Left to my own devices, I would write a wall of text. When I know that my subject deserves a wall of text, though, I know that I have to keep it simple lest I turn a post into a test of endurance for both myself and the reader. This is a shame, though, as there is far too much to talk about in Star Traders: Frontiers.
Thing is, Star Traders: Frontiers (STF from now on) is not a new game. It was released on Steam in August of 2018. Trese Brothers have been toiling within the Star Traders universe for some time, having released Star Traders RPG in 2010, and Star Traders 4x Empires in 2014. The hallmark of the series is to shove the player into a warren of complicated and interconnected systems, intense customization, and the freedom to do whatever floats your boat — even sail that boat into violently dangerous waters from which there’s little hope of return. This comes at the expense of flashy graphics which for some people is going to be an instant no-go, but if visuals are just icing on the cake for you, let’s talk about Star Traders: Frontiers.
We begin by creating a captain, choosing our starting career, our map, and our character’s look. The character models are not the worst, but are certainly nothing to write home about; they’re all going to be made of the same parts, randomly combined. Considering this is not a “live action” game, this doesn’t get in the way of anything, really, and later on I think it’ll make more sense why the game was designed this way.
There are two starting options. The first is to go off on our own and play STF as a true sandbox game, trading goods, fighting pirates (or becoming one), and exploring the galaxy. The second is to take on an overarching story mission that begins with a request to escort a special investigator to a meeting. Even though this story has a beginning, a middle, and an end, there are enough branches even very early on that it doesn’t feel like a massive trade-off between free-roaming and narrative. At any time during the story, we can spend some time doing what we want — and is in fact a good idea, since money and experience is going to be needed as soon as possible.
The majority of movement is handled on a star map filled with points of interest. Each point is going to be represented by a dense cluster of icons (none of which, unfortunately, have tooltips to tell you what they mean). What’s on offer can be gleaned by these icons, be it a city, an orbital station, or untamed wilderness, providing access to fuel, repairs, a hospital, or a spice hall. Left mouse drags the window around, and clicking on a destination with the right mouse will select a destination and begin movement. In the screenshot above, I was in the middle of flying from one small outpost to a larger planet. On occasion, travel is interrupted by an encounter with NPCs that are either hostile, curious, or friendly.
Traveling requires fuel, which is the blue bar at the bottom of the screen. This depletes as the AU tick by, but running out isn’t going to leave us stranded in space; we can still get to our destination, although conditions onboard the ship will be understood to be dire, and a crew mutiny may occur if morale is low. Any onboard events that we might like to know about scroll up in the panel in the lower right corner of the screen (too fast to really parse, in my opinion) so when the orange text starts filling the panel, shit’s about to get real.
Right clicking on the current location opens the “orbital” view. There might be two options here, each presented on either side of the planet image. In this screenshot, there’s only one option: the population center of Lirich Landing. The icons with the bars provide information on — something, which I haven’t spent the time deciphering as of yet — while the icons at the bottom of the landing zone panel indicate which services are available. The banner on the left side indicates which faction is in control of this particular location. Sometimes, if there’s another landing zone, it might be another population center, but more than likely it’s a “wilderness” zone.
Wilderness zones are explorable areas than and provide loot, and we’ll look at them in a bit.
LZ’s of note will offer several services, not all of which will be available and not all of which will be available to us, depending on the resources of the planet and our reputation with the controlling faction. The six most important are fuel, medical, recruitment, repair, the spice hall, and payday. Below those we have the starport for upgrading our current ship or buying a new one, and the exchange, which is where we buy and sell goods.
Almost all of these panels will be used at every port (if we can) because STF doesn’t just ding us for title card events. Flying between outposts will put wear in the ship, requiring repairs. Time dilation means what looks like a short hop between systems has actually encompassed two pay periods, and the crew wants their money. Sometimes events on board the ship aren’t handled appropriately, and crew members need to be treated at the planetside medical facilities. And of course, the crew wants their shore leave at the local spice hall. Some of these offerings aren’t finite, so we can’t always replenish 100% morale at the spice hall as a matter of course. A large, rowdy crew will drain the reserves and more often than not some of the crew will miss out, leaving their morale in the gutter. This makes morale one of the major pain points of STF. It will deplete not just during ship or ground combat, but just over time, and the spice halls are rarely fully stocked to accommodate our crew. If individual morale drops too low, a crew member may bail on us. Paying out wages does help, but will not substitute for somehow keeping the crew happy on a regular basis.
