When you think of commanding a spaceship, do you think about torpedoes or trade law? In space games, one of the most fundamental development decisions is how it defines itself on that scale. Despite what the name would imply, Star Trader Frontiers emphasizes combat over trading.
Your captaincy starts out as one might expect, choosing a background, initial stats, faction allegiance, skills and ship type before being whisked away to your enrollment into said faction as a recognized ship captain. You are immediately plopped on the rails of the main questline and entrusted with an important mission. Before you know it, you’re staring at a bunch of buttons and a top down map of space.
STF emphasizes freedom: from the first moment you can flatly refuse the main questline and forge your own place within the somewhat procedurally generated network of planets. So what is there to do?
If you’ve opted for a more combative ship, you’ll quickly be able to start plundering the first unfortunate sod who wanders your way. All combat is turn based. You choose ship to ship weapons and combat abilities known to your crew and exchange blows. Given some time, the game does a great job of allowing a wide variety of viable tactics. If you fancy a traditional swashbuckling experience, a few well trained pilots can close the distance quickly and deliver your swarthy pals to the enemy without getting shredded midway. If you’re the more pragmatic type, heavy armor and long range weapons turn your vessel into the Rocky Balboa of the stars. While weapon choices are a bit limited as of now, being able to think up and implement a personal combat doctrine is highly rewarding.
Hand to hand combat is conducted in a similar manner but is more tactically limited. It relies on a slot based system so your hands are a bit tied in the composition of your team (aka no 4 swordsmen). Abilities are less numerous and many classes only have one ability worth using so more often than not, these encounters end up brainless.
On the other hand, if you decide that a pacifist stellar life is your calling, you’re going to find things are really boring. Your options are trading and exploring, both which usually devolve into combat and both of which are wholly unfulfilling. Exploring and other planetary activities like spying or patrolling are based on a card system which robs you of any real agency. One card out of a random five with varying positive and negative results is chosen and you are forced to accept whatever the fates have decreed. While rewards can be substantial, it is equally likely your ship gets mangled or you have to fight overpowered aliens. If you have no real input and there is no real chance of anything interesting happening, why would anyone want to do this?
Life of a Captain
Trading is an equally dry affair. There’s plenty of different goods to buy, haul around and sell at a profit but again, the lack of agency in the whole process makes trading nothing more than a chore. Sure, you can check rumors to see what random planet needs more turds to eat for higher margins if that’s your idea of fun, but it’s a bit of a rote task for me, especially considering the prices you influence reset immediately after leaving. Having expensive cargo also invites pirate attack and since even well armed trader class ships are subject to spontaneous failure, you’re usually better of trying to make a run for it or waving the white flag. It’s hard to imagine someone who wants to roleplay as a captain who’s known for tucking tail.<I can’t resist – editor>
Lack of immersion is a persistent problem and one of the main issues I have with the game; I found moments where I felt like a real spaceship captain to be far too rare and moments where I felt like an exhausted space passenger far too frequent. So many core components of the game disallow player agency and present you with unexciting, random and predetermined events. The grand splendour of space exploration boils down to drawing a card.
While you can customize your crew members, outside of the dry crew combat, your minions never get to be anything more than passive buffs and skills so ironically the hunk of metal you’re flying in has more character than the people inside of it. To be fair, the developers are taking steps to better inform you of the goings on within your ship (such as while flying around) but similar systems need to be put in all over. It is difficult to feel empowered when things seem to happen without reason or explanation.
The faction politics and plotline are a potential savior. There’s a pretty complex world to be a part of and tough decision-making which I imagine a captain would grapple with. I really like how the plotlines give you many threads to follow up on and meaningful choices to make in terms of who you believe and how you decide to help. Factions are constantly shifting and interacting and the foundation for deep intrigue and dynamic story elements are definitely there. The current storyline has a bunch of cool short threads but I’m afraid that continuing to put in the same amount of choices will make the story tree far too large and complicated to implement. But from what I’ve seen, I remain optimistic about this facet which shines as a beacon of hope for the rest of the game.
Should you Buy?
Despite my misgivings, STF is a competently made and with an ambitious array of activities and mechanics. There’s definitely the potential for a comprehensive space experience but I am afraid the overly dry and calculated nature of the current build will persist and scare off the vast majority of perspective captains. If you’re a fan of the more contemplative adventure, there’s definitely potential for a rewarding and varied experience.