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Wot I Think - Star Traders: Frontiers

Spice kills - quit now

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Star Traders: Frontiers is a huge stellar sandbox with an evolving galaxy that moves forward with or without you. It’s liberating, not being on the hook for every little problem. As a free-wheeling captain, you can ingratiate yourself with the most important galactic players, becoming embroiled in the highest level of politics, or you can just enjoy the life of a scoundrel, smuggling and stealing your way through space.

It’s a chimera, stitched together from bits of RPGs, strategy games, roguelikes and space sims, but it’s miraculously cohesive. The multitude of systems and invisible paths can be initially daunting, but the ability to carve out your own little niche means that it’s as manageable as you want it to be. That’s how it gets you. You’re merrily ferrying legal goods between worlds for a small profit, staying within your comfort zone, and then an hour later you’re smuggling illegal artefacts, spying on royals and fighting the space cops.

See, while Star Traders lets you chart your own course freely, it also makes sure that you know about all the things you might be missing out on. As you’re travelling through space and visiting worlds, you’ll hear rumours and updates about interesting threats and opportunities in the rest of the galaxy. Wars, alien mysteries, even nasty space anomalies that are likely to mess up your ship – you’ll rapidly collect a big list of points of interest that will pull you in every direction.

They’re constant reminders that the galaxy is alive. It’s a boast that space sims in particular make about their dynamic universes all the time, when what it often boils down to is prices changing in shops. It’s a relief to see that life in Star Traders is considerably more diverse. A solar war, for instance, can transform sectors into battlefields, with factions doling out missions to mercenaries and letting pilots seize enemy ships. There’s a dynamic economy too, of course. The holistic nature of the galaxy means that there’s always something putting pressure on a system’s economy, but the impact is usually greater than a sale on advanced electronics.

An embargo is like catnip for smugglers. With trade officers cracking down on certain goods, the black market fills in the gap. That means bold captains can potentially make a tidy profit by trying to sell illegal goods under the cops’ noses. Wars can even break out over trade, with embargos spanning systems and merchants turning into privateers.

You can earn a living just by playing it safe and doing simple trade runs, fulfilling the demands of a few worlds, but to really make some cash you’ll always want to have your ear to the ground. Trading is reactive, sometimes exploitative, and infinitely more engaging than… well, anything other than EVE Online. You can conduct corporate espionage, become a war profiteer or even use your smuggling skills to help a ragtag group of rebels.

Despite the name, trade is only a small part of Star Traders. When you create a new captain, whether by picking a preset or building one from scratch, you can make one more suited towards things like piracy or exploration, giving them skills and a starting ship that match the sort of adventures you want to get into. You won’t be limited to their specialities, however, just better at them. Any weaknesses can also be shored up as you gain experience and by picking the right crew.

When you’re designing your captain, you’re really just making one tiny component in a complex machine. Every single member of your crew will also come with their own jobs and talents, contributing to your total while also giving you extra abilities that can be used in and out of combat. They also provide a bulwark against the cruel and random nature of the universe. Random events are constantly playing out on the ship, their results determined by a dice roll and the crew’s skills. If you’ve got a skilled doctor, you’ll be less likely to lose crew if a virus gets onboard, while reliable engineers can stop your components from suddenly catching on fire.

These little moments make the ship seem a bit more lively, but their frequency and lack of interactions mean that you’ll quickly stop even registering them. Activities like spying and exploring planets also generate random events, but they use a card-based minigame to simulate your fortune. One by one, the game removes a card, each with an outcome, until there’s only one left. Talents can move the odds in your favour, though chance can always screw you over. Instead of getting your sly mitts on some intelligence that you can sell to the enemies of your enemies, you might end up getting spotted by a bounty hunter. It’s just one additional and very insubstantial layer of complexity, but it makes the world of difference.

For all the help your crew provides – and they are entirely indispensable – they rather reasonably expect to be paid well and led by someone who knows what they’re doing. It doesn’t always work out that way.

