Better than best

Federation Of Free Traders logo Amiga Computing Excellence Award

IT is going to be hard to review FOFT without mentioning Elite. But I will give it a go. FOFT is very like Elite. Oh, darn it!

Well it is true. To say that the author borrowed some concepts is putting it mildly, but since nearly everything which has been borrowed has been improved upon, this is not necessarily a bad thing. I keep expecting to meet Commander Jameson every time I dock and be able to buy him a drink.

You start docked at a space station in orbit around a rather dull planet. You have nothing but a ship and 150 credits to your name. your ship comes equipped with two computers, one for navigating and one for general use. The latter is fully programmable by you in a Basic-like language called Simple.

It also offers you access to the outside world by using GalacticNet, the 21st Century equivalent of MicroLink, where you can talk to other pilots, deal in cargo or arrange to re-fuel and equip your ship.

Conversations with other pilots are of a taxing nature because they all seem to have the same grasp of the English language as a certain Spanish waiter in a certain Torquay hotel. If you do manage to get your point across you will be able to make some lucrative black market deals. Like this:
Me: Where are you going?
Them: Don't know.
Me: Why are you going?
Them: Because!
Me; Erm. Want to buy some drugs?
(The rest of this conversation is strictly business).

The FOFT universe contains the regulation number of dimensions. Instead of a flat 2D collection of stars, we are presented with a 3D rotating spiral galaxy. Plotting a course involves zooming in and picking the shortest distance between two stars, taking depth into account.

Animated scans of the multi-planet solar systems are interesting to watch and very useful because they give vital data on the planet you are visiting and what sort of cargo they may want to buy from you.

No expense has been spared in your spacecraft, which comes complete with the latest interstellar jukebox: Press a key and a menu of 20 classical tracks appears for your delight. Everything from my favourite Vivaldi pieces - the largo and allegro from Spring - to some Swan Lake care of Tchai... Tchaicof... that Russian bloke.
The Blue Danube is extremely conspicuous by its absence. It may take you some time to get out of the habit of humming it on final docking approach.

Once you have wheeled and dealed your way to riches life may become rather dull. Time to phone FOFT HQ and ask for some freelance hero-type work. Sure enough, you will be appointed to a mission which will earn you some more money and street-cred points. If you complete it successfully.

A typical first mission will have you acting as escort to a group of unarmed cargo craft. Looks like we got ourselves a convoy. Yee-hah!

Graphics are solid 3D, smooth and fast. All the spaceships whiz past at a frightening rate, and you have only a few nanoseconds to sight wistfully at the loss of the look left/right/behind option of Elite before you are fighting for your life as some pirates try to steal your collection of towels. It is a hard life being a hero.

If your ship gets damaged - perish the thought - you can assign some repair droids to fix it.

There is even an unexpected bonus in the form of a planet landing sequence. Re-enter and skim over the glorious 3D scrolling surface until you reach the airport. Landing on the planet will enable you to get better prices for your cargo. This section of the game pays more than a passing resemblance to Virus, but who is complaining?

Everything you possible wished for while playing Elite has been granted in FOFT. Talking to aliens, landing on planets, more music, more weapons, a selection of star drives - the lot! You even get a docking computer as standard.

Criticising FOFT would be petty. Everything is great: The graphics, the music and the incredible gameplay. FOFT has obviously been written by someone who was not content to play the best space game available - he had to write it himself!

Federation Of Free Traders logo

GREMLIN £29.95 Joystick and Keyboard

Infamous for its delayed and heavily-flawed incarnation on the ST, Federation Of Free Traders has, according to Gremlin, now been debugged and redesigned for the Amiga, taking note of the array of criticisms levelled at the game.

In the grand tradition of Elite, new recruits to FOFT attempt to make a fortune by skimming the spacelanes, trading and running missions for the Federation. Members are united by 'Galnet', a comms network through which they trade and take new orders.

Missions are dealt out according to rank, the most prestigious and financially-rewarding jobs going to higher-ranking officers. As more missions are successfully completed, the player moves up the hierarchy, with the ultimate goal of making Admiral and Head of FOFT.

The scope of the game is vast, with a purported eight million planets to explore. Travel between planetary systems, each represented in one of the spectacular 3D galactic maps, is available via the ever-so-convenient Hyperspace, while short jumps speed you between planets.

It's during interplanetary jaunts that enemy ships are encountered, and the player's weapons come into play. However, over-sensitive controls conspire with rapid movement of enemy craft to make dogfighting tricky, if not downright frustrating.

Having neared the target planet, the player has the option of docking with a space station (the docking computer has a rather unnerving tendency to crash your precious ship without so much as an apology) or diving to the planet surface. At this point a pseudo Virus landscape appears, where you have to avoid flak from ground-based gun emplacements prior to landing at a friendly airstrip. Rolling green hills mark a welcome break from the inky black of space, but limited flight and combat controls detract from the impact of the experience: it doesn't take many flights before the whole process grows repetitive,

For anyone who is interested, the on-board computer terminal also supports its own CLI programming language called SIMPLE, which allows basic programs to be written. Presumably this is included as light entertainment for all combat-weary programmers out there.

