Early Access Preview: Star Traders: Frontiers

By Marcello Perricone 04 Dec 2017 0

I’m always disappointed when a game manages to completely squander an interesting premise through bad execution. It is made even worse when the developers are pretty active and the small loyal community really like the game’s style, as it sometimes makes me wonder if I’m being overly critical and just didn't click with what made the game special for others. However, we’re all human and prone to differing opinions, and sometimes, a game that appeals to one person just just doesn't click with others.

I approached Early Access title Star Traders: Frontiers without knowing what to expect -- I had the basic information about the game and what genre it belonged to, and that it was a sci-fi title about captaining a ship and its crew through the universe. Being a lifelong Star Trek fan, that premise alone was extremely exciting… and what horrible disappointment the game proved to be.

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Star Traders: Frontiers starts interestingly enough, allowing you to customise your character class and appearance before picking a faction to be a part of. Once the game starts, you are given an initial quest which you may or may not complete and is set free upon the galaxy.

Upon starting your journey, the first apparent thing is how obviously obtuse the UI is. The game lacks any sort of meaningful tutorial and features a very cluttered interface, making actually starting the game a bit of a chore -- it took me about five minutes to properly navigate the menus and find my bearings, finally getting enough information about my quest in order to select a destination.

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Once I found the system I was supposed to go to, I right-clicked on it and plotted a course. As the ship left the starter system and crossed the sector towards the intended destination, the bottom right activity box went crazy, dozens of lines scrolling through it in a handful of seconds. Navigations checks were failed, medical rolls went bad, repair, piloting, and repair actions all didn’t worked. About 10 seconds after I left the first system, my Captain had lost 40% of his health, half the crew was near death, and the fuel tanks were exhausted. Worst of all, I had no idea of what caused it nor how I could prevent it.

Arriving at the planet, I docked and tried to heal myself and my crew, but the only option seemed paying the planet’s clinic an exorbitant amount to treat all of us. I could see no way to treat my colleagues onboard the sickbay, so I went about refueling the ship -- the UI readout was very unclear and led me to believe 90% of the tanks were still full, so I didn’t bothered topping up. I messaged my contacted, got her aboard the ship, and left the system towards her drop-off coordinates.

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Eight seconds later and 80% of the way to the objective, fuel ran out and my crew rebelled. Six members took arms against me -- even though the game had started literally two minutes before and a change of command could have done absolutely nothing about a fuel shortage -- and I was given the choice to bribe them, relinquish the ship, or take the remaining 23 loyal crew members and kill the mutineers. No option to throw them in the brig, or kick them off an airlock -- dialogue was not possible, so I just killed them all in an undisclosed manner and continued on towards the objective.

Everytime we travelled between systems, the ship and its crew would do multiple checks completely outside my control, and constantly take damage to health and morale faster than I could possible respond. Not that I was given any chance to deal with the situation in any way, mind. In order to deal with the rising costs, I went the eponymous route and began to trade; what seemed like a good profit of over a thousand credits per run in the beginning soon proved insufficient, as fuel costs over 600 credits per top-up and crew wages were soon in the excesses of a thousand drained money as fast as I could make it. The necessity of shore leave soon cropped up its ugly head -- paid by me, of course -- and the faff of having to manually pay the wages early “to keep crew’s morale” all contributed to create a very dissatisfying experience.

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Like the whole of Star Traders: Frontiers, the gameplay is constantly at odds with its premise: while the creation of your character and the choice of movement and dialogue presents you with a lot of unexpected freedom, the actual core gameplay loops are overly-randomised and bare. The game interactions at the beginning require you to just weather ill-fortune for a long time until you’re able to get stats and perks high enough to stop failing ability checks, and as a result feel like a terrible exercise of giving up player action.

Outside crew management, the game moves away from automatic RNG dice rolls and jumps with both feet into randomised RNG card picks. From blockade planets and shipping lanes to patrolling and spying on planets, everything requires you to press a button which allows RNG to decide which cards to flip over, before one of them is picked at random and gives you a bonus or onus. Some crew abilities serve to remove negative cards and overall help with your RNG chances, but it doesn’t change the fact that as a game that grants you control of a starship, it also seems to want to take that control away from you where ever possible.

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If this utter denial of choice was not bad enough, combat is similarly RNG based, though you are at least given a semblance of agency. The mildly enjoyable ship combat involves managing several abilities given by your crew each turn and assigning targets to each weapon, while crew combat is more linear and basically revolves around spamming character abilities until you or the enemy dies. There is very little tactics or strategy involved, and it all feels constantly at the whims of an RNG-based god.

I understand I’m very much cutting against the grain here (the game currently sits at 92% on Steam) but I’ve always abhorred titles where RNG is used as a substitute for player agency. If I am not able to actively participate and effect circumstances to deal with what's happening, then it stops being a 'game' for me. It is one thing to face outnumbering odds and fail. it is quite another to not be given a chance to fight back.

 

For all of those reasons, I can’t personally recommend Star Traders: Frontiers. It doesn’t have enough strategy, tactics, or real command mechanics and I've found it to be an unfulfilling facsimile of what starship management should be like. Being a captain should mean that you take the safety of your ship and crew in your hands and do your best to keep them going at all times: this game seems the exact opposite of that ideal.

Star Traders: Frontiers released onto Steam Early Access on November 14th, 2017 and is supposedly 75% complete. At the time of writing, it is due to remain there for six months.

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