Along the bottom of the screen on the left we have several icons for our cash and cargo, mission log, current contacts and local rumors, and the current faction political situation. On the other side of the fuel gauge we have icons for the crew management, as well as buttons for checking out our ship, the star map, orbital map, and a “back” button to return to whatever previous screen we were on. At the top of the screen we have our captain’s HP on the left, and the ship HP on the right. In between is a readout letting us know where we are, the current rep with the controlling faction, the “danger level” of the zone we’re in, and a tray of static icons. These icons offer a quick glance into important things we should know about. In the above screenshot there’s only two items of interest at the moment: the green icon on the far left lets us know our fuel situation, while the green and yellow icon on the right tells us we have crew members who are eligible for a skill update. Other icons might tells us that morale is in the shitter, that we don’t have specific roles filled in the crew, or that we have general vacancies that need to be filled. Over on the far upper-right is a legend for those icons that are shown on the landing zone panel when in orbit, so I guess that answers that question. A lot of those numbers mean something significant, the details of which are way deeper in the reeds than I want to go for this post. For one important example, trade law is a scale above a certain point one can only sell legal goods, while on the lower end of the spectrum, more illicit goods can be traded in the open market. On high trade law worlds, then, one must deal with a black market if one is present. All told, these are the things that more perceptive players will want to keep an eye out for when making their way through the universe.
Sometimes we’ll have the opportunity to visit a wilderness zone on a planet. These are free exploration areas which are sometimes necessary to tackle in the story mode, but which are otherwise available to provide a chance at loot (legal and otherwise), rumors, or which open new avenues for advancement.
Exploration is presented as a series of five cards. The large panel on the left tells us what we’re up against and what we stand to gain when successful. The large (empty) panel on the right would display crew talents relevant to a wilderness excursion, but at the time I took this screenshot, I didn’t have any crew with related talents. The cards, then, are random, and contain a mix of good (green) and bad (red) outcomes. Depending on the innate skill values of the crew, mixed up with the stats of the wilderness, cards will vanish one by one until we get to the final card. This is the card we have to deal with. Above, we could have gotten some raw resources or scientific intel on a successful outcome, but of course…
Each card imparts an effect, and each card indicates how much time has passed as a result. If we had succeeded and gotten some of those raw materials, they would end up in the wilderness “stash” which we would collect once we decided to stop exploring, or one the wilderness had nothing left to offer (i.e. the event ends). We can explore for as long as we’re able (surviving crew or new cards are available) by clicking the green “repeat” button.
There are two combat modes: ship-to-ship, and crew-to-crew.
Ship-to-ship combat begins with a menu that allows us to either fight, retreat, maybe bribe, or surrender our cargo, depending on the type of ship we encounter and the controlling faction. Fleeing will impose a reputation loss, making future encounters more likely as well as affecting the services we have available to us when we land on a planet. Paying bribes helps, but I don’t think there’s any way to truly just avoid rep loss, so if that’s the case, bringing out the big guns is as good a recourse as any.
Ship combat displays our ship on the left and the enemy ship on the right. The bottom tray allows us to move ahead or in reverse (and eventually, to attempt to flee), and provides us with three tabs for actions.
The first tab is our weapon selection. Each weapon has a range restriction, either “yeah it’ll work”, “hell yes”, or “no way”. Range is broken down into 5 increments, so the icons below each weapon show at which range they are effective, most effective, or cannot be used. To attack, we click on the weapons we want to fire. Each firing takes up “reactor points”, and these are offered based on the ship components we’re using (?) as well as select crew Talents. The Talents tab is the second option, and allows us to deploy special skills that our crew might have that are relevant to ship combat. These include buffs for ourselves and debuffs for our enemy. The last tab, “craft” is for launching smaller ships, but I don’t have any of those.
The red and blue gauges represent hull and morale. As each ship beats on the other, the hull gauge will deplete. Certain events might affect the morale during combat, but the gauge will also reflect morale at the time combat started. As you can see, my morale wasn’t fantastic going into this particular scenario. Morale will have an effect on the performance during the encounter.
At the end of the ship encounter, we will have a selection of options such as to salvage the wreck, steal the cargo, ransom the crew, or move on. Not all options are available, and which ones we get depend on how the encounter ended. We would have a better chance of being able to ransom a crew if we use a boarding party than if we simply vaporize the enemy ship, for example. Some resolutions indicate a reputation loss with the enemy faction, further digging ourselves into a universe of hatred, but if the enemy faction is at war with another faction, the faction they are at war with will like us that much more.
