Historians, etymologists, and lexicographers may argue about the exact origins of the idiom “grain of salt,” but it’s clear that it has been a part of the English language since the Middle Ages. The phrase originates from Pliny the Elder’s account of the great monarch Mithridates who was obsessed with preventing himself from sharing his father’s fate: being poisoned by his enemies. Just like Westley in The Princess Bride, Mithridates spent years building up an immunity to poisons by ingesting small amounts over time. He took the tiny amounts of poison with a grain of salt to make them more palatable.
Look, let’s break this down. In this metaphor, my article is the tiny bit of poison and your brain is the salt because you should be skeptical. Or wait… Is the game the poison and my article the grain of salt? Or are the Crusades the poison and the Holy Grail is the salt? Wait, what movie were we talking about again? Look, the point is that this game wasn’t my favorite, but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t like it. Now, on with the eXcursion.
Ancient Frontier is a turn-based, hex-map strategy game by Fair Weather Studios. This is their second game in the “Frontier” universe. Last year they released Bladestar, an old school, top down, scrolling arcade action shooter. Fair Weather have not only gone for a change in genre with their new title, they’ve also chosen to invest in their universe by adding massive amounts of story and lore.
You won’t find any multiplayer or skirmish options. Ancient Frontier is a campaign-driven game. There are two different campaigns, representing two sides of a larger story. You can complete them in any order and they have three difficulty settings, allowing for players to just play for the story or give themselves a serious challenge.
Most of the strategic layer of the game takes place in a set of menus that allows players to spend resources on ships and equipment, research new technologies, and manage ship loadouts. There are three resources players can collect and spend: “hydrium” is mainly used to purchase ships, “proto-energy” is mainly used to deploy ships in battle, and “data” is mainly used to research new technology. Equipment is purchased with small amounts of each. Resources are earned by completing missions, as well as powerup-style pickups in the tactical game.
Missions come in a couple of varieties. The main one is the story mission, but there are optional bounty missions that can reward you with extra resources. Depending on which part of the story you’re on, you might have the option to do all of the bounty missions before your next story mission or you might have fewer options. When you take on bounty missions, you’re not allowed to take the flagship. You can only take ships you’ve purchased. This gives bounty missions a reasonably high cost and risk but also a high reward.
Once a mission is chosen, players must spend proto-energy to deploy their ships in battle. If you lose ships on bounty missions they’re gone forever and so are the proto-energy points you used to deploy them. This incentivizes players to deploy efficiently rather than simply deploy everything. It’s a promising element to the strategic layer of the game because it prevents players from simply snowballing ships into a huge steamroller fleet. Story missions are all set up with a dialogue scene which establishes the connection between the campaign story and the mission. You are often allowed some sort of dialogue response option which changes the mission objectives in some way. For example, you might decide to blow everyone up, or try to board enemy ships to confiscate some cargo. This might make the mission easier or more difficult depending on your style and the makeup of your fleet.
The cost of deploying ships goes up when you choose to add equipment to your fleet. The lore reason for this is that higher tiers of equipment draw more power and therefore cost more to deploy. Equipment is plentiful but with a fairly standard “tier” system of incremental upgrades to movement, damage, accuracy, and the like. The system is solid, but this game is very much “in the box” when it comes to innovation. You won’t see any complex weapon behaviors, and there aren’t any electronic-warfare elements, stealth devices, or anything of the sort.
For me, this feels like a massive oversight, but I also did not progress far enough in the game to find out if there’s any alien technology to salvage later on. I should stress that, even though I sound negative about the system, it’s not a massive part of the game (or at least it doesn’t have to be) so it doesn’t take away from the experience particularly. Depending on your interests and playstyle you might spend a lot of time thinking about equipment or you might not. Min/Max lovers will have a feast of number crunching, if desired.