The pirate crew of the Hedgehog was not happy. Someone forgot to fill up the fuel tank when we left the last planet. It was the final straw after a botched negotiation and a beating at the hands of a security team. As the ship hurtled through space, running on fumes, half the crew mutinied. It didn’t go very well for them. To thank those who remained loyal, and also to boost morale, I scheduled a stop at the spice hall on the nearest space station. That’s when I became a spice addict. Along with most of my crew.

A chronically inept spice addict, it turns out, isn’t the best person to stop the galaxy from spiralling into chaos. The galaxy doesn’t revolve around you, but that doesn’t mean inaction or failure can’t have undesirable consequences. As I discovered when I forgot to stop a war from starting.

I was late. My crew had been getting agitated, so we hit up the local spice hall and enjoyed ourselves a bit too much. Again. I was meant to be ferrying negotiators and working with spies to undermine a trial that was poised to end badly for my employer. The trial concluded while I was still in space, and not in my employer’s favour. Thus, war. I should have stopped helping, but instead I persisted, making things worse.

Work kept coming to me because I had such a high reputation with this single faction. I might have been a bit useless, but I’d worked for them for years, fighting their enemies and even uncovering a conspiracy. I stumbled on it, really, but my boss was very impressed.

Reputation is the true currency of Star Traders. What your standing is with a faction determines everything from what you’ll be able to do when you dock in one of their ports to how their ships will react to you when you meet them out in space. You have a reputation with individuals, too, and they with other characters and factions. It’s a complex web of friendships, grudges and political alliances that can be easy to get tangled up in.

For a whole year, I worked for a scientist who was sending me out on tasks designed to increase their reputation with a member of a faction they were technically at war with. People don’t always toe the faction line, and it’s possible to be best mates with someone when you’re also plotting to destroy their boss. Complicated, but possible.

In the maelstrom of a galactic war, ship battles are common, and gosh would it be nice if they also resolved automatically. On the 2D map of space, you never actually see any other ships. It’s a lonely void punctuated only by planets. As you move through it, you’ll have random encounters, informing you that you’ve come across another vessel. They might be merchants that you can rob, cops that want to search you, or pirates demanding you empty your cargo hold. Typically there are lots of different ways to handle these encounters, but sometimes you just have to fight.

Space battles are turn-based duels between two ships, and dreadfully slow. The fights are almost entirely static, but so much time is given to the boring exchange of gunfire, drawing out every round. Even if you just want to blow up a vulnerable little trader, you still have to go through the process of watching its useless guns completely miss your ship over and over again as you whittle down its health. Most fights follow a predictable pattern with the only real wrinkle provided by the engagement distance. Every weapon has a sweet spot from which it does the most damage, and distances where it can’t be used at all. To bring all of your weapons to bear, you need to advance and fall back, spending reactor points that would otherwise be used on attacks. It would be exceedingly generous to call it tactical.

While I don’t need to see it played out every single time, all the planning that goes into these bland ship brawls is great. I put a lot of work into my ship, hand-picking every component, from the cabins to the bridge, considering how my choices would affect the ship’s speed, fuel consumption, jump efficiency… I had a lot on my mind. When you’re building a ship, it’s a lot like designing a captain. It should complement them, really. If you’re a spy, you might want a stealthy, high-tech ship that can rapidly escape battles, whereas a pirate might benefit from vessel designed for boarding and broadside attacks, even if it’s just for thematic consistency.

It’s a brilliant, flexible system where complexity isn’t conflated with complicatedness. The choices are hard because there are so many directions to go in, not because you need to do homework to understand them all. The ship and customisation screens are dense with information, but it’s presented clearly and with an abundance of tooltips. Actually picking new components is also made considerably easier by the ability to compare each part before you purchase it.

You’ll start out with a default loadout, but you’ll be able to replace every component at a starport, if you’ve got the cash. The only limitation is space, with each ship having room for a specific number of large, medium and small components. Even this can be extended, though. That means you can chuck out all your guns and replace them with passenger cabins. Forget about the wars and just spread good times throughout the galaxy with your party bus.

