Genre: Space Flight
Release Date: November 2003
Pre-order 'X2: The Threat': PC
X2 is another entry into the freeform space sim genre already carved out by games such as the older Privateer, with Freelancer and the Earth & Beyond following the trend. Freeform space sims always seem to follow a set of unspoken rules, the universe must be vast, the plotline must twist more than a drunken ballerina, and they have to give the player a large amount of “stuff” to do, whether it be simple courier missions, seeking out and dog fighting with enemy ships, or simply hauling loads of goods from point A to the more profitable point B. X2, like its other brethren in the genre, follows the rules to a T but also adds a bit more innovation than one would initially expect.
In X2 you play as Julian, who earlier in his life worked with his friend Bret to steal spacecraft for a variety of purposes, not the least of which to make a large amount of cash. On a heist gone bad Julian and Bret are caught in the act, and after they blast their way out of a spaceport Bret’s ship is disabled and Julian is cornered by a gigantic capital ship. The two are captured and sent to prison for their crimes, and remain there until one day Julian is released by a mysterious man named Ban Danna. Ban had witnessed Julian and Bret’s last heist and how well Julian could fly a spacecraft, and bailed Julian out from jail under the condition that he does work for Ban and anyone else as he instructs.
The first thing that one notices upon playing X2 is the fact that almost every single surface in the game is bump mapped, from the space stations with their shiny plate of metal to craggy asteroids that are covered in craters. The cockpit display is fully 3D and is also bump mapped, which makes it look much more real than other space sim games. The cockpit also reacts to sudden acceleration, deceleration, and sharp turns, shifting the player’s viewpoint accordingly. To even further immerse the player, if an explosion happens near the players ship it will cast a soft glow on all parts of the cockpit. Many of the cockpit displays actually display useful data about your ship, such and shield level, hull integrity, thrust, time acceleration, and missile payloads, rather than putting all of that data on a static 2D HUD.
The second thing the player will notice is the staggering amount of substance you have control over in your ship alone. By programming your ships computer you can essentially set an autopilot and tell your ship to move here, go there, protect this ship, or attack this target. You can also program any turrets your ship has, either all at once or individually, allowing them to automatically cover your rear or defend your ship. Of course, you can man the turret yourself and get that pesky enemy off of your six, but when you have a missile lock on the enemy in front of you it’s nice to have an automated defense system. Even better is the ability to configure monitors in your cockpit, for instance you could have your main screen show your cockpit, a monitor in the upper left showing your current target in a close up view, and a monitor in the upper right showing a missile cam. When you have ships under your command you can set your monitors to show their cockpits, giving you a great view of their current position and status at a glance. When commanding a capital ship with monitors giving you real-time views of a bunch of turrets blasting away at a squadron of enemy spacecraft you actually feel like the captain you are supposed to be.
As with all preview builds though, the walk isn’t entirely on a bed of roses. The build we received did suffer from a few issues, mainly cosmetic issues such as voiceovers not playing along with the text they are supposed to be saying, though occasionally really bad things happen like important mission spacecraft slamming themselves into an asteroid or space station. Also, the controls didn’t feel quite as responsive as one would hope, such as having to move the mouse across the pad about six times in order to make the ship do a 180. In addition, the trade system where you buy and sell goods from a friendly spaceport was very buggy and occasionally unusable. However, it must be said that this is in fact a preview, so it is likely that such issues will be much more smooth and less buggy by the time the game hits store shelves.
X2s dog fighting is not unlike any other ship to ship combat in any other space sim, with the same missile locks, targeting computers, and close calls one would expect from the genre. You cannot target individual ship components per se, but as a ship takes damage certain components such as the weapons and shield generator will become less efficient or disabled/destroyed entirely. The targeting reticule sometimes blends into the backgrounds, which can make it hard to figure out where your target is exactly, and the 3D radar behaves much differently than the radar in any other game, but as a whole the combat is fairly solid.
The graphics in X2 are fairly high quality, with bump mapping being used like it’s going out of style. The ship models are all slightly shiny, and their models range from something that looks like a bunch of boxes welded to a cockpit to a sleek and curvaceous fighter craft. When ships take that fateful last laser blast or missile impact they explode into a handful of pieces, which in turn explode into a further array of fire and shrapnel. Particle effects such as engine wakes all look very nice, especially when seen by ships that are flying through an atmosphere. Engines also have a nice lighting effect enhanced sparkle, which makes it look much more like a movie than a game.
On the aural side of things, X2 sports a large amount of voiceovers for its many characters, ranging from your ships computer to space station personnel, ship captains, and automated docking computers. Sounds such as your own ships engines are presented in wonderful 3D, so that when you look around your cockpit those who are using surround sound speaker setups can close their eyes and still know exactly where your engines are, where you are getting shot at from, and from what direction that enemy fighter is swiveling around to make its next attack run. Explosions and ship collisions don’t pack much of a punch as one would hope to hear a large whoomph or the sound of metal shrieking and bending.
As a whole, if the bugs are ironed out, the tutorials are a bit more fleshed out, and the gameplay is tightened up a bit X2 could prove to be more than a match for some of the other space sims flying around right now. With a bit more love and polish X2 could very well raise the bar a bit higher with its gameplay and deep ship features, but the sluggish ship control and general loose feel of the gameplay could prove to be bothersome if not worked out. Here’s to hoping that that little bit more effort is put forth and X2 is released as the bright and shining space sim it seems to be shaping up to be.
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