which has been five years in the making, a game which accurately maps out our entire solar system, a game which is a damn good out-and-out blast-'em-up. And at ST FORMAT we reckon a special game deserves a special review. So, grab a cup of cocoa, pull up a chair and get your- self comfortable.
We're going to tell you a story...
''What am I doing?'' mumbled John Jameson as he slid behind the controls of his shiny new Eagle Long Range fighter. He wasn't one for travelling - if the truth be known, he wasn't one for anything, really. He had spent the last five years bumming around the Sirocco space station in the Ross 154 system, earning a slight living working at a fish processing plant.
He hadn't really known his grandfather. A traveller, he traded in anything that could earn him money, killing for bounty, running from Federal Space Law.
As a child John's father had taken him on trips to visit his grandfather, but he was too young to remember much about him - he had left their sector of the galaxy before John was seven. So it came as an unexpected, but not entirely interesting, piece of news to hear of his grandfather death. The solicitor's letter was typically cold and brief, but the second envelope, containing his grandfather's last will and testament, John treated with some respect.
Tearing it open, with visions of his grandfather's bounty in the back of his mind, John's eyes scanned his grandfather's words: ''...a way of life that I loved and now I want you to experience... an occupation for you... trading... odd jobs... mining... abilities as a pilot are to be tested to the full...'' John rolled his eyes. ''Oh, Jesus. He wants me to be like him.”
“…you shall receive an Eagle Long Range Fighter and 100 credits. The ship has been delivered to your local starport...”
So here he was. Quite why the old codger hadn't left him the money instead of a spaceship he didn't know. He could have done with some cash. Still, there's always the shipyard, if push came to shove, he could sell it. Anyway, it couldn't do any harm to give it a test drive, could it? He'd booked a week off work, and he intended to have a good time. Cruise the space- ways, have a few beers, pick up a couple of gals from the Alpha Centauri system. Anyway, spur of the moment, that was the way to go.
But hey, just out of interest, it might be worth finding out about the prices of commodities in Barnard's Star, his first destination. He knew that on Ross, fish was pretty cheap, so he tapped up the data on Barnard's star on his con- sole. They would buy fish for 80 credits per tonne, so he'd make 60 credits on each, given that he started with 100. He radioed the stores, which delivered the fish immediately and deducted the credits from his account. Hell, it couldn't do any harm. At least it would pay for the fuel.
The chap in the spacecraft depot told him unless he was intending to fire at a space station and get an entire police force on his back, he would be able to pick out pirates and space debris with- out a scanner. He offered John a trade-in deal for both the scanner and his Pulse laser for a reconditioned Beam laser, which John accepted. He had used a Pulse laser in the Virtual Reality arcade as a child, and he didn't like it very much. Continuous fire power, that's what he needed. Just in self-defence, of course.
Getting clearance from the Sirocco starport was easy, and accelerating away he turned round to get a view of the port as he flew slowly away. This was the first time he'd been away from Sirocco in five years, and leaving it came as something of a relief. Accelerating away, he tapped in the to-ordinates of Barnard's Star, and waited for the clearance to use the Eagle's Hyperdrive. Clearance granted, the ship's controls took over and accelerated the tiny craft to light speed.
Barnard's Star was an unspectacular system: a single red star, orbited by Birmingham world, a small planet with a single space station, Boston Base. The Eagle's Auto pilot turned and accelerated the craft towards Birmingham world, informing John that it would take two full days to reach its destination. The Stardreamer time control immersed the pilot in a trance-like state, but annoyingly the Eagle's manual had no index, so an hour was wasted looking through the pages trying to find the right button. The Autopilot did everything automatically: hailing Boston Base for landing clearance, working out flight paths and orbits, and then finally docking the ship.
Without an Autopilot, the chances of John performing the docking were minimal, as many days of training were necessary, but fortunately his grand- father was blessed with foresight. Waking from his hypnosis, John was hailed by the local police to log in a pass- word from the Eagle's manual, presumably to check that he was the legitimate owner.
After punching in the code, he sold his quantity of fish, and bought two tonnes of hydrogen fuel for the return trip. Sadly, the rules of interstellar spaceflight dictated that once you were inside your ship leaving was impossible, so all communication took place from John's cockpit. This annoyed him, because he wanted to get out and explore Boston Base, but hey, rules were rules.
The Communicator offered the option of logging on to the Boston Base Bulletin Board. ''Snappy title," thought John, but logged on any- way. Scrolling down the list of private adverts, one caught his eye: ''Honest John's Bought and Sold.
Narcotics wanted: Will pay 2,308 credits per tonne."
He knew from the high price that narcotics were illegal on Birminghamworld, but the prospect of a large wad of cash attracted him. Checking around the local star systems, John found that narcotics were just 98 credits on Lacaille 8760, a nearby system. and decided to give it a go. Also on the Bulletin Board was an ad for a package delivery to Lacaille, which would give him an extra 200 credits on delivery and not too much trouble along the way. At least that's what the guy told him, but he trusted his instincts and picked that up as well.
