Pirates! Can we outrun them? Damn! Well, would they accept a bribe? What? They won't even consider it? Okay, well, drop the cargo. No? Give them the ship and they'll let us live? Oh, they're not actually pirates, they're just mindless omnicidal monsters pretending to be pirates? Well... I guess I'll just reload an old save, then.
That's how some games treat pirates. It's stupid, boring and rubbish.
Star Traders: Frontiers is better than that. It's better than just about everything.
The name undersells it. It implies a trading game, but the titular Star Trader just refers to any independent spaceship operator in this universe. Trade is one of many career options, and each can be dabbled in as you see fit. Even this is handled in a different way to comparable games. It's somewhere between a strategy game and a party-based RPG, but without the tedious babysitting and micromanagement of either.
Let's start at the beginning. Character creation offers four default profiles. Each Captain you create must have a starting job, which determines stat boosts and what special abilities they'll be able to unlock when they level up. But you must also choose the exact priority to place upon 5 main aspects of your character.
A Captain who prioritises a ship will have a wider range to choose from, be it a cargo barge or warship, but fewer character attributes or starting NPC contacts (which take time, money, and skills to find otherwise). You might instead bank on experience, starting with a more capable crew upfront on a more constricting tub.
Let's keep it simple and choose one of the four stock options, though, and then move on to our Captain's appearance, and oh. Oh my.
This is where my love affair began. The character art is just wonderful. Star Traders is light on setting, but what's here is a gorgeous blend of Dune-inspired neo-feudalism, crossed with stylish future spacesuits, Western-style dusters, and Age of Sail flamboyance. Everyone on your crew can look a different kind of cool, and NPC portraits... well, just look at a few I've seen.
Entirely too stylish to be contained.
You don't have to customise all your crew, but aside from looking good it encourages you to identify with them, because the crew are half the game. Unlike a typical Elite-ish sim, everyone on board matters. Everyone on board levels with experience, and their skills and talents are how you get things done. Each crewman has a job, granting skill points that contribute directly to running the ship. Too few points in Gunnery and your weapons will lose accuracy. Too few in Ops and day-to-day events become more hazardous. An excess of skill points gives the opposite bonuses. In addition, every so often (the exact frequency has never been quite clear to me) characters will gain a Talent, which you choose from those matched to their job. You can hire however you like to suit your goals.
Gunners give special attacks that can cripple an enemy's guns or engines in turn-based ship-to-ship combat. Pilot talents enable better control of range or escaping. Pirates - one of the more rare, specialist careers - excel at crippling ships and extorting money and goods without necessarily having to fight. Pistoleers have crippling and disrupting attacks in personal combat. I addition to duking it out in space, some talents allow boarding attempts, which see four of your officers or fighters have a shootout with a hostile four (the same can happen during exploration of uncharted planets, or mission events). Winning such a fight weakens the enemy, and, again, if you opt for particular talents within particular jobs, lets you sabotage various parts of the ship before returning to the larger fight.
Apart from the random encounters are planet-based actions, where you patrol for troublemakers, hunt out merchants and smugglers on which to prey, or spy on the local factions. Each is open at any time to any character, and it's a fun system. Five possible results are laid out each time, with a positive or negative score based on how threatening or rewarding they are. You can also replace or remove a card to improve your odds, if your crew has the talent for that. If you fancy your odds, four cards are removed and you get your outcome. This could be resources, useful information, or a specific ship encounter. It's a simple, enjoyable system, and totally optional, as is the exploration of wild planets, which works the same way but offers another set of rewards and threats (and the ability to stash items for later collection when you find a buyer - buried treasure!).
Or you could focus on NPC missions, or commit to trading full time (something I only dabbled in when offloading booty). Or do a bit of whatever takes your fancy.
Space itself is a trifle dull, but I honestly think it works better than, say, the busy, confusing simultaneous turns of Space Rangers. It's a 2D plane, with planets dotted about in clusters linked by warp lanes. Fairly standard. But you're depicted alone. Any encounters happen in planetary orbit or with unavoidable random encounter style screens.
Each ship belongs to a specific faction and has a role, like smuggler, merchant, spy and so on, and their attitude is based largely on your reputation locally and with their faction. So if you're considered a criminal by the Thulun, running into a Thulun bounty hunter will likely start a fight, although you might be able to bribe them, or one of your crew might even have a talent that lets you micro-warp out of danger.
Ships too can be customised enormously. Components are split based by size, not function, so ships aren't confined to particular roles. Not doing much with your cargo space? Rip out two of those medium-sized cargo spaces and replace them with a targeting module and a brig. Now you can take on prisoner exchange or bounty hunting jobs. Maybe replace that small missile launcher you never use with a navigation doodad to improve fuel efficiency. It's all yours.
I'm talking a lot about systems, but while complex, everything is intuitive and light on rules, with clear help text explaining what everything does. The range of options and attention to detail are really impressive, and it's rare that you'll be railroaded or make an under-informed decision. Missions have colourful but succinct text-based decisions and outcomes, and you can be late or let them expire without everyone throwing a strop. You can refuse without penalty.