The second combat mode is crew-to-crew. This can happen during story segments, wilderness encounters, or other situations I have yet to run into. Like the ship combat, our team is on the left and the enemy is on the right. Each crew member has various stats — once again in icon form that I am unable to address right now — HP, and morale. When starting an encounter, we can choose who to take from the entire compliment of crew, so it’s obviously a good idea to take crew who have ground skills, and are in the swordsman, pistoleer, or soldier job.
Actions are turn-based, and are governed by an initiative value. Initiative is also a pool which determines what actions a member can take out of the ones available to them. Like ship combat, each crew member can deploy skills they have been trained in, as well as a default attack based on the weapon they are carrying. In addition, crew members can spend their turn to perform a minor healing act, or can transpose positions with a friendly crew member ahead or behind them. Position matters, as some weapons can only operate at certain ranges; putting a swordsman at the back of the column isn’t going to do anyone any good, nor is putting a sniper in the first position. At this point, it’s a war of attrition as each side pummels the other until there’s only one side left standing. Successful resolution options really only allow for a detailed breakdown of what we found (if any loot is involved) and the option to leave the encounter.
One of the last things I want to touch on is crew management. As you can see in the screenshot above, our ship has a lot of crew. Each member has a specialty, such as piloting, rifles, engineering, medical, and so on. This specialty governs the types of Talents they can train. Talents are active or passive, with active Talents made available either during ship or ground combat, or during wilderness, patrol, or salvage operations (the last two I have yet to do, so I can’t talk about them). Passive Talents are employed when they are needed, like Talents which allow for automatic success during a specific time of crisis.
Each crew member has a lot of customization options. Aside from the Talent selection, there’s also a “Job” selection. This is a little more free-form, and allows crew members to mutli-specialize to cover some gaps in the roster as well as to allow them to select a wider range of Talents. Each crew member can have their gear swapped out, which includes arms and armor. Finally, each crew member’s character model can be altered, which brings us back to why these models are so…modular: there’s going to be a lot of them during your career in STF, so generating a random crew member appearance beats hand-created models when efficiency is so necessary. I’m not sure if crew can be renamed, which is a fun thing to do when we name characters after friends, especially when they ultimately betray us (virtual fist-shake).
Managing the crew is, by far, the most complicated aspect of STF. My current ship can hold 28 crew members, which means several Jobs are redundant, but because it’s such a large pool to draw from for ship and ground combat, I know I’ll want to diversify the Talents they have. The screen for selecting Jobs and Talents does indicate how many members of the crew already have that specific Job or Talent, so it’s not completely a matter of keeping track in a notebook (though that might help), but it’s still a micromanagement chore to deal with keeping everyone’s situation current. And when we ultimately lose crew, either in combat or because they got fed up with us, we need to bring on fresh talent. These youngsters earn XP at a seemingly accelerated rate simply because the remaining crew is already old hat and can take on more lucrative situations. It seems like someone levels up every time we land on a planet.
There is so much about Star Traders: Frontiers that I haven’t covered, either because I don’t want this to turn into War and Peace, or simply because I haven’t had the chance to investigate those specific systems. For example, we can patrol a sector, which I believe operates like Wilderness exploration, but in space. We can also salvage derelict items in space, or deal with the black market. Free trading is a thing I haven’t yet tried. Then there’s the fact that in order to unlock certain aspects of the game, we have to reach certain faction ranks and/or “buy” indulgences to reach certain military ranks, to increase our trade permit level, or to gain letters of marque to fight on behalf of a particular faction. Nevermind all of the info panels that I’m sure can be mined in order to maximize effectiveness when traveling through another factions sector.
Star Traders: Frontiers is an extremely deep game. The concepts and mechanics take precedence, and though STF is by no means an ugly game, flashy visuals take a way back seat. That the series started out on mobile is probably responsible for this, which is why having a Star Traders game on PC could have been a complete disaster. Thankfully, it’s not. Since taking screenshots for this post, my crew have hit rock bottom chasing a lead in one branch of the story line, and I am afraid that they are living on borrowed time. While not a “rogue-like” (not, at least, at the difficulty I have chosen, which doesn’t allow perma-death), losing crew to death or desertion is hard, and trying to maintain morale during protracted sorties while encountering nothing but understocked spice halls is like staring down failure with every sweep of the second hand. But that’s also part of the appeal, because after coming so close to disaster, righting the ship and rallying the crew is very satisfying. This is what a sandbox game should do: make us care about the situations we find ourselves in not because the “story” tells us we do, but because we ourselves are invested in the outcome.