Beyond the Frontier

Jun 28, 2013

The final frontier? Nope, just the first one.

Progress on the book itself is strong, I pushed past 70k words this week, now more than 2k ahead of target.

So, this week’s topic. I’m doing something rather ‘dangerous’. I’m going to cast a critical eye over the two Elite sequels: Frontier Elite 2 and Frontier First Encounters.

I’ve been, quite rightly, mildly chastised in past blogs for talking far more about ‘Elite’ (by which  I mean the game based on the wireframe BBC original in its various incarnations) than the two sequels ‘Frontier: Elite 2’ and ‘Frontier: First Encounters’ – henceforth FE2 and FFE. I know there is huge affection for these games, and I have no intention of detracting from that. What follows is my opinion, and my opinion only.

As you may recall from my writers’ interview, I never really played these games. This was partly due to being at university at the time, with the combined distractions of girls and beer, and partly because I didn’t have an Atari ST, Amiga or a PC back then. I wrote my 10,000 word dissertation on my Spectrum in 1992. Yes, really.

Media Review of Frontier back in the 1990s.

I vaguely recall FE2 coming out, heralded as the ‘New Elite’. But it wasn’t until 1995 that I actually saw it. It turned out that my girlfriend at the time (now my wife) had a brother who played FE2. He showed it to me on his Amiga and his opening comment was “It’s really difficult and not much fun to play.” Not a great first impression. I recall us taking off from Merlin in the Eagle Mk1, wrestling with the complexities of Newtonian navigation and crashing into the nearby gas giant of Aster trying to do a scenic flypast of the rings. Write off, Commander.

And that was it until December last year. To be honest, I’d completely forgotten about both games until I realised that so many people were referring to them in the Elite : Dangerous Kickstarter.

In my haste I missed that there were plenty of folks now in their thirties, for whom these later games were as much a fundamental part of their childhood as the original Elite was to mine, ten years earlier. These are generation Y, the teenagers of the early 90s. Perhaps one of you can explain Sonic the Hedgehog to me. 😉

Odd phrases such as seamless planetary landings, stardreaming, sling-shoting, watching sunrises and clocks registered on my radar. So what was this all about then…

My initial assumption was that Elite : Dangerous was going a reboot of the original game, not a follow on from these sequels. I was wrong.

Launching from a star port, watching the atmosphere fade away…

Much attention to detail by Frontier is being paid to the backstory and fabric of those sequels. With some adjustment, the history of those games is being baked into the revised canon of the entire ‘Elite’ story. In short, those games matter, and thus became research material for me.

The Federation and the Empire from FE2 and the Alliance from FFE are very much part of Elite : Dangerous. The old Galcop of Elite is ancient history. If anything, these later games are much more relevant than the original to what is happening now.So I’ve been doing my homework, trying to get under the skin of these games and see what makes them tick. Trying to give them a fair shout given their age.

Arggh – is the only suitable word.

I won’t talk long about the hours of frustration I suffered trying to get the blasted things to work on my PC. I’m reasonably technical, but, to the uninitiated, trying to get these things to work was an exercise in utter frustration. I never managed to get the original games to work, even with DosBox and all that shenanigans. Eventually GLFrontier and FFE D3D lurched into life, but it was very difficult indeed. The community could do a lot better. I shouldn’t have to worry about source code, tar files, multiple downloads in this day and age. I imagine many potential players never get past the ‘install’ phase. Still that’s not the fault of these games themselves.

First FE2. No spinning Cobra. Instead a dramatic looking ship called the Imperial Courier – it looks good but I’m not sure it would fly very well with that off-axis thrust.  A nice theme tune… where have I heard that before… Escape Velocity of course! A funky intro sequence with a battle. Now that looks fun! I have a choice of where to start. Earth, Mars and… oh… Lave. Now that’s interesting. Oh, and why is space ‘blue’?

The galaxy, with orbital dynamics, is convincingly simulated…

I’ve played for a while. The first things that jump out are the realistic and amazing sense of scale, the non-intuitiveness of newtonian mechanics, the utter reliance on the autopilot and the way the police can’t shoot for toffee.

