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Space moguls can look no farther for cosmic trading game

Action Shots

March 15, 2000
Web posted at: 3:31 PM EST (2031 GMT)

(CNN) -- If you're a computer gamer from way back, you may recall a Commodore 64 game called "Elite." Unlike traditional space combat and exploration games, "Elite" focused instead on trading. With the exception of the more recent "Wing Commander: Privateer," there haven't been many other outlets for cosmic moguls. Now, Southpeak Interactive has published a European import called "X: Beyond the Frontier" that has many of the same strengths and weaknesses of those games.

In X, you start the game testing out an experimental ship with a revolutionary warp speed drive. Then you'll have a relatively short tutorial, testing out maneuverability and weapons. You won't learn a whole lot, and God help you if you bang into a hoop or other ship. There's no way to save during the tedious tutorial, so you'll have to do it again. Once you survive training, you'll test out the warp drive.

As if you couldn't guess, something goes wrong. You're hurtled -- somewhat like the crew of "Star Trek: Voyager" -- far away from charted space.

Your ship is left in tatters, and you're immediately set upon by somewhat helpful beings whose mannerisms and beliefs bear a strong resemblance to the Ferengi, also from the "Star Trek" universe. To your new "friends," the Teladi, you represent a profit opportunity. That's not just how they think of you, that's the title you have in your pilot records.

The Teladi present a deal you can't refuse. They repair your ship and offer you a barely capable shield -- just enough so your ship might not explode if you bounce off a space station dock -- and a small amount of money. You're left to be an intergalactic FedEx man, making cash by buying low and selling high. In return for their generosity, the Teladi want a huge some of money at some time in the future.

The plot continues, involving a Big Bad Race and some minor ones, but it's no more engrossing than the part already detailed here. For several hours of play, you'll just be zipping your little unarmed ship back and forth between mining stations, factories and trading complexes and running away if you spot trouble. It's not too bad if you like this sort of thing, and it would be more fun if the game helped you a bit more.

A big help would be an adequate manual. Just one step up from the common dreck jammed into CD jewel box cases, the manual gives only the most basic keystroke commands and doesn't even mention the vast majority of things in the game's interface or even what all the flashing lights do.

The idea, evidently, is to create a better sense of immersion by making the player learn as they go. It doesn't quite work. This frustration continues when you have to start the game without a functional navigation system, when you'll find yourself spending several minutes speeding toward a far-off speck only to find out that it isn't the speck you wanted.

Another failed attempt at immersion is the save game system. You can only save your game by purchasing "Salvage insurance." It's not expensive, but it's a pain in the early game when you really need that buffer. Also, you can only buy it at installations, so if you fly far off and do something dumb, you've lost that time.

The economic model, the heart of the game, is quite good. There are many different products to buy and sell, and as you beef up your little empire you can buy your own factories and buy transports to man the trade routes.

To its credit, the graphics are 3D-accelerated and everything looks pretty good. The game is highly configurable, and quite stable.

All in all, if you're a fan of "Elite" or "Privateer," you'll want "X: Beyond the Frontier." And if you can deal with its many quirks, it proves to be an open-ended experience and a deeper space simulation than most.

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