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. 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!