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/// Usenet Review:  Frontier
    ------------------------
    By Andrew Clayton
    (dac@prolix.apana.org.au)


PRODUCT NAME

        Frontier (also known as Elite II)


BRIEF DESCRIPTION

        Frontier is a space exploration/trading/shoot-em-up game that is a
sequel to "Elite," a very successful program available for a number of
computing platforms.


AUTHOR/COMPANY INFORMATION

        Name:           GameTek UK (Konami is also mentioned)
        Address:        5 Bath Road, Slough,
                        Berks SL1 3UA
                        England

        Telephone:      None supplied
        FAX:            None supplied


LIST PRICE

        I paid $69.95 (Australian) for this product from a local computer
software shop.


SPECIAL HARDWARE AND SOFTWARE REQUIREMENTS

        HARDWARE

                1 MB of RAM is required.

                Works with all Amigas.  68020 CPU and upwards provide
                smoother animations and better detail, but the gameplay is
                supposedly the same on any CPU.


        SOFTWARE

                Works under all Kickstart versions.  The program does not use
                the operating system, and will not multitask.

                The program requires a stack of at least 70,000 bytes, but
                most people feel safer with a stack setting of 100,000 bytes.


COPY PROTECTION

        "Look up a word in the manual" protection.

        The program is hard drive installable, but works from floppies.  The
program is a single executable.

        Save-game data can be saved on any read/write device.  (Floppy, hard
drive, recoverable RAM disk, etc.)

        The copy protection mechanism gets a rating of "acceptable":  you
notice it, but it is not too bad.


MACHINE USED FOR TESTING

        Amiga 4000/40
        2MB Chip RAM, 4MB 16bit Fast RAM, 16MB 32bit Fast RAM
        Kickstart 39.106, Workbench 39.29
        1.1 gigabytes of hard disk space


INSTALLATION

        The program may be played by booting on the master floppy disk, or it
can be copied to the hard disk by any normal Amiga mechanism (drop the icon,
use the Copy command, or use a directory utility program such as Directory
Opus).

        This is a very simple operation.  Anyone who has used an Amiga for
more than 30 minutes should be able to cope.  I created a Frontier directory
on my GAMES:  partition, and copied the executable and the six "saved game"
files into this directory.


REVIEW

        Years ago, my father raved about a game he was playing called
Elite.  I didn't take much notice, at the time, until I saw it available
for the Amiga.  I purchased it and was entranced.  Although I didn't get
anywhere near the rank of Elite, due to an unfortunate conflict between the
game and my Amiga 1000, I did have a great deal of fun and "wasted" many
hours playing the game.

        Late in 1992, the British computing magazine "The One" had an
interview with David Braben, the programmer of Elite, and revealed that he
was working on the successor to Elite, with the inspiring title of "Elite
II."  The working title was revised to be "Frontier" sometime in late 1992.

        Rumours of this game's existence and "imminent release" were rife
within the comp.sys.amiga.games newsgroup, but the official news was always
bad, with unexpected delays, and broken release-date promises galore.  Then,
the Frontier demo was uploaded to the Aminet ftp sites and much ooh-ing and
ahh-ing (and slamming of the demo for being lame) was to be heard.  The demo
turned out to be the opening sequence for the game itself, and sparked off a
huge discussion in comp.sys.amiga.games.

        Eventually, news came from people who had actually seen and played
the game.  The rush was on; and after a few weeks of scouring the local
scene, I finally acquired a copy from a local computer software shop.  The
installation was a breeze; once done, I put the original disks away in their
box, and set about playing the game.

        Commander Dac, in charge of his shiny inherited Eagle Long Range
fighter, snapped into existence.  Firing away with his powerful engines, he
took off from the spaceport on the planet Ross, and was promptly shot down
by hordes of angry police ships, sent by a militant base commander who was
offended by my lack of manners in not asking for take off clearance.

        Game time: two minutes.  Real time: five minutes.  And I was toast.
A quick succession of restarting the game, and wild attempts to evade
authority always ended up with my being declared a criminal and getting shot
down by the atrociously piloted police ships.  I decided that asking for
clearance to take off isn't just a formality, it's the LAW.  Later on in the
game, when I accrued some fines for doing something considered illegal, I
managed to evade the police ships and escape; however, I was spontaneously
killed for not obeying the police, whilst minding my own business beside an
asteroid, trying to blow it to smithereens.  The moral is PAY YOUR FINES!
The game isn't lenient here:  you either pay your fines, or you die.

        Frontier is based on the same principles as Elite.  You have a
spaceship with a Hyperdrive, and you carry cargo from one planet or
spaceport to another, hoping to make a profit in the process.  On the way,
you meet with other spacefarers, most of whom look at you and decide that
you're easy pickings, and start shooting first.  They do not desist until you
obliterate them or they destroy you.  Space combat is an integral part of
the game.  During the early stages it is very difficult to fight other
spaceships - your firepower is limited to a 1-MWatt pulse laser that fires
once every 5/8ths of a second, and you have no shields to protect you from
the clumsy pilots of other spaceships.