But it’s got frames of reference, real units and distance, even inertia is modelled convincingly. It’s very clever indeed.

Then I notice the planet is rotating and that the clock on the church tower is actually working – neat (But a clock tower in 3200AD? Really?). It is impressive how you can fly down from orbit to the surface and the planet grows around you. It’s almost featureless, but then the city creeps into sight. They’re all the same of course, but it’s so much more advanced than the original game. The planets do feel like ‘places’. I really like the external view options and being able to place a camera outside my ship to have a look around.

The bulletin board is fun. Running errands, taking on assassination contracts, that’s definitely more interesting than the original game. You can tell it’s procedural, perhaps 20 basic ‘missions’, but the mix is fun. I love the phrase ‘Encouraged to retire early’. I’ll be pinching that.

There’s other neat stuff. More equipment, you really do have a catalogue of stuff to play with. The MB4 mining machine is fun, even if mine (ha!) never seems to find anything of value regardless of where I put it.

Is this the future? Every city in the universe looks like Milton Keynes?

I get the more extensive docking sequence too, the working undercarriage. The ability to swap ships is interesting, adding a lot more variety. Space seems incredibly lonely and empty though – I’m hardly seeing another ship at all. I’m getting bored now, but that’s because I’m a busy 40 year old.  Am I having fun? Not really. I’ve played for a long time and I’ve had one space battle. I died instantly in one hit by some kind of orange laser. Not even press space, Commander – a tombstone! Seems a bit harsh.

Would it have captivated me as a teenager, yes it would. I can see what the fuss is all about, but I’d have had to play it for a very long time to get to grips with it. Overall, I can’t help thinking that the game isn’t quite living up to that intro sequence.

First encounters, or just second frontier?

Let’s boot up FFE then. I know the the D3D version is graphically stronger than the original game, but even given that it still looks like yesterday’s technology – screenshots here from the original.

A different intro sequence. The Thargoids are back – cool. Where did they go in FE2? It seems they were almost completely left out of the game. Was this on purpose? And space is still blue. What’s with that?

Haven’t we been here before?

The graphics are a bit better. This is still prior to 3D graphics acceleration, but the extra fidelity is noticeable, if rather flickery. I’m a little surprised to find that, underneath the improved graphics, the game seems superficially identical to the previous one. The ships seem to have changed a bit and the galactic map is a little different, but… really, a new game? This looks more like a point release or a mission pack on first impressions.

I understand it was riddled with bugs when it first came out. This FFE D3D version seems to be ok. I fly around a bit, the control method seems more sensitive than the previous game. The police have new ships but still can’t shoot for toffee.

Here’s something new. Journals. There is far more background to this game than the previous one. There are characters and situations. I can get involved too. I try the Wiccan Ware race and fail miserably. Time for a save game. I haven’t got the time to play it all through nowadays, so I cheat and read up on Jades site. It’s a great story, I can see that being a lot of fun to play.

Ok. Who designed this?

The game seems quite a lot more sophisticated in some ways, but the ship design is poor in many places. The starting ship (Saker? Sack the designer!) looks ridiculous. What’s with the spinning engine? It looks like it’s just showing off the abilities of the graphics engine. That would be a total liability on a ‘real’ ship.

It’s not the only one either. Some ships are totally useless. You can’t put a decent hyperdrive in some of them, and others can’t carry any worthwhile cargo. In at least one ship you can shoot yourself with your own turret gun. How did that one make it out of the ship yard? Your own missiles seem to hit you more often than they hit anything else. Did anyone test this thing?

So.. I’ve played intermittently for a few weeks and got somewhere in both games. what do I think overall?

If that’s Lave, somebody didn’t read ‘The Dark Wheel’…

The first big thing I’m struggling to reconcile is the mix of realism and make believe.

There is massive attention to detail on some aspects of realism; Time, Distance, Inertia, Orbital Mechanics. Yet on the flip side we’re being asked to accept some major suspension of disbelief; Hyperspace, Visible lasers, ship and station designs that are obviously daft (that last one mostly a criticism of FFE rather than FE2). Don’t get me wrong, the Imperial Courier looks fabulous, but it’s not realistic as a spacecraft design. It simply wouldn’t work with that off-axis thrust vector, the spinny nacelles and the extending engines. Those extenders are particularly daft, they’d make the ship less manoeuverable in space. The ship is far better constructed when it’s in ‘landing’ mode. Overall it’s an odd mix of slavish realism and devil-may-care make believe.

