Frontier: Elite II
|a game by||Frontier Developments Ltd.|
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The first question about Elite II is: is it worth the wait. I can answer that now. Yes, go and buy it. The game is a wonder to behold. Smooth texture mapped graphics, point light sources and smooth scrolling. If you're familiar with modern programs then you are forgiven for expecting the whole thing to come on 12 hd disks and need a 486DX. In fact, in can run on a 386 and takes up just 1.5Mb of hard disk space. You can even play it from the floppy. Here's a man who has not forgotten the old days.
The game starts with you working in a fish processing factory. A solicitor's letter informs you that your grandfather. Commander Jameson (yes, that one) has died. As he has spread the seed of his loins freely about the galaxy, there is not a great deal to go round. He has left you a spaceship and - wait please - too credits. It's up to you to make your own way in the worlds now. The ship is an Eagle; moderately fast and capable of carrying a small amount of cargo. Traditionalists can elect to begin on Lave with a Cobra lacking autopilot and other goodies.
The galaxy is split up between the Federation, sort of us/ec good guys, the Empire which are an unpleasant mix of Romans and Nazis (if you've ever bought a cup of coffee in Rome you'll know how nasty that must be) and the Independent planets (strong on dull headlines). The original Elite was heavy on trading. The new version gives a huge choice of careers. Those of a solitary disposition should'try their hand at mining. Or you can ferry goods and people, take on missions for the military of either side, or become an assassin, pirate, drug smuggler, slave runner and general villain. On each planet or base there is a bulletin board. This will be full of people asking for a lift, or pleas for news on missing persons. Shady people will ask that an executive be 'retired' or that slaves and drugs be taken to distant outposts. Before you take any commission make sure you know about any time penalties. Try to 'bunch' tasks so you can do three or so in one journey. Be suspicious of people paying over the odds for transport - they could be on the run - and watch out for police 'stings'.
You can't be very wicked at first, because you haven't proved yourself and your ship isn't well enough equipped to evade death and failure. Like the original Elite you must learn to walk before you can scarper from the coppers. Once you start earning serious money, you can do almost anything and get away with it - just like life.
It's not just a matter of buying more missiles. There is a vast array of weaponry to choose from. Lasers, cannons, smart missiles that will fox any defences, and a range of scanners. Some will give full information on any ship - including bounty - but the handiest thing for an outlaw is the Hyperspace Cloud Analyser. This gives full information on craft going through hyperspace. If you're escaping pirates you can force a 'mis-jump' by pressing and f8. When the pirates follow you through hyperspace to your supposed destination you're gone.
You can also hire crew but you must be careful. You want people who will be cheap and not mind what you tell them to do. If you're a pirate it makes little sense to crew your ship with Quakers.
There are 82 basic missions, but you can simply fly around looking at the detail on the planets. All major objects in the solar system are accurately rendered and there are 10" (100.000,000,000) other systems to explore.
Playing the game
The good news is that Frontier - Elite II is more playable than the original. For one thing, there is no manual docking. The console will be familiar from the original: display icons on the left and function icons on the right. In the middle is the scanner giving the position of your ship and surrounding objects. The number displayed on each icon refers to the keyboard shortcuts for that particular action.
The usual view is the front one through the cockpit but there are rear, external and turret views, too. The external view can be rotated and zoomed in or out. The turret view is essential for firing lasers on those ships that have gun turrets. There are two sights: the velocity sight, which shows in which direction you are travelling and the gun sight which shows where you are pointing. The two only drift out of alignment if you suddenly change course.
Weapons control is activated by pressing F5. This calls up the panel from which you can select and fire weapons. As well as the missiles and lasers there are mines (and dummy mines), energy bombs (which will blow up another ship's drive) and plasma accelerators - massive lasers that can destroy whole cities. All are targeted by clicking on the offending ship and pressing 'M' or clicking the 'fire' icon. Your hud will show the range, and a targeting 'tunnel' if you wish - but the latter is best reserved for landing and docking.
The weapons panel is also used for defence. The ecm system destroys all mines and homing missiles in the vicinity and there is an advanced model - the Naval ecm - which will even destroy 'smart' missiles. There is also a useful automatic hull sealing and repair system and a shield against lasers and missiles.
The map icon brings up a three dimensional chart of all 100,000.000.000 stars in the galaxy. You can centre the map on any system which is then highlighted and information on it displayed on the console. Your current location is in pink.
Clicking the data icon will bring up information about the economy and social structure of the selected system. An orbital map shows the movement of all bodies around the star or stars (there are stable binary systems). Movement around the galaxy is easy: click on the target icon then click on where you want to go and leave the rest to the autopilot. The autopilot will even clearance and then lower the undercarriage or dock. You can do everything manually, if you are that way inclined. You must ask for docking rights on all space stations and some systems - like penal colonies - need special permits before you can enter them.
The galaxy is very, very big, as Carl Sagan might say. You can accelerate time on long journeys or else you can use the hyperspace option. Hyperspacing is far more sophisticated than on the original. When a ship triggers it a 'tunnel' appears through the space-time continuum and bright disks mark the entry and egress points. Although hyperspace takes place instantaneously for the crew of the ship, the process can take a subjective week. So you will see if someone is about to hyperspace near you and decide whether or not to hang around and attack it. The drawback is that pilots will hang around the hyperspace point and get you on arrival.
The sound effects are magnificent with restful background music ranging from Mussorgsky to Wagner. It is almost impossible to review this game without sounding like advertising copy. Frontier -Elite II is not only brilliant in every department; it shows up its rivals to be the shoddy imitations that they are.
Elite - The Original
Many years ago, when personal computers were called microcomputers, people didn't have problems with DOS and hard disk size. They were worried about membrane keyboards that never worked and dodgy cassette interfaces. A floppy disk was a luxury item and the ridiculously slow drives cost hundreds of pounds. 48K was the usual memory size and so games had to be tightly coded - so they would fit in the memory - and very playable - because the graphics were usually, perforce, crap.
Elite stunned the world when it appeared on the BBC micro - a posh machine then. You played the pilot of a Cobra spaceship. Starting with 100 credits you had to trade to get more money, add bits to your ship (or buy a new one). Then you could take to a life of crime, robbing rich merchants and fleeing the police in their souped-up Fer de Lances. Bits of it were tedious, like getting enough money at the start. Bits of it were difficult, like escaping from hordes of pirates. Other bits were damned near impossible, like manual docking. David Braben is still bemused at people's perseverance. Elite was translated to virtually every machine format. People swapped tips, hacks and pilot files. Elite had an impact and success that software publishers now only dream of.