In Retrospect: Frontier - Elite IIPlatforms: Retro
If there's one thing you can't accuse David Braben's Frontier: Elite II, it's a lack of ambition. The game attempted to create a model of the entire Milky Way - every star and simulations of the planets we might be able to expect orbiting each and every one. Nothing has come close to attempting to match that scale and while the number of 'inhabited' solar systems may have only been a tiny fraction of the playable space, the fact you could visit billions of potential planets to mine or just explore is something that we're unlikely to see attempted ever again. Indeed, if Elite IV ever does materialise, even that would struggle to come close.
But, do you know what was the most impressive thing about all of this? It all fits inside one 720K floppy disc. That's the whole galaxy on one tiny disc - the game came with two, but as far as we remember, the second was just for saving your progress. There were later CD versions, including one on the Commodore CD32, but the technical brilliance that managed to squeeze that much content into so little space was breathtaking.
Some may argue that the decision to make Frontier's physics as realistic as possible was a mistake. It meant that travel between locations, even within the same solar system, could be slow but the inclusion of an auto pilot and time controls made this bearable. Some could also argue that the combat was hard to get to grips with - especially with the smaller, more agile spacecraft, but practice brought massive rewards and the first time the player took out a massive 'Panther' spacecraft with their little 'Eagle Mk.2' and its puny laser just added to the excitement. The ability to upgrade not only your spacecraft to larger models was a masterstroke and then to be able to deck it out with powerful shields and laser cannons meant you could eventually have a near-invincible Panther of your own to transport your ill-gotten gains.
Frontier first appeared on the Amiga and PC in 1993 - the former was unfortunately near unplayable due to exceedingly low fps even during non-intensive moments. The PC version faired better with higher clockspeeds leading to smoother gameplay. An Atari ST version followed some months later that benefitted from the ST's slightly faster (than Amiga) clock speed so what it lost in graphical finesse (not a lot) it more than made up for in a significant improvement in frame rate. It wasn't perfect however and more than a few ships on screen at once could lead to stutter city.
Much like it's predecessor, Frontier was as open ended as games got back then. You could chose to be whoever you wanted - would you be tempted by the riches and risks of being a space pirate, or would you align yourself with one of the major powers in the game? And the never-ending quest for 'Elite' status gave the player some drive to better themselves. There was something of an underlying storyline and rumours even now that there were things hidden in the game that still await discovery - the Milky Way is a big place, and we're sure that Braben and co slipped in some rewards for exploring the outer reaches.
The biggest problem, thanks mostly to the games ambition, was that it was far from bug free. Crashes were frequent, as were corrupted game saves, but with plenty of care and caution it was possible to reduce these risks and to really appreciate what was effectively a work of art. Had the publisher, Gametek, given the developers time to iron out these issues before release, the game's reputation would likely be closer to that of its ancestor. Frontier, as a game, was never really finished - hacking into the code revealed many references to the likes of Thargoids and cloaking devices and while Braben was able to continue the story in First Encounters, its clear that what was an enjoyable but flawed game could really have been a masterpiece.
We hanker for the release of Elite IV more than most, but given the franchise history and legacy, we only want it when Frontier Developments are 100% happy with the final product. We just hope that the company's current trend for publishing (admittedly decent, if somewhat throwaway) Kinect games doesn't mean they've abandoned their roots completely and that one day we'll get to see another Elite game that really does everything we had ever hoped for.