Elite, for those unfamiliar with its many pleasures, was structured so that every piece of equipment 'bought' was the product of much blasting and trading. For most the game you felt that you were only making it by the skin of your teeth, and success was all the sweeter because of it.

Gremlin's effort has removed this by allowing the player to amass his fortune within the first half hour, simply by playing the maker: buying low and selling high. In this way, the ship can be fully equipped before leaving the first space station and the need for any further trading (apart from the occasional binge to fill the coffers or to indulge in black marketeering) is negated.

FOFT's challenge, then, lies in the successful undertaking of its missions. Those doled out at cadet level are less than entertaining, and often confusing due to a scarcity of instructions. However, things liven up with progress through the ranks as you put your neck on the line.

Perseverance reaps its rewards but be prepared for a dull time until the later missions can be attempted. True to their word, Gremlin have improved FOFT, but it's still no Elite-beater.

Federation Of Free Traders logo

Price: £29.95

A long title with a game to match. Gremlin's Federation of Free Traders is best summed up as the logical progression from Elite.

It boasts enhanced graphics and increased features, but was heavily criticised in its original ST format. Several widely publicised faults were revealed. First off there were problems with the save game option, or lack of one, and the length of time it took to travel between space stations was phenomenal. Still Gremlin and FOFT's programmers went back to their drawing boards, produced the Mist Sheen and orange cloths and cleaned up their act - The aims in FOFT are simple ones: Kill, trade and make a bucketful of money.

As in Elite your ship is equipped with the very basics - water pistol lasers and Fiat Uno engines - and upgrading them costs mucho cash. Raising funds could not rally be easier - just log on to the main galactic network computer and check out what is on offer. This system plays a big part in the game. Through it you can leave and receive messages, trade, and buy better equipment for your ship. There is even a programming language so if you get bored with the game you can mind numb yourself even further by making swear words scroll up and down the screen.

FOFT scores over Elite with the inclusion of terrestrial flight, whereby you fly low over the surface of some poor unsuspecting planet, blow the hell out of the landscape and trade with what is left. Admittedly I tended to plough my ship into the ground rather than wreck any real havoc to the wildlife, but it is worth trying, as the planet side section plays like a limited version of Virus.

There are still problems. I cannot abide the control system for the ship. The inertial effects used to slow down any pitch or yaw of the craft take too long to slow the ship down, and if you try slowing down by moving in the opposite direction it takes more than precise timing to stop the ship flipping out that way too.

Additional features do include a black market, twenty assorted classical medleys to hum along to including Vivaldi, Handel and er, Ben Daglish (well, that is what it says), a fully rotational 3D star map of each galaxy, a whole host of ships, different levels of ship equipment and 'lock on' missiles.

The graphics comprise of filled vector ships, planets and information screens, from what I have seen of the ships they animate rather nicely, though it is almost impossible to keep them on screen long enough to blast, let alone admire, but still what there is, no matter how fast, is nice. The sound cannot be faulted either, the classical extracts add atmosphere, even if the idea owes a lot to the Blue Danube docking sequence in "2001".

This is a style of game that I enjoy playing a lot, but I still found FOFT difficult to get into.

Gremlin's stunning Elite beater

Federation Of Free Traders logo Zzap Gold Medal Award

Gremlin, Amiga £24.99

Centuries in the future the rule of law is in danger of breaking down, endangering trade. To fight the pirates the Federation of Free Traders is formed by a group of mercenary pilots with, as you soon discover, limited results. You're the proud owner of your late father's Hartley Mark 1 fighter and besides travelling the universe, trading and fighting; you can also undertake special missions for FOFT. To be assigned a mission all you need to is go on the Galnet and ask. There are sixteen different types of mission to undertake, ranging from local area patrols to long-haul search and destroy missions.

In between going to mission destinations it's a good idea to get some trading in. The rewards for wheeling and dealing include more powerful star drives, more cargo, extra weapons, offensive and defensive systems for the ship, and more money.

Launching from the station, your mission dictates which planet in the galaxy to go to. But with over eight million planets why not explore, skim a planet or two (Virus-style) and check out the better prices on the surface. (Later missions require you to go planet side to rescue people from the surface).

Trading between ships is also possible, and other ships can be communicated with through the local Galnet to strike up deals, exchange information (true or false) and buy or sell illegal goods. A unique feature is the BASIC style language within the game called SIMPLE. During the final docking sequence with space stations, SIMPLE can be used to write your own programs and games (maybe not FOFT 2 though!).

Paul Rand Personally, I admired what the programmer had attempted with the original ST game, but it was severely lacking in some areas, most notably the way the player had to deal with hopeless quantities of enemy ships before arriving at a space station. In the Amiga version, however, this little quirk has been rectified along with a few other discrepancies. While Elite is an extremely worthy piece of software, it is my opinion that FOFT beats it hands down in terms of 'realism', playability and content. After quite a while lost in the software wilderness, Gremlin have got back on the right track.
Robin Hogg Well this is most ironic as I reviewed the game on the ST for TGM not so long ago. The one problem of agonisingly slow pace in the ST game has been rectified, bringing the game to life with a depth of play that beats Elite into the floor (despite the overall similarity). The ships are wonderful to look at, soaring through space gracefully. The presentation of the game is just so slick it's incredible, and with 20 tunes space faring has never been so good.