In a lesser game, pirates would attack you no matter what, but here they might even exchange pleasantries if you're chummy with their faction. Surrendering to pirates is generally safe, as they rarely do more than rinse your cargo hold. Stealing from smugglers incurs no reputation cost (who're they gonna tell?) You can carry illegal cargo without the authorities psychically divining it. I once bribed a spy ship, hoping they wouldn't report me to the local faction, only for a bounty hunter to arrive almost immediately. That fight was brutal and dangerously close until I sent a boarding party of my most ruthless bastards over, who cut down the defenders, blew up the enemy's biggest weapon, and sprayed Parthian shrapnel over the survivors before leaving. That broke the deadlock, but we took such a pasting in that battle that two of my best crew lost their cool and quit at the next planet. It reminds me of Darklands in that regard: you might have a long and fruitful career, or a desperate scrabble for survival on a sellotape-bound boat with a revolving airlock, or fits of both.
Aside from your own story, there are plot missions that are optional, yet if ignored might proceed without you. After many, many piratical hours I was pleasantly surprised to get wind of a galaxy-changing event instigated by a character I'd briefly worked with five years earlier. Oh, did I mention that NPCs all have personality traits, rivalries, and friendships that affect the types of mission they offer? I still feel like I've barely explained the game to you.
It really comes to something intangible. Star Traders feels like having space adventures. As a pirate I was the scourge of Steel Song sectors, extorting and ransoming freely with a nigh indomitable ship, the Night Minx, and a crew of elite specialists. The Minx was a mid-range hull but I'd adapted it specifically for my needs - minimal cargo but an array of missiles and beams specially selected to cripple systems. Passenger modules replaced with boarding-boosters and fuel tanks for those long journeys home (locals closed their ports? Screw 'em! Blockade the planet and siphon fuel off your victims). My bunks were packed to the rafters with gunners who rapidly reduced anything to a misfiring, leaking ball of fire and dead or terrified mooks, and a variety of experts adept at cannibalising defeated foes for repair parts. I was an absolutely terrifying bitch queen and I loved it, but a practical, piratical one. A sanctioned privateer in some cases, thanks to my astronomical reputation back at home.
As a Spy I was the opposite. My tiny ship could house half the crew of the Minx, so each officer was cross-trained to fill in for missing crew, boarding soldiers replaced with quick-escape pilots. I even considered removing my guns entirely. My living was one of quietly snooping for secrets to sell on to my network of shady contacts. Intel records can be gained by several means, but a dedicated Spy can rake them in, and they're not just money tokens - each relates to specific factions and sometimes conflicts or deals, so people interested in helping or harming those factions will pay more. I barely fired even in self-defence, but the information I sold probably killed millions. I gained status even amongst my enemies, and all with little cost. These are, after all, secret deals, so even when my skulduggery changed the course of an entire war, nobody knew it was me. My wealth of contacts offered me all manner of perks and my pick of missions. I even found myself roleplaying as a spy with a "humble trader" cover story, filling my tiny hold with ores, clothes, or the addictive, omnipresent Spice that's definitely not melange.
An experimental Bounty Hunter run with the biggest, priciest starting ship possible was a curious one. Few could match me in a fight, but while that giant ship could take a kicking, it was so expensive to repair, and to pay the large crew needed to run it, that I was constantly running missions for my pitiful 2 contacts just to break even on the repair bills, sometimes not even replacing dead or disgruntled crew. A mutiny-quashing talent for my Quartermaster saved the day just minutes after I'd picked it.
There are a few problems I have to pick at. Flying through space has a constant stream of 'tests' where random numbers are thrown at your crew's stats. Success grants a trickle of XP, but failure causes morale loss or damage to the ship and crew. This works to gradually train your team even when it's quiet, but it feels a bit lacking, and I found I either had a crew that passed everything, or a ruined mess that failed constantly, and this did nothing but cause more hassle.
The failure cycle can be quite brutal, but then part of that is mitigated by the difficulty options. Enemies can be given bonuses or penalties, but crucially there is a range of immortality vs permadeath options. At the kindest setting, you'll never lose crew except through desertion. Somewhere in the middle, officers can die, and if you're willing, you can take the risk yourself. But when it happens, death can be a huge anticlimax. My first Spy, for example, randomly ran into an extremely rare alien ship. That fight had my ship instantly crippled without even a chance to escape. Game over. I wasn't even angry, just deflated. And this is by far the biggest flaw: It's a single save game.
I have a huge bugbear about single save games - buy me a drink sometime and I'll start telling you about it for at least a few seconds before going off on a tangent - but it seriously undermines the fun here. Losing a run in Spelunky because you messed up a jump is disappointing, but losing 7 hours of networking and training and trading because you got two unavoidable random encounters in a row is just awful.
Crew Combat needs tuning too, as positioning is a little fiddly. Shooty/stabby talents are often restricted to a particular place in the fight queue, and as many special attacks have a random "advance/retreat" action bolted on, I can never remember where everyone should go - making movement a prompt option would be a good fix.
Happily though, it's still in Early Access, and updates are regular and well communicated. I'm very excited to see what else will be added but as things stand, Star Traders: Frontiers is already the best time I've had in space for a very long time.
Now hand over your goods or we'll vent your bridge.
Star Traders: Frontiers is currently in Early Access, and available to buy for £11.39/$14.99 from Steam.