Frontier: First Encounters
Few games generated such fanatical loyalty as Elite. Even fewer games generated so much expectation as the five-years-in-the-making sequel Frontier. There aren't many games that have generated such a storm of hate mail on CompuServe as the one-year-in-the-waiting sort of sequel Frontier: First Encounters. It wasn't so much what the game lacked that was the problem; it was more what it had in the way of bugs. However, more about those later. (There's nothing you can teach me about keeping your audience in anticipation - I've been on creative writing courses, you know.)
Part two and a half
Although First Encounters is undeniably a complete game in its own right (and seemingly as vast as its predecessor), it's not really a sequel. To be fair, it doesn't really pretend to be - it's not labelled Elite III - however, it's still disappointing how little has changed from Frontier. The game is set 50 years after that game and this allows for some technological changes (better weaponry/technology and the like), but essentially the game is the same. Which means it is whatever you want it to be. As a freewheeling space jock (or jock-ette) you can choose to simply trade between planets, building up your income (and hence, your craft) and doing your best to stay out of trouble. Alternatively, you can dabble in a bit of crime and politics (What's the difference?) carrying but smuggling, assassinations and any other skulduggery you fancy getting involved in. This approach obviously makes for a more rewarding and exciting life. It also increases the chances of you getting bounced by a Police Squadron just as you were reaching for the Hyper Space button. "Oh bugger it!" you cry. Partly because dying is such an overrated pastime, but mainly because the combat sequences in First Encounters are a pile of old jobbies.
Shot to pieces
Right - I suppose I ought to get all the qualifications out of the way first: Cub Scout Bronze Arrow, Blue Peter Badge, War Lord Secret Agent Stamp, CSE Physics... sorry, not those sort of qualifications. The "Don't write in and tell me..." sort. I know there's a lot more to the Elite game than the graphics. It's the scope and sheer size of the game that give it its class. But, there is combat in it, it can take up a lot of playing time and, well, it's crap. It's better than the previous games but still way off the pace compared to its contemporaries. Not only are the graphics sub X-Wing (and that's two-years old) but the combat system manages to be both simplistic and difficult. Technological advances be damned - for all the use the radar and combat computers are in Encounters I'd rate my chances higher if I was in a Sopworth Camel with a good pair of goggles.
Same as it ever was?
It would be wrong to claim that First Encounters was no different than Frontier. The graphics, control system and combat have all been improved to some extent without any of them becoming outstanding. The controls are the most marked improvement, but I'm afraid I still have a gripe with the navigation system (and this dates back to the earlier games). In the future, will navigation really rely on scouring a star map, trying to find the sodding planet (a task made no easier by having a 3D map)? I don't think it would take too much away from the spirit of the game if you were able to type in your destination and either set course for it or at least have it highlighted on the map.
Other improvements on the CD version are simply window dressing and, like most window dressing, adds little to the actual product. My heart sank when I saw a "Video Actors" credit in the title sequence. They serve you in shops, they offer you work, they challenge you to fights, but most of all they're just a pain in the arse. Not only is the acting appalling - so is the information. "They're desperate for robots in there, you'll make a killing if you've got any with you," I was told in one market. Strange this, since the planet I was on was one of the major robot exporters in the galaxy with current robot stocks of 192. Perhaps he was just being ironic. That old sentimentalist Mark raved about Elite II because it could be played straight from the disk. First Encounters the CD, however, has lost that quality without gaining too much on the way.
As I said earlier, CompuServe has been humming with complaints concerning the bugs in First Encounters, ranging from the serious; frequent crashes, inaccessible missions, immunity in combat, to the silly; "actors" having the wrong voices, getting paid infinite amounts for some missions. Gametek duly issued a patch, and it has to be said that the version I played was not too bad (though the problem of being immune to enemy lasers still seemed to be there). However, such teething problems don't inspire much quality. As the game's creator David Braben acknowledged, a game of such vastness is bound to have some hidden problems. Fair enough. But it's one thing to come across a distant planet where all the men talk like women, but for the game not to work with SoundBlaster!
Thankfully, things have now been sorted out, and any copies you buy in the shops from now on will be pretty much bug-free. However, it's a sad fact that early adopters to the game (i.e. the people who love Elite) had to suffer.
On the subject of sound, Encounters, like its forebear, has a range of irritating classical music. Actually, that's a bit unfair. At times I was quite happy coasting over planets with The Blue Danube playing gently in the background. However, there is a time and a place for everything and eventually you try and switch the music off. Fine -until you restore a game and back it comes, that is. In fact, I got so fed up with constantly going back to the control panel to switch the music off (sometimes, it just kicked in for no apparent reason) I was half tempted delete the SoundBlaster patch.
So it's crap then?
No. I realise I seem to have spent the last two pages just slagging the game off, but it's going to get a reasonable score. Why the contradiction? Well partly because it's late and I can't be bothered to go back and change the whole review, but chiefly because the strengths of First Encounters are the strengths of its predecessor's, which are its vast scope and the player's freedom to make each game unique. First Encounters offers more adventures and challenges, but it doesn't offer much in the way of more sophistication. For Elite fans, that need not be a problem. In fact, Elite rather reminds me of the early SSI games: to their fans they were engrossing, life dominating adventures: to their detractors, increasingly dated-looking pieces of programming history. Elite's attempt to widen its appeal is rather halfhearted. (But, then, why should that matter - Frontier sold by the lorry load.) I'm afraid I feel a cliche coming on: Plenty there for fans of Frontier but little to win over new converts.
Download Frontier: First Encounters
PC compatible, P-100
Systems: Windows 9x, Windows 2000 Windows XP, Vista, Win 7, Win 8, Win 10.
Game features:Single game mode