Frustrating at times, but occasionally brilliant
The graphics and physics are definitely the two strongest points of Frontier: First Encounters (FFE), I mean, for its time, the graphics of FFE are simply excellent - with complex and detailed planetary bases, surfaces, and ships. But the physics engine of FFE features things amazingly rare in other simulators, namely inertia-physics flight! Sure, the engine is nowhere as good as that of Orbiter 2004 or I-War, but it's still quite good for its time - impressive actually.
The atmosphere of the game is good at most times, when you occasionally are left alone to explore and discover - unfortunately, these times seems to be quite rare, as I'll mention later.
The well-written plot is evolving as you play the game, with interesting twists and turns, but you're not in any way bound to follow it.
The freeware aspect is excellent, as usual in the Elite-series, makes you wonder why they don't make games like this anymore (at least not commercial developers).
Where to start?
Well, for starters, there are the bugs: a whole lot of bugs. As you probably know already, FFE was skipped before it was anywhere near ready, and the costumers ended up with a very unstable release of the game. Sure, a few patches has fixed most of the problems - it doesn’t crash at all anymore, but there's still a few bugs to boot: for example, the extremely annoying pirates which just keep popping out of nowhere without any warning. I mean; is it too much to ask just to enter a new star system without being blown of the face of the universe?!
The pirates are definitely one of the worst things which brings this game's rating down - and then there's some of the issues of atmospheric flight, where the ship sometimes just blow up without any reason.
Also, why did they flood the interface with so much nonsense and words everywhere? Sometimes it gets extremely irritating; as in ship combat, where one is usually blown up before one can find out how to counter-attack. Actually, combat itself seems to be very poor elements in the game, at least as far as I've played of it. I have already mentioned enemies just keep popping out of nowhere, but at the start of the game, you don't got a chance to defend yourself before you’re blown away; simply because one can't afford a shield generator at the start. It's not like I'm asking for an easy start, but any new players barely gets much of a fighting chance.
There are some other things as well, but after the patches, these are now mostly minor issues
The Bottom Line
In the end, Frontier: First Encounters is a good game. Although it is quite troubled by various bugs, if you could oversee those and learn to live with them, you'll find yourself getting hooked in this wonderfully detailed galaxy where you are literally your own boss.
With great, crisp VGA-graphics, outstanding physics (for its time and genre), unprecedented (even today?) open-ended Gameplay, and a well-written plot, FFE is a wonderful gem among the classic star-flight simulators. In many ways, we can call it a very faulty piece of art, but if you can learn to live with these faults, I think you'll find FFE to be quite enjoyable - despite its many problems.
Final score: 6/10