Genre Deep Dive-Space Trading and Combat Simulators- Elite Dangerous and Star Traders: Frontiers

Elite Dangerous

©Frontier Developments, via Steam

What better place to start our list than Elite’s own official sequel. Technically the fourth game in the series, Elite Dangerous is a gargantuan undertaking. An MMO and a single player game all in one (and with the new expansion, also a mediocre shooter), there’s seemingly very little that Elite dangerous can’t do within the confines of the genre. Unfortunately, appearances can be deceiving.  I’ve heard people describe it as a game that is wide as an ocean but deep as a puddle. I’ve also heard people claim the reverse. The truth is that, somehow, it’s a very bewildering mix of both.  Elite: Dangerous is like a very wide puddle that gets really deep in random places.

For instance, one of the hardest things you can learn to do is manually dock a spaceship. Someone spent presumably hundreds of hours making sure that it’s technically possible to land your own ship on the tiny spaceport platform in every single space station, and the option isn’t even turned on by default, because why would it be? Like many parts of the game, it’s extremely hard, and there’s no real incentive to do it.

Elite: Dangerous has some of the tightest, most intense space combat I’ve ever seen, to the point that they could have probably released it as a standalone dogfighting game and it would have been a success. But you barely get to experience it in game, and actual fair fights are even rarer. Even outside of combat, the controls are magnificent, complex but extremely responsive. But almost everything can (and should) be automated. In fact, as far as what you will be doing 90% of the time (mining, scanning and trading), it might as well be a point and click game. It’s like buying a Ferrari that comes with a chauffeur. There’s no point in having these beautiful, intricate mechanics if the game goes out of its way to make you not use them.

In a similar vein, the game’s story is also extremely frustrating, for mostly the same reasons. A great deal of worldbuilding has gone into crafting the universe, yet it’s all in the background. I spent more time learning about faction politics and alien encounters on the wiki than I did actually experiencing any sort of narrative in game. In fact, the closest you can come to actually interacting with the game’s story is listening to in-universe podcasts about various interesting events, while doing menial, repetitive tasks. I play video games to temporarily escape my boring life, not be constantly reminded of it.

Ultimately, this is a truly strange game to review. It’s too complex and involved to be relaxing, but too slow to be exciting. It’s too hard and complicated to appeal to casual players, but much too barebones and empty for a big portion the hardcore crowd. But the strangest part is that, somehow, it’s fun. More than that, it’s stimulating. It’s a game that makes you want to read about it, practice it’s systems, and interact with the community. It’s a game that wants you to be interested in it, despite also desperately trying to keep you out. I can’t tell you why, but I had a blast playing Elite: Dangerous, and as frustrating as it is, I’ll gladly revisit it in the future.

Star Traders: Frontiers

©Trese Brothers, via Steam

One of the most persistent criticisms of Space Trading games is that at times, they tend to resemble a series of spreadsheets more than any sort of fun video game. At first, Star Traders: Frontiers certainly seems to confirm this trend. With it’s multitude of intricate, deep systems, unwieldy interface, stats upon stats and dynamic, procedurally generated sandbox, it certainly seems to indulge in the genre’s worst excesses. And as a spreadsheet, it’s rather crappy. The systems are complex, sure, but they rarely interact. Very little thought is paid to balance. The faction reputation system is pure arcadey nonsense. On the other hand, ship upgrades seem to be meticulously designed with an eye for realism, always having trade-offs, and making sure you progress in tiny increments. In short, it’s a confusing mix of conflicting systems, with an overwhelming emphasis on quantity over quality. But the beauty of it is that none of it matters. If you play Star Traders as a spreadsheet, always looking to min-max every possible aspect of it, you’re doing it wrong.

This is a game that really shines when you forget about everything under the hood, and just try to have fun with it. The turn-based ship combat strikes the perfect balance of complexity and simplicity, with it’s card-based mechanics letting your imagination run wild. The Darkest Dungeon inspired ground combat is equally fun, if a little simpler. The game’s various storylines are engaging and surprisingly well crafted. And the graphics, while technically modest, are very pleasant to look at.

Star Traders: Frontiers is an amazing role playing game(in the tabletop D&D sense), and emergent narrative generator, masquerading as a mediocre space sim. It is to Elite what Crusader Kings is to Europa Universalis. This is not a flawless game by any stretch, but as long as you play it with the right attitude, you can have a lot of fun, especially for such a modest price( currently sitting at 12,49€ on Steam).

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