Killing a Gecko
Taking off from the space station was far easier than docking, and soon the Eagle was burning up a tonne of fuel on its way to Lacaille. After just one trip he was used to the routine, setting up the Auto pilot and then activating the Stardreamer time control. A few hours later he was awoken abruptly with an attack warning - a pirate ship wanted his package. He steered his craft towards it; target- ting the ship using his head-up display when it came into view.
The guy back on Ross was right - targetting was simple. The pirate ship was a Gecko, a slightly larger craft than the Eagle, but from the stuttered fire which glimpsed past his ship, it would be no match for his Beam laser. The HUD told him that the Gecko was just over four kilometres away, and approaching fast. John lined his sights up over the pirate, and jabbed the fire button on his joy- stick. A single trace of red light appeared between his ship and the direction of the enemy - which didn't hit immediately, but John kept his finger on fire and shimmied the Eagle slightly, spraying the Gecko with laser. As it flew past, a single laser pulse caught the hull of the Eagle. John's computer informed him that the Atmospheric Shielding had sustained some damage - meaning that he couldn't enter the atmosphere of a planet.
Turning his ship around quickly, he lined up his sights again on the tail-end of the Gecko, and hit fire again. The beam made con- tact for a full five seconds, a red light warning that his laser was nearing a dangerous temperature.
''Just... one more second," John gritted his teeth for an explosion, and it came. Quickly letting go of fire, John steered left to avoid the flying debris, catching sight of a large container which some other ship would scavenge at a later date - maybe even he would himself, once the Eagle was equipped with a fuel scoop.
Retargetting the Autopilot, John reset the Stardreamer, and when he regained consciousness he was in station at Lacaille. The agent who was to collect the Boston pack- age appeared on his monitor, informing him that 200 credits had been credited to his account. Filling up with Hydrogen fuel, buying two tonnes of narcotics (not illegal on Lacaille), and repairing his Atmospheric Shield, he then set off on the return journey to Barnard's Star. He steered clear of any other missions, because he knew that the narcotics may get him in trouble with the federation, and he didn't want any more people wading in and joining them.
John got into the Barnard's Star system without incident, but before he could switch on the Stardreamer two ships began to attack him, one with a powerful Beam laser, the other with a Pulse laser. They had seen him coming, and waited in ambush. Cursing himself for selling the scanner, John turned and faced both his foes, deciding to target one with a homing missile, and take the other with his lasers.
He launched the missile, and immediately the smaller ship took evasive action, turning and fleeing. This left the other larger craft on its own.
Before he could turn, a huge blast of laser fire strafed the left wing of his ship, sending the Eagle spinning injured, off course. Warning lights flashed all around him, the ship's computer calmly informing him of the damage to his shields, and one more hit would destroy his ship.
He turned and fired at the enemy ship, managing to get a few hits before it weaved its way around to face him again. John also weaved, intending to give this guy a run for his money. The enemy fired again, this time missing him, but as it flew by a missile warning light flashed on John's console. Again he weaved to avoid the missile, but as he turned he spotted the smaller ship which had returned for the kill.
John's mind raced: it suddenly hit him that this wasn't VR anymore; this was reality, and these two ships meant business. He was well trained in arcade battles, but when it came to real life he realized this was his first and last time. The smaller ship fired a single pulse of laser fire, destroying the Eagle fighter in a colossal explosion...
The emphasis in Frontier is heavily on freedom, you're free to do lots of things with your life in the game. Become a mercenary and assassinate enemies of the Empire or Federation; become a pirate and shoot rich-looking vessels and collect their cargo, or join a bunch of scavengers and search through space for valuable debris.
If you want a more peaceful life, you could always trade for a living - picking up fruit and vegetables, farm machinery and robots and selling them on at a nearby System. That does tend to get a little boring, though, and you soon find yourself picking up illicit cargo and doing a spot of gun-running. This is as fun as it sounds - but you do tend to get into fights a lot, both with police and pirates. The problem is that when using a standard ST or STE the frame rate is quite slow, so fighting a high-speed spaceship can be quite difficult.
Another limitation is that you can't get out of your ship - so you might see a great city from your spacecraft window, but you land in the starport and then you can't leave your cockpit! This is quite restrictive, with all of your communication with the outside world coming from your video screens. Paul Woakes proved with the Mercenary series of games that it's possible to create a space flight game where you could get out and walk around - maybe that's something to consider for Elite 3?
Lastly, the system used to generate the colours in the game can occasionally get bogged down. Presumably because the 3D objects are so complicated, the odd ship can change colour as you approach it, and occasionally some of the polygons can disappear completely. Such glitches happen quite frequently on a slower machine, occasionally on a faster one.
But hey, while it’s limited in some areas, Frontier makes up for it in every other respect. The game is so big that you couldn't possibly visit all the planets in your lifetime, so the scope for exploring is massive. The range of ships, accessories and weapons is just vast, and at the risk of running out of superlatives you can even take on a crew for the larger ships for added control. Frontier adds new meaning to the old "way of life" cliché - if you buy it, prepare to spend a lot of time in an entire virtual universe.