        Later, combat becomes less life-threatening and more tedious.  With
a 20-MWatt beam laser, you rarely get touched before you've atomised any
prospective opponents.  However, "rarely" doesn't mean "never."  Sometimes,
you get only a blip of a warning, and you're suddenly breathing space, and
the dreaded "Game Over" tombstone is on your screen.

        Tactics and weaponry play an important part in the game.  I find
combat to be quite a simple affair these days with my 4-MWatt continuous
beam laser.  Some people think combat is too easy, and they even go back to
1-MWatt pulse lasers to have some challenge.  I think they're ego-tripping
though.

        Getting to where you want to go is one of the main problems with
Elite.  Your interplanetary systems can get you going only a few thousand
kilometers per second.  Distances within solar systems are realistically
portrayed in Astronomical Units or AU's (one AU is the distance from the
Earth to the Sun, or about 150,000,000 kilometers).  Travelling more than 50
AU's is a tedious process.

        The system map is a scalable, three-dimensional representation of the
various stars, planets, satellites and space stations in your star system.
The mouse controls your point of view.  Zooming is accomplished using the
function keys F7 or F8, or by clicking on their icons on the screen.
Everything "works" in the system map - you can watch moons orbiting planets,
and planets orbiting stars, and other spaceships going about their
business.  All of this functionality is fairly intuitive.  Braben has
supplied an option to reverse the left/right up/down function of the mouse
if "real motion" confuses you.  You can zoom in to look at planets, and then
look at the surface of the planet and see starports.  Orbital starports or
orbital cities are also displayed, with movement in real or accelerated time
so you can plan how to get there in the least amount of time.

        Frontier's galactic map is huge.  The galaxy is about 75,000 light
years across in this game, and the central part of the galaxy has many star
systems within a light year of each other.  Navigation is fairly simple, but
there doesn't seem to be much out there to look for outside of the Core
systems and the Imperial sector.

        The responsiveness when updating in the system display is very
pleasing.  Details such as gas-giant rings are visible, with background
scenery (space dust, stars, motion indicators) selectable on or off, in the
main program options page.  Zooming in on planets, asteroids, space stations
or other spaceships is all possible.  So is communication, but this aspect
of the game is very limited.

        The premise of Frontier is trading between the two star-faring
groups - the Core Systems, centred on Sol, and the Imperial Sytems, centred
on Achenar.  The Imperials are wholly capitalist:  almost nothing is banned,
and police protection must be purchased.  Lots of contraband items are
available - drugs, slaves, weapons - and life can get hectic, due to the
increased pirate activity in Imperial space.  The Core systems are more
"refined" and actively clamp down on drug-runners and slave dealers.  Do not
go to a Core system with a hold full of slaves!

        Each faction has a ratings system - the Imperial side choosing
serfs, squires, prince and that sort of thing, whilst the Core systems have
Colonels and Majors etc.  Acquiring medals, awards, and passes is almost
essential to advance in the game.

        Ship types are many and varied, ranging from 4 tonne planet hoppers,
with only interplanetary drives, to 2,000 tonne cargo behemoths (which turn
really slowly, and chew through fuel like it was going out of fashion).

        A very large ship will cost you about 500,000 credits.  Considering
you start off with 100 credits, this might take a while to acquire (if it
weren't for the bugs... see below).

        Some trade runs are extremely profitable, and these sort of runs
will be your bread and butter for the first few hours of the game.  You
upgrade your ship with bigger and better weapons, defenses, and add-ons such
as scanners, radar viewers for scanning other ships, Electronic Counter
Measures to foil missiles, automatic hull repair systems, and Large Plasma
Accelerators (weighing in at 900 tonnes!).

        The game supplies you with a seemingly endless stream of hopelessly
piloted enemies who seek to destroy your ship.  With adequate shields and
a steady hand, you can wipe out most opposition easily.  But not all
opponents are braindead.  Some are plain deadly, and running away would be
the best option when you encounter them with their shielded ships and
20-MWatt beam lasers.

        Frontier has a huge scope, but most players I know have expressed
some disappointment that 99% of the galaxy is either unexplored or
uninhabited.

        In this review, I haven't discussed the special missions you can
take, the "small parcel" deliveries, paid passenger services, assassination
offers, military missions, mining asteroids, mining planets, blowing up Lynx
bulk Ore carriers, the way the police Vipers tend to crash into each other,
the penalty for not having atmospheric shields, or how simple it is to die
repeatedly in situations that are seemingly standard fare.  I do hope I've
given some useful information to some people though.

        The bugs can be irritating.  The flight simulation is excellently
handled with Braben's smooth 3D graphics engine.

        I like this game a lot, and recommend that any ex-Elite players
check out this game.


DOCUMENTATION

        Frontier comes with three manuals and a quick reference card.  A
reference manual, 106 pages long, provides most of the information about how
the program interface works, and a guide to what functions are available,
enhancements and upgrades to ships, weaponry, and miscellaneous devices.

        A 40-page "Gazetteer" contains descriptions of several dozen star
systems.  It also contains clues about the game.