Each piece of equipment has both a cost and a benefit, and it’s not always a simple tradeoff between deployment cost and performance. Equipment that provides accuracy for your ship might also cost you in damage or vice versa. Something that boosts range will cost you in damage, etc. This lets players customize their ships if desired, and it also allows you to remove equipment from ships in order to make them cheaper to deploy.
It should be clear that equipment doesn’t change the weapons and abilities of ships, only the performance of the weapons they come with. When you purchase a ship, you’re purchasing a standard version of that ship and the abilities and weapons it comes with are not modifiable. Depending on the ship type, you might be able to fire ion cannons to damage enemy shields or fire flak cannons at enemy fighters. Ships can also activate abilities like shield charge which recharges shields. Further, there are abilities like targeting computers or thrusters which give a temporary boost to accuracy or movement. Some abilities only last for one round and others last multiple rounds. Some have a certain number of charges for the entire battle and are unavailable after they run out. Most ships have a main gun and additional special weapons that have cooldowns.
There are a lot of choices to make about how you deploy your ships and they all feel consequential. Ship abilities are limited by an action point system that recharges every turn. Action points are split into two categories: attacks/abilities and movement. The number of actions a ship has gives each a different feel. Beyond that, combat in the game is fairly standard for a hex-based game. The game feels a bit like the original Panzercorps now that I think of it, but instead of historical scenarios and pre-configured units, we get sci-fi scenarios and customizable units.
While writing this article, I started a discussion on Steam about “The Big Whiff” when it comes to strategy games. From what some of our readers said, it’s clear there’s no one right answer, but it’s also clear that there are wrong answers, and when developers code in the wrong answer it can be a real frustration for players. I don’t always mind misses in games with RNG combat, but it all depends on the game’s systems and how they interact. What is the length of combat? How many attacks do you get and what percentage are misses? Can damage be prevented, healed or repaired? Ultimately, the consideration that surrounds all these mechanics is the ability of the player to interact with the randomness and use skill and strategy to mitigate the effects of chance.
In Ancient Frontier, however, missing the enemy feels rather onerous. Enemies in cover gain a full/half shield icon reminiscent of the modern X-COM series (infamous in its own right for random squadmate deaths), which gives an indication of difficulty to hit. When you choose to fire in this situation, you expect some chance of failure. The feeling of frustration comes when players don’t understand or are unable to mitigate the chance of missing. More than just a few times I had misses occur 3 times in a row at point blank range, bringing back nostalgic memories of stealth bombers getting knocked out of the sky by spearmen in the earlier versions of the Civilization series.
Of course, when your enemy misses you several times in a row it works in your favor, but does that make the game fun? Only you can decide, but that’s why some of you read this sort of thing before buying, no? Maybe I should make it a thing to reference the Civ series in each of my articles. Easter egg style. I think I have a streak going already.
The music in this game is a huge bright spot. Composed by Mimi Page, atmospheric voices and synthesizer tones combine with orchestral elements to produce a futuristic sense of wonder and excitement. As the story continues the music changes to help develop the story. Anything driven by a story benefits from excellent music, and this game is no exception. While this soundtrack doesn’t exactly stack up to a John Williams movie soundtrack, I enjoyed it quite a bit. I wish every developer would make music central to the game experience.
Dating all the way back to Trent Reznor making music for Quake I, I’ve noticed and appreciated great music in games. I can still hear the massed footsteps in the intro from Red Alert’s Hell March, and I’ll never forget Relic crafting the feels for gamers dealing with loss on a planetary scale with Homeworld’s choral reimagining of Barber’s Adagio for Strings. The burning of Kharak will always be synonymous with that track.
Short anecdote: I once posted on Relic’s forums when Homeworld came out to confirm that the devs heard Barber’s music in Platoon (1986). And for you younger gamers, go watch Platoon if you haven’t. Also for you younger gamers, NO Samuel Barber DID NOT cover DJ Tiesto. And speaking of Homeworld, I never played Deserts of Kharak. Hmm.
