This article originally appeared in issue 243 of PC Gamer UK.
Frontier: First Encounters is the oft-forgotten sequel to Frontier: Elite II, which is itself the slightly less forgotten sequel to one of the few PC games that can be called seminal without even having to stop and consider if that's the correct use of the word.
When not being oft-forgotten, First Encounters is being oft-recalled as an ambitious, if bug-crippled space epic, one that took on the open-universe mantle of Elite and injected it with a bit of narrative backbone. A bitter legal kerfuffle between the original Elite co-creator Ian Bell and continuing series guardian David Braben hung over its development, and for reasons that are becoming less and less interesting to me as I write, the game was eventually released prematurely in 1995 by publisher GameTek. Rather than being appreciated as the hyper-advanced, space-age cosmos simulator it was, First Encounters was instead resoundingly, rightfully, and sadly criticised for its awful bugginess.
But slipping back into the DOSbox-enabled First Encounters universe, with my perspective-granting history helmet on, it's difficult to not be in awe of just how ambitious this space sim was. Certainly, it lacks the initial impact of Frontier: Elite II. That game's timeless opening shot of the ringed giant Aster slowly rising over the horizon of Merlin's twilit spaceport wasn't quite matched by the smearily-textured, grubbily coloured city of Old Blackelk. But it offers several advancements which, more than 15 years later, the genre still hasn't quite managed to catch up with. What a lazy genre.
The fractal landscapes are still strikingly beautiful. Great orange sprawls of what's probably some sort of alien grass reach out to shimmering, morphing coastlines that shift and transform as the engine attempts to reconcile available polygons with its planet-generating algorithms. Point your ship skywards, put your foot down and you'll rocket into outer space. Despite sitting at the top of every genre fan's wishlist forever, that loading-screen-free feat has yet to be recreated in games like X3 and EVE Online.
Turn to face the planet again, and that same handful of textured polygons that once represented mountains and shores now describe entire continents that curve off into a misty, thin and multicoloured atmosphere. Just one planet in a galaxy of billions upon billions, waiting to be discovered and explored. It's a magical feeling of openness and scale that, even now, is rarely matched.
Seamless surface-to-space transition was nailed in the mid-'90s, before (and maybe I'm being a little cynical here) the genre wilfully regressed and cauterised its most ambition-centric organs. Frontier: First Encounters is arguably its technological high watermark.
Something else this maligned game pioneered was a sense of player impact on the universe. It was achieved through a dozen or so handcrafted missions – the rest are dynamically generated as you play. You could also subscribe to the game's five pan-galactic newspapers, ranging from the left-leaning Federation rag to the Imperial's conservative propaganda outlet, painting you as either a freedom fighter or a terrorist when you pop a five megawatt laser up a prominent politician's exhaust pipe.
These papers appeared once a week, seemingly forever. I never played long enough to see their political-bias-by-numbers editorial teams disbanded. The effect is still tremendous: perusing reports of your latest escapades while tearing through a solar system at some fraction of the speed of light, en route to whatever headline-grabbing mission comes next. You're making tangible dents in the universe.
Previously, most of the Elite setting and backstory had been described through the manuals. The games themselves had scarcely managed to string a few sentences together. But Frontier not only had scripted missions, it had Thargoids.
The series' only known alien threat, these were the original Elite's spooky erroneous polygons, who'd suck you into sub-space for having a badly maintained engine. In Elite 2 they all but disappeared. First Encounters, on the other hand, has a twisting chain of investigative Thargoid missions, culminating in an interspecies truce. If Elite 4 ever arrives, it will be (or at least should be) built on the universe fleshed out by First Encounters.
Still, it's difficult to talk at any length about First Encounters without your auto-pilot flinging you into the sun. Hammering the save button is the only way to circumvent the myriad game-ending glitches that hang over your space captain's head like a cosmic sword of Damocles. You can become inexplicably marooned on remote planetoids, your government accolades, merits and military ranks can spontaneously vanish, and the autopilot considers colliding with a planet's surface at 4000km per second an acceptable conclusion to a two month long space journey. All this before you even encounter a genuine enemy ship, the AI of whom implored them to cartwheel giddily towards you on dopey kamikaze runs.
Had it been released yesterday, First Encounters would've generated one massive, infinitely recursive, internet-crippling e-petition. But run it in a DOSbox window, and it becomes something far more innocent, aspirational and radical – required playing for fans of the space trading genre. It's flawed, there's no denying that, and it's absolutely the worst-received of the Elite games, but it's a game I return to with fondness every once in a while. Like a foam idol of David Braben's face, Frontier: First Encounters' blemishes are as obvious as they are many, but I can't help but make appreciative grunting noises as I attempt to stick my metaphorical tongue inside it.