        "Stories of life on the Frontier" is 82 pages long.  It contains
several chapters of short stories about various characters in the game.  I
haven't read this manual much, but what I have read indicates that it
contains clues about possible game strategies and locations of interest.

        The quick reference card indicates how to start the game, what the
various icons indicate, and situations in which the icons do become
available.  The game controls are minimally explained.

        There is no further documentation on the two disks.

        I found the documentation to be of adequate quality.  There are a
number of glaring typographical errors and incorrect pieces of information.
Most of the information you need to play the game is buried in the game
manual, which lacks an index (but does have a table of contents).

        I would say that the documentation is aimed at people who have
played this sort of game before.  I didn't have any specific problem other
than the lack of an index.


LIKES AND DISLIKES

        LIKES:

                I really liked the processor support for 68040's.  The
        program is smooth and responsive on my computer, and works without
        having to disable caches, play with memory settings, or turn off
        the AGA chipset.

                Hard disk installability was a key selling point.  I have
        reached the stage where I refuse to purchase programs that will not
        load onto my hard disk.  This is a problem specific to the Amiga
        computing community.  The PClone users of the world aren't treated
        to idiotic floppy-disk based games and protection schemes, and
        haven't been for years.  I'm pleased that Gametek marketed the game
        in this format.

        DISLIKES

                I dislike the Save Game "requestor," which consists of a
        screen full of drive names and directories.  AmigaDOS "Assigns" are
        invisible.  Finding saved-game files is a matter of knowing which
        drive to look at, and finding the directory.  I resorted to saving
        games into a recoverable RAM drive and then copying the saved games
        back to disk when I finished playing the game.

                David Braben originally programmed the game so that it was
        "system clean", and would exit back to the AmigaDOS operating system
        when you quit the game.  For some inane reason, the game was
        distributed with this feature disabled, so the only way to exit the
        game is to reboot your computer.  Very unfriendly.  The program
        doesn't multitask, since it takes over the display, but neither does
        it clobber what is already running on your system.  A patch exists
        (by Teemu Suikki, tsuikki@cc.lut.fi) which enables you to modify the
        Frontier executable, and quit back to the operating system.  I
        highly recommend this patch.

                I am constantly disappointed with the number of program bugs
        that my version (1.00) has. Apparently later releases (up to 1.05 at
        the time of this review) have fixed some bugs, but other bugs
        remain.  Most can be circumvented, but some of them require you to
        go back to a saved game, or have the ability to ruin the gameplay,
        by giving you unlimited sums of money if you do certain bug-affected
        sequences.  A word of warning:  money is a signed value, and
        anything over 214,000,000.00 Cr will "roll over" to negative values.


COMPARISON TO OTHER SIMILAR PRODUCTS

        Frontier is a logical extension to David Braben's Elite; and as
such, the game most resembles Elite.  It could also be compared to Warhead,
StarFlight 2, Universe 2, or any of the other "pilot a space ship and trade,
whilst killing anything that moves" sort of games.


BUGS

        There are many bugs:  far too many to enumerate.  One Usenet poster
was disappointed that any attempt to hyperspace into to Beta Lyrae causes
the program to crash (replicated on the IBM version of the program).

        There is an annoying bug with the Bulletin Board showing items from
the Stockmarket.  This can be circumvented by accelerating time until the
next day, when the Bulletin Board will be reset.

        Many people report not being able to "take off" from planetary
surfaces, even though they have refueled their internal engines.
Apparently maximum time acceleration will get you going, but your ship may
suffer considerable damage as it crashes through various obstacles (walls,
buildings, mountains, etc.)

        There are a number of bugs involving money.  One planet "sells"
usually expensive items for negative amounts of money!  Take one tonne of
material, and they GIVE you 3,000 credits.  Very silly.  Another bug lets
you sell your ship for the going rate, but not complete the transfer -- you
get to keep the money but not change the ship.  Do this a few hundred times,
and you can make a hundred million credits in a few minutes of furious
mouse-clicking.  Surely ruins the game though.

        One ship has an unfortunate knack of being able to aim its turret
laser at itself.  Excellent way to commit suicide.

        There are many more.  Most of them can be avoided, and the general
advice given in comp.sys.amiga.games is to SAVE THE GAME a lot, unless you
want undue heartache.


VENDOR SUPPORT

        I haven't contacted the company, and doubt the efficacy of a support
request directed at a British company, coming from Australia.


WARRANTY

        There is a registration card that does not mention any kind of
warranty.


CONCLUSIONS

        I like the game a lot.  It recaptures the feel of Elite, with some
upgraded graphics and a much larger galaxy to explore.  I hope that David
Braben comes out with the (rumoured) add-ons to this program, since most of
the galaxy is unexplored and lifeless.

        The 3D graphics engine used in the game is very smooth.  Certainly
this is what I expected of something like Wing Commander (which was a great
disappointment on the Amiga).  The introduction sequence (available as a
"Frontier Demo") is quite neat, and I'm sure it sold more than a few copies
of this game.

        I'd have preferred to have had a properly tested game, with the
major bugs removed, but I still recommend that people go out and buy the
game.  It's a whole lot of fun.