All of this is true for ground combat, as well. It’s less common than ship combat and seems a little faster, but ultimately it’s a lot of the same fights and the same attack rotations repeated over and over again. Instead of one ship, it’s four of your crew, but the principles of positioning and engagement distance are the same. I’d auto resolve almost all of them if I could, spending the extra time making the perfect crew of cutthroats.

Even before I retrofitted it, the Hedgehog had room for 30 crew and five officers, making me responsible for 35 people. I had gunners who were in charge of aiming at enemy ships, navigators who got us safely through hyperwarp jumps, swordsmen and pistoleers for ground combat – my own little army. Officers, who can have up to three jobs, have to be trained manually, but the rest of the crew’s training can be automated. When I did take the hands-on approach, however, I felt like my input was making a lot more difference than it did in the battles.

You’ll chat to your officers during missions, while your crew will make casual remarks as you flit about in your ship, and they put on a convincing show of having a personality. The fantastic character designs do a lot of the heavy lifting, making it impossible to not project character traits and personality quirks onto the random crew. Take a gander at Wolf Thorncroft and tell me you don’t know exactly what he’s like.

He’s old, he’s got a moustache, he’s got an indescribable quality that demands respect and at some point you’ll absolutely call him “Dad”. It will be super embarrassing. This informed the choices I made for him, and the tone in which I read his dialogue, only increasing my desire to hear him say “I’m proud of you, son.”

There are a few characters I’m obsessed with. I get a serious ‘Metal Gear Solid villain’ vibe from Hurley Caravor, and despite his stern features, who can deny that he has lips that were made for smooching?

Star Traders is just an endless parade of striking costumes and memorable characters. That’s at least half the reason I’ve invested so much money into expanding the crew quarters. It’s a fashion show every night. The planets are lookers, too. If you can peel your eyes away from the menus, you’ll see some stunning sci-fi art.

Dune seems like an obvious source of inspiration, with the spice and warring feudal houses, but the web of politics and intrigue that spreads out across the galaxy is also evocative of both from The Expanse and Babylon 5. That’s some excellent company to be in, and Star Traders more than earns the comparison. It’s a galaxy that feels lived-in and coherent. It’s steeped in lore, but importantly it’s lore that serves the plot. Instead of just filling space or giving the illusion of history, it explains why the galaxy’s in the state you find it in. And when there’s exposition, it’s part of the natural flow of a conversation, not a big information dump.

I mentioned roguelikes 2,000 words ago and cruelly left it hanging there, so I’ll put you out of your misery now: permadeath is an entirely optional hurdle. You can play the game with permadeath and in iron man mode, and I sort of understand the appeal, but it also seems like a bonkers way to play a game that makes you invest so much time into developing your crew and ship. Thankfully there are a whopping seven difficulty levels, each a combination of different death rules, challenges and rewards, and you can also make your own custom rules.

While basic is the recommended difficulty for new players, it’s just a bit too gentle. Not needing to worry about your captain or officers dying is lovely, but with enemies only fighting at 60% strength, they’ll barely be able to touch you. Bumping it up to 80% puts you at an advantage but actually makes you use your talents, essentially buffs and debuffs, instead of just relentlessly shooting your biggest guns. It also benefits from a bit of risk. I like to keep my captains immortal, so one mistake doesn’t cost me the entire game, but I appreciate my crew and officers all the more when I know they’re vulnerable.

At every point, Star Traders gives you more options than you probably think you need. Even without permadeath, it invites additional journeys. In the middle of writing this, I realised I could probably make a prison barge, filling my ship with cells and hunting down all the galaxy’s ne’er-do-wells. It’s that or the party bus next. My imagination is all fired up, ready to embark on another disastrous experiment.

Even if I do dream of having an auto-resolve button for fights, I’m still pretty smitten. It’s an exceptional space sim that’s happy to let you just while away the years, smuggling spice and getting into bar fights, all while this elaborate and galaxy-shaking space opera plays out behind you. It’s shining a spotlight on the Bossks of the universe, sort of just getting on with their job and sometimes being tangentially related to important stuff. And Bossk is the best.

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Who am I?

Fraser Brown

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Premature Evaluation caretaker. Likes strategy games almost as much as he likes labradoodles.

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