The second? Also quite simple.

There are space battles, but they’re short.

The game balance is appalling. When you start out you have a rubbish ship, fair enough. But whereas in the original game if you ran into pirates you had a chance (albeit not a great one) to fight your way to safety, in FE2 and FFE you have no chance at all. You can’t run, the stardreamer won’t let you. You can’t fight because you are instantly toast. It’s brutally harsh.

This means you have to avoid anywhere that is potentially dangerous. Ok, but it’s soooo dull! It takes hours of ‘play’ (read tedious point and click with the autopilot) to get to a state where you can have an interesting ship. Nothing interesting happens at all other than the slow trickle of credits into your account.

On the flip side, when you do manage to get a decent ship and venture into the danger zone, a few dozen shield generators and anything upwards from the 4MW Beam laser makes you effectively invulnerable. The plasma accelerators are all very well, but they are complete white elephants with respect to the game. With a fully loaded Panther Clipper you can ram a space station without even scratching the paint work. Contrast with the original game. Even an ‘iron-assed’ Cobra Mk3 with Military lasers, a full pack of missiles, a cloaking device, an energy bomb and an ECM could be brought down if you were unlucky enough to run into a serious posse of pirates.

This sort of thing never really happened. There was no dogfighting.

That’s my biggest complaint. It’s all very interesting and impressive, but the fun just isn’t there. The early part of the game is just tedious, there’s no other word for it; occasionally punctured by being killed instantly forcing you to go back to a save game. Later on you quickly out match your opponents, line up and zap. They’re gone. There’s none of the ‘give and take’ dogfighting, none of those ‘oh crap here come four more pirates, my shields are weak, will I make it to the station’ kind of moments. The adrenaline pump doesn’t fire, at least, not for me.

There are too many dead ends. Enemies that kill you instantly. Running out of in-system fuel (two fuel tanks to manage?) A cry for help option that does the square root of diddily squat. A damaged autopilot is effectively ‘game over’. In fact the autopilot is the most dangerous device in the game, frequently slamming you into the side of a planet – or worse, putting you in a situation you can’t get out of no matter what you do with the engines – leaving you to watch your ship plummet, helpless and forlorn, into a moon, planet or star at several kilometres per second.

In FFE D3D it looks better, and the accuracy is remarkable, even today.

But despite all that, there is something very compelling. What is it? It’s the grandeur, the ambition. Even though there really isn’t much to see, there is an incredible sense of scale to these games. It’s almost majestic. I don’t think any other game before or sincee has been able to capture that sense of how big the universe actually is. These games do. In that sense they are incomparable.

I can see why people want that sense of scale. The seamless planetary landings are almost poetic. Those space stations are imposing and dramatic. The way a moon rises up to greet your ship as you land rough. Those aspects are wonderfully fabulous.

Will I be referencing these games in Elite:Reclamation. Absolutely yes. Would they have grabbed me as a teenager and stayed in my mind ever since? Again, undoubtably yes. I don’t have a problem with anyone being an intense fan of these games.

A sunset landing? Very romantic indeed.

I find them deeply flawed, but they are strangely addictive. Leaving a planet at dawn and watching the terminator grow behind you makes for a beautiful gaming moment. Watching the planets orbit in space with the stardreamer set to max gives you a real sense of astronomical realism. I’m an astronomer myself and I can see it’s done very well indeed.

It’s gratifying to see that a more dogfighting style of combat is being adopted for Elite:Dangerous. That’s the biggest problem with FE2 and FFE, the core of the game – space combat – is the weakest part of the experience.

I’m off to #LaveCon shortly. Hopefully I won’t be lynched by a rampaging mob of respectable Frontier fans. We’ll see. I think I’ve been fair…

…do you?




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Elite Reclamation Prologue
A change of scene and an announcement...

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