Late to Space Games Part 3: Frontier Elite II


Part 1
Part 2

Frontier: Elite II is one of the most mind-blowing games I’ve ever played, purely on a technical scale. Unlike the first Elite, I’m not just impressed with Frontier just became it came out 21 years ago. It really might be the most technically incredible open-world I’ve ever seen in a video game. It’s also further improved my perspective on what people hope No Man’s Sky will be.

Like the original, Frontier is a free download these days so I really suggest you at least take a look at it. There’s even a high-resolution widescreen version at that link. All that said, I can definitely understand why basically nobody else repeated the absolutely insane scale of Frontier. Its main identifying design decisions really set it up as more of a speculative simulation of space travel than a fun game.

Frontier uses procedural generation to create a galaxy that from what I can tell is 1:1 scale. Planets and solar systems are life-size, and the game let’s you see the full splendor of it as you lift off from a surface towards the gas giant you might be orbiting, past a space station overlooking the massive surface you just left, and through hyperspace.

You know that moment in an RPG when you first see the world map, giving you a glimpse of how big the game world really is? Frontier so far is the game where that moment hit me the hardest as I saw the dozens of systems near me, each one displaying information about the government and economy of its many worlds, each one with a surface you can land on. Because it’s still procedural generation from 1993, all that information isn’t extremely complex, but it creates just enough of a veneer of a living universe with unprecedented scale. A lot of what I see in Frontier is what I imagined while playing Mass EffectFrontier’s galaxy map is Mass Effect’s galaxy map on steroids.

What fills it all out are the quests and random jobs you fulfill that run the gamut from taxi services to assassination. The basis is still trading. That’s how you initially build up the resources to upgrade your ship. The Elite games are at their heart about the wonder of simulating space ship travel, and I guess they reason trading would be the main reason for space travel in the future. Guides mention trade routes the way Han Solo talks about the Kessel Run. You’re basically like a 16th century seaman, just in space. Like the first game however Frontier has no main quest. Try to imagine Skyrim or Grand Theft Auto in space with the main story completely absent, but there are still side quests.

Because it’s a 3D game from 1993, all this is going on in graphics that look like the original Virtua Fighter. To me, seeing ships, space stations, planets, and cities rendered in clean, flat-shaded blocks only adds to the game’s feeling of a virtual universe. That’s what Frontier would have felt like to me had I played it at the time of its release.

Frontier however also gives me feelings quite similar to ArmA in how its dizzying scale is matched by its unforgiving focus on realism over accessibility. Firstly, the realistic distances between planets mean it takes literally hours or even days to get anywhere, even when your ship is traveling at tends of thousands of miles per second. When you zap into a system and see the planet you’re trying to reach is 15AU away, the game expects you to set your ship to autopilot and press a button to accelerate time by a factor of 10,000. At least you can look at the planets and stars pass you by. Oftentimes doing this pretty much equals instant fast travel. Doing that a lot kind of reduces the gameplay loop to landing at a station, doing some business through menu screens, lifting off, fast traveling, landing, and viewing more menu screens.

Secondly, Frontier’s “Newtonian Physics” take inertia into account when flying. As in real life, space is frictionless here when means any thrust builds momentum in one direction and must be counteracted if you want to stop or change directions. Landing on a planet might require swinging past it once or twice to get rid of all the inertia you built up on the way. It’s like flying on ice. In combat this actually turns out to be kind of cool because ships chasing you have to maintain inertia in the same direction you are, creating a sort of high-speed chase effect where you only have to pay attention to your speed in relation to your enemy. All involved ships end up dogfighting while simultaneously drifting in one direction.

Due to those two things, Frontier, like ArmA, to me feels more like a simulation toy chest than a game. There are things to do, there are objectives, but it feels like they all exist within a piece of software someone made in order to replicate certain real-world things. That’s incredibly fun for some people, but overwhelming for a lot of other people. I enjoy ArmA immensely, but I also wish someone would make an “ArmA-lite” that packages the same ideas in a more intuitive control interface with fun as a main priority. Too many AAA console-oriented open-world games on the other hand emphasize instant gratification to the point where the feeling of a simulated world is lost. I want to see a sort of middle-ground. That’s why I’m so intrigued by games like Elite: Dangerous and No Man’s Sky.

I don’t know when I’ll play Dangerous, but I’ve read that it tries to make Frontier’s 1:1 scale galaxy a bit more approachable. Instead of time acceleration it just gives you a ship that’s orders of magnitude faster along with flight assist to help you with the newtonian physics. No Man’s Sky on the other hand ditched 1:1 scale space in favor of visual eye candy and plans to have far more accessible flight and combat controls. Otherwise, information on NMS makes it sound a lot like what I’ve experienced in Frontier so far.

Because of the frankly terrifying depth and learning curve I’ve encountered with Frontier, this entire blog post is from the perspective of only having scratched the surface of the game. While playing I’ve barely scraped up a few hundred credits while flying back and forth between a handful of systems. I have no idea how long I’ll keep playing this game but it could end up becoming something I play in the background behind everything else for the next few months.


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