I’m going to take a moment here to simply say that the story in this game doesn’t do much for me. My impression of the dialogue is that it’s exceedingly corny and long-winded. It feels like the opening of The Phantom Menace where the Jedi are sent to settle a dispute over taxation and trade routes. Part of the problem with Ancient Frontier comes from the fact that the dialogue is recited by voice actors as if they’re reading from a novel rather than speaking naturally. The story ramps up a bit in later missions, but it relies heavily on standard sci-fi tropes.
In a world where people have the ability to access hundreds of fantastic stories in many forms of media, you really have to stick to what you’re best at or risk mediocrity in a sea of excellence. That doesn’t mean readers won’t like the story and lore in Ancient Frontier, however. There’s a fair amount of depth here, and someone has poured a lot of love into this story. I hope I’m wrong and others enjoy it. Lots of people enjoyed The Phantom Menace. I don’t understand why, but it happened.
The big mechanical complaint I have about Ancient Frontier is that tooltips do not come up during the A.I.’s turn, which feels like time you could be planning your next move. On top of this issue is that all tooltips for enemy ships seem to depend on which ship is active, so your ability to plan moves for the ship you’re not currently controlling is totally lacking. Should I take a shot with this ship? How much damage can the next ship do if it hits? The UI will be no help answering these. For a game with as much numbers-based combat as this one, it’s a serious annoyance.
If this is an oversight, there’s a silver lining: it forces you to know your ships. On the other hand, if it’s an actual design choice it seems like a poor one. This behavior appears to be an artifact of the game’s initiative system. At the beginning of each combat round, ships roll for initiative based on class and equipment. The result is a semi-random turn order that has consequences for player decision-making. Overall it’s a welcome feature, but I wish it could have been part of a better integrated player experience.
There are some polish issues with this title. Cutscenes are pretty cool, but I didn’t provide screenshots of any because pressing the alt key ends the cutscene. Some objects provide cover to adjacent ships, but it’s not obvious which ones or which parts of large objects block fire entirely and which ones just provide a defensive bonus before you get in range and it’s that particular ship’s turn. There are also times when the movement range hex overlay pops up during enemy turns, and that can be confusing. The game automatically re-centers your view when calculating A.I. turns and that resulted in misclicks. Additionally, buttons make noise even through other windows when the game is alt-tabbed, and there’s a “backup save” system which is an absolute mystery to me.
It seems like most new entries in the hex-based strategy genre are attempts at perfection or a new way to let players have fun with an older, massively popular IP. I don’t know where we go from here, but some innovation and immersion would be welcome. To really fall in love with a game in this genre, the vast majority of the combat needs to be intuitive. I enjoy these games most when detailed decisions are rare and memorable. Bottom line is I’m an older gamer, and I feel like I’ve seen this game before, but I’ve spent a ton of hours playing games just like this one. If you’re new to the genre or you haven’t gotten burned out on it, I think it’s worth a look. Just so long as you take my recommendation with a grain of salt.
TL;DR: Ancient Frontier is a story-driven, hex map, turn-based strategy game with RPG elements in a space setting. It’s a solid entry in the genre but if you’re a hex-based strategy veteran you’re not going to find much in the way of innovation here. The game can be fun, and it has its moments but it’s not going to knock anyone’s socks off.
You might like this game if:
- You’re hungry for another hex-based, tactical game in a space setting
- You want a new sci-fi universe to explore through mission briefings and gameplay
- You enjoy optimizing huge amounts of equipment options for customizing ships
- You only ever play the single player campaigns in games
You might NOT like this game if:
- You’re looking for some sort of next-gen tactical game with lots of innovative systems
- You get impatient with heavy story and dialogue elements in games
- Minor UI problems bother the perfectionist in you
- You demand replayability in the form of AI skirmish and multiplayer
Disclosure: Matt has played 10+ hours of Ancient Frontier. He received a free Steam key for the purposes of this review. Matt plays on a custom-built PC which has an Intel i7-6700K, 16GB DDR3 RAM, and an MSI GeForce GTX 1060 6GB.