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PC Review - 'X²: The Threat'

by Ben Zackheim on Jan. 10, 2004 @ 2:31 a.m. PST

In X²: THE THREAT you have the freedom of exploration and uninhibited style of game play. A first person space experience, X²: THE THREAT immerses the player in a dynamic, living, breathing universe, where every event and action has 'cause and effect' upon the entire gaming universe. Discover new worlds and life forms across countless sectors of space, players can become either a trader, bounty hunter, pirate, miner or a strategic combination of them all. The choice of how the player experiences the X² universe is up to them.

Genre: Space Flight
Publisher: Enlight
Developer: Egosoft
Release Date: December 9, 2003

Buy 'X2: The Threat': PC

For some of you the following statement might be all you need to hear. X2 is to space sims what Morrowind is to RPGs.

X2: The Threat has promised to deliver us from the mediocrity that was Freelancer. That, at least, has been the hope of many space sim fans -- based solely on previews and game-feature lists that hinted very heavily that this was a sim for the sim-hungry. Ever since computer gaming hit the world there's been a sizable number of gamers who want to be a space pirate or trader. If you're one of them, I feel confident telling you that this is the game you've been waiting for.

When I first popped X2 into the CD-ROM and watched the intro movie I was, shall we say, irritated. The quality of the cutscenes is abysmal, filled with shortcuts (covered mouths) and low poly models that move like puppets and look like they were designed in Poser 1.5. There's also a lame attempt at interaction with other characters with a drop-down of cookie-cutter comments and questions. There aren't many options and, ultimately, it doesn't matter what you say. In fact none of the story really matters, but we'll get to that in a second.

You play the part of a prisoner on his way to the stockade. The transport ship is stopped and you're removed from the ship. An old man named Ban Danna, part of the interstellar secret service, has an offer you can't refuse. Take a job with Terracorp doing runs with a new ship - or go to prison for the rest of your life. Hmmm.

Starting X2 is like getting used to really smelly cheese. It makes you wince but there's something intriguing about it. The tutorial is pretty useless, instructing you to do things that you have no idea how to do. The manual tries to make up for the tutorial's deficiencies but its just no use. As if the cutscenes weren't bad enough, the first few hours of play were almost as dismal. I struggled with the ship and trading controls, cursed at the save game "feature" that only lets you save while docked and got lost somewhere near the darkest side of the universe. The HUD was a mixture of archaic 3D maps and bleeping lights that are unintuitive and insufficient. The command menu which is where you track your contacts, communications, possessions, fleet and cargo is a little better -- but not by much. Its tabbed interface gives you a semblance of refined navigation and after a couple of hours of working with it you can figure it out. The bottom line is that nothing comes easy in X2. All indicators are there from the start that the game is a dud.

And then, all of a sudden, I started enjoying myself. One second I'm telling my editor Rainier "I'm slogging through it." The next moment he can't get the review out of me because I'm too busy playing (and trying to figure out the reason WHY I'm playing). That's just the kind of animal X2 is. It sneaks up on you if you give it time.

I think the reason is actually quite simple. I knew that X2 purported to be a space sim with a story but what I didn't understand when I first set out was this -- once I climbed into the ship I could do anything I wanted. Like Morrowind, you have a mission from the beginning but you can choose to accept it or not. Being ignorant of the extent of the open-endedness of X2 I took the route of good boy and did my first few duties as told (some delivery runs). But it soon became obvious that the story was not an essential part of the game and I could ignore it. This is a good thing I'm afraid since the production value of the game diminishes greatly with every run-in with the plot. No, with X2 you want to run from the story structure and experiment.

Want to be a pirate? Well ,then build a ship that handles well and set out. Want to be a trader? Fine, whatever (ZZZZZZZ). Want to build a mining company, filled with multiple ships of every size? You can. And you can micromanage every aspect of mining and battle! Want to be a bounty hunter? Oh there's plenty for you to do! Add to this a very impressive economic environment and you have the foundation of the game's appeal. For instance, the economy of the universe (a simple supply and demand between 6 different alien races) responds in a very realistic way to events. You'll notice as your share of the pie increases that more attention is being paid to your every move. I haven't gotten far enough into the game to be a mogul but I'm working at it. X2 is set in a huge universe that will take weeks to get your head around. Thousands of ships pirating, trading, fighting and meeting make X2 a game teeming with life and begging you to slice out a piece for yourself.

There are many ways to find success in X2 but I chose the pirate/bounty hunter life. I found the assignments to be the ripest and they were eventually the missions that got me into the game. The dogfights are certainly not on par with Tie Fighter but they're fun enough. It's a pretty straight forward shoot-em-up with some great looking graphics to keep you coming back for more. As I watched my bank account climb and my ship get upgraded and my fleet grow I started to get an idea of how huge the game is. I like a good dogfight but you could just as easily take the straight and narrow path, keeping an eye on supply and demand, and build an empire just as quickly. With success comes recognition which, of course, makes you a target while offering you new missions, ships, upgrades and minerals. And in that small equation is, somehow, a substantial portion of your waking life. Once you get hooked on X2, I fear for you and yours. Please…unlock the door…for the children!

How does X2 look? In a word, epic. Once you get in the cockpit the eye candy suddenly shoots the production value through the roof. X2 is a joy to look at as long as you're in space. It's only when you get inside the stations and are forced to look at the puppet-people that you're jolted out of the game. In space, you get vertex shading, bump mapping, volumetric shadows, fog effects, you name it. It's not on par with EVE but there were times when I would just wander for 45 minutes to look at the view. It's really clear that the team behind the game went a long way toward making an immersive environment that feels huge and real. For instance, a nice touch is the docking of your ship in the space stations. You don't enter the hangar immediately. You have to maneuver the ship through the hull of the station. At times the path to your parking space can be pretty twisted. It's a nice detail that is indicative of the deep atmospherics that Enlight was shooting for.

The sound of the game is quite good, with mood music and pulsating electrical sounds that can be mesmerizing. So much so that you don't even notice they're there at times. The voice acting is so-so, but not great. It sounds like the same guy did the voices for all the men and the same gal did the voices for all the women.

In the end, I can't imagine any space sim nut disliking X2. It feels like it was made by sim-nuts for sim-nuts. Sure, when you start the game you'll notice how difficult it is to get in the flow of it. The promise is there but the game interface doesn't seem to make that promise very accessible. Fog of war is so thick that the target scrolling system won't display more than a few ships in your sector. HUD lights flash but they don't look like anything recognizable. It all feels like you're being restrained, led on a leash. Those who don't go beyond the first few hours of play will probably call the game mediocre, possibly even amateurish. But give it time, avoid the story and I'll bet half my fleet you'll enjoy X2: The Threat.

Score : 8.4/10

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