Frontier First Encounters at 25

The computer game Frontier Elite 2 celebrated its 25th birthday in September 2018 but author and programmer David Braben didn't want to leave things there in 1993.
A little over 18 months later Frontier First Encounters was released as Frontier Developments' first game, taking the Frontier franchise to another level - eventually.

It's a matter of some debate exactly when Frontier First Encounters (FFE) was released. One guess decided on April 16th 1995, but a quick check shows this date was a Sunday - and Easter Sunday at that - a very unlikely date for a computer game to appear in the shops. To all intents and purposes, the best date to go for is a slightly general one - Easter 1995.

What isn't in doubt is that the game hit the shops in floppy disc and CD form (more on that later) but only for the IBM PC. An Atari ST version had already been ruled out and the proposed Commodore Amiga version never saw the light of day. In truth, the latter two machines did not possess the computational power to enable the game to run satisfactorily. PC owners, provided they had a powerful enough machine, were the sole market for this game.

Unfortunately, pressure from GameTek - the game's publishers - to ship the game before it was ready resulted in the first release being a buggy, unplayable mess. Downloading patches was not an option in the mid-1990s so a series of patch discs were sent out to those who needed them. Eventually, the game became mostly playable, though not entirely bug free.

Opinion is divided as to whether FFE's graphics were better than those in Frontier Elite 2 (FE2), but in every other respect FFE represented an improvement, albeit incremental rather than a revolution. In essence, the game remains the same. The changes that did take place were hand-coded missions, which triggered at various points through the first five years in the game and a tough multi-stage Thargoid mission to bring the scripted missions to a conclusion. Five different newspapers could also be subscribed to, which often reported on the missions the player had undertaken and even mentioned the player themselves. This was a simple but surprisingly effective way of immersing the player in the game world, which some games still struggle to do a quarter of a century later!

For those lucky players who possessed the CD version of the game, Full Motion Video (FMV) was displayed when docked at space stations and ports. These usually took the form of station personnel greeting you and informing you of the facilities available there. There were no fewer than 324 different video clips produced, but only a selection were ever used in the game. The quality of the acting ranges from passable to excruciating but somehow they're part of FFE's uniqueness and I personally always have them enabled!

Despite being released in 1995, FFE was written for DOS rather than Windows 95, which hampered players ability to run it on Windows-based machines. Fortunately various individuals brought out home-brew versions, starting with John Jordan's JJFFE, which made the game Windows compatible. Later versions such as GLFFE improved the graphics resolution and continued to iron out the bugs, but the biggest improvement came thanks to a 15 year-old Russian schoolboy who went by the moniker of DreamZzz.

What he managed to do - around 2006 - was embed the FFE code within a D3D "wrapper" and in doing so created FFED3D, the best ever version of FFE. Development is currently in the hands of UK-based coder AndyJ who has brought the game to a level far beyond its original standard.

The three pictures to the left show how the graphics have changed since the inital release of the game in 1995.

The top picture is from JJFFE, which ran at the same resolution as the original DOS version ie. 320 x 200 pixels. From a distance, the buildings and ships are difficult to make out and their details can only be seen when the player zooms in on them. For example, the building to the left of the picture has the name of the starport and city - Donaldsville - written across it, but this cannot be seen until the player is right next to it.

The middle picture is the same scene rendered in GLFFE. For the first time the player could define the resolution the game ran at, bringing many details included in the game within visual reach. This included warning signs on ship engines and inside landing bays.

The bottom picture is the same scene again, this time in FFED3D. Although the resolution didn't increase compared to GLFFE, various contributors to the FFED3D project provided more detailed models for the ships, buildings and planets. Some of these merely improved the look of existing models whereas others completely redesigned the item to give it a whole new look.

Travelling to various locations in the Sol system is an interesting experience. Volcanic worlds such as Io are rendered well and show its close proximity to the planet Jupiter. As with FE2 the solar system is implemeted correctly, although it still classifies Pluto as a planet.

Should the pilot wish to do so, they can land at starports in the many inhabited star systems. The one pictured above is New Rossyth in the Alioth system, the home of the newly-formed Alliance. Many different types of buildings and items can be found here. This picture also shows the protective dome enclosing the city and protecting the inhabitants from the harsh elements of the planet outside.

One way in which FFE improved over FFE2 was the inclusion of hand-coded missions, in addition to the automatically generated ones. They culminate in a mission to the Thargoid homeworld, to investigate how and why this feared alien race disappeared from known space.

Another advantage of FFE was the five newspapers which could be subscribed to and which updated every 28 days. Each one had their own slant, according to whether they were the mouthpiece of the Federation, Empire or Alliance. There was also a tabloid style publication plus a serious scientific journal. The actions of the player in the game's hand-coded missions was often reported in these publications.

To get more details about Frontier: First Encounters and its prequel Frontier Elite 2, visit the FrontierAstro Frontier page

Frontier: First Encounters (DOS version) can be downloaded and played on PC by following the instructions on the FrontierAstro DOSBox page

Play Frontier: First Encounters D3D on Windows PC by visiting the FFED3D page

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