Reviewed: March 21, 2004
Released: December 1, 2003
As I plodded through the cumbersome interface of X2: The Threat I reflected on my initial thoughts of the rolling demo that had released a month prior to the game, and thatís when it struck me. X2 was more of a graphical tech demo than a game; pure visual splendor that will test the heartiest of machines and send their owners crying to the computer store for upgrades.
In all fairness, there is a respectable game lurking under the dazzling imagery assuming you have the patience to first figure it out, then to play it out. X2 is ambitious in design, massive in scope, and overly complex to the point where the gameplay become weighed down by the interface. The 65-page manual, keyboard reference card and the lengthy series of detached tutorial missions will overwhelm casual gamers and even give pause to sim veterans. By the time you finally do master the interface (assuming you ever do) you will likely already be tired of the slow plodding nature of the gameplay.
X2: The Threat attempts to encompass multiple genres and in doing so fails to master any of them. Youíll see obvious nods toward economic space sims like Freelancer and Privateer, but the inclusion of a building sim and even larger fleet strategies (remote control ships) will send fans of those simpler games into a black hole spin.
Itís sadly ironic that X2ís biggest feature is also its downfall; that being the sheer scope and detail of this sim. There are dozens of ships to purchase starting with your lowly scout ship that you are given after the opening movie all the way up to massive carrier ships that can carry their own fighters. The universe is equally as vast, nothing close to the scale of EVE, but certainly equal to the Freelancer universe.
The economic model will have you enrolling in a night school accounting class. In additional to purchasing new ships, you can also buy space stations, satellites, and other useful devices. Of course this means you need money and a lot of it, and thatís where the biggest problem arises, at least for the first several hours of gameplay. Making money is a painfully slow endeavor.
Like all the other space trading games you fly around the galaxy buying low and selling high. Your ability to make a decent profit is comprised of your available cargo space combined with a lot of economic research. When you first start off you are limited to the amount of money you can make and itís going to take you a long time to make enough for a bigger or better ship. And then you have operational costs, maintenance, weapons, etc. and these inflated prices have been handed down from NASA Ė youíll think twice about firing that missile when it costs more than 1,000 credits to replace it. When it comes time to buy a new ship youíre going to need about 100K and you can expect that sticker price to double each time you want to buy a new ship. And these are just raw prices for raw ships. Youíll need to dump thousands more credits into each to make them functional.
X2 will nickel and dime you to death, especially when you get further into the game and start buying or building stations. You then have to hire personnel, pay them, research the best (most profitable) location for your station, and then transport it there. No, you canít build your station where you want in the first place Ė that would be too easy. Instead, you get to pay thousands of credits per sector to move it.
Call me impatient or perhaps I have just been spoiled by a predominance of faster-paced games, but X2 is slower than life itself, even with the time acceleration function turned on. This not only includes the actual flying around but just the pace of your progress. It takes forever to earn enough money to reach the next ďplateauĒ and once you get there your only reward it to start all over again to reach the next.
Game pacing and design flaws are only the start. The game is extremely buggy out of the box. A patch has since released that may fix some of these issues, but as it ships there are blatant errors in the mission briefings and in-flight instructions that send you in the wrong direction. On my very first mission I was told to fly through the North gate when in fact I was supposed to go South, a fact I didnít realize until I had traveled four jumps in the wrong direction.
Youíll also want to be wary of the gameís auto-save function. The game saves each time you dock at a station so it can become easy to rely on these saves and never create your own. While it never happened to me, I have heard numerous reports of corrupted save files forcing people to restart their games. One thing I did notice was the excessive size of my save games, the largest topping out at 38mb, which explains the lengthy load times.
Control is another issue entirely. X2 is heavily geared toward the keyboard. One look at your keyboard reference card will show nearly every key in use and some with multiple functions. The mouse is only used for flight, even when it would have made sense to use it for menus. This means you will be frequently looking down to hunt and peck your commands after scrolling through multi-page console menus.
A multi-button joystick will ease your difficulties but you will still be forced to use the keyboard more than you like. I ultimately opted to play X2 with my Saitek P2500 gamepad which worked so well I would have almost preferred this game on the PS2 or Xbox. Regardless of how you control your ship youíll still be forced to wade through cumbersome menus.
Navigation is needlessly complex, especially when compared to the wonderful star maps and navigational systems found in games like Independence War 2 and Freelancer. To move around on autopilot requires multiple key presses to do even the simplest maneuvers.
Docking is especially cumbersome since it only puts you inside the station and then you must navigate to the docking area. Here the game takes on the look and feel of the old Descent games as you fly through narrow corridors with a 50-50 chance of picking the wrong path and arriving at a closed bay door. If you are lucky (or reading this review) you will figure out that you can hit the ESC key to skip this and a lot of other annoying and repetitive processes in X2.
Missions range from assigned deliveries to trading missions you pick and choose to do alongside your regular missions. You can even do personal transport missions later in the game. These are all posted on the bulletin board, but more often than not the available missions were out of my league. It would have been nice if the missions were filtered to my current standings.
The big problem with the trade missions is the shallow economic model where most goods donít vary enough in price to make you enough money for your effort. You learn early on that the Energy Cell is about the only thing you can buy and sell to make any real cash, at least without traveling across the entire universe.
The interface for researching the best places to buy and sell is unintuitive and not tied into the navigation system unlike Freelancer where you could find the highest payer for the goods in your hold and select them as your waypoint. Youíll also need to research areas of space before you start your own factories. Youíll want them centrally located in an area of low supply and high demand for whatever product (i.e. Energy Cells) that you intend to manufacture.
There is also a story hidden away in X2. I wouldnít exactly call it a campaign, but merely a scripted set of missions that you can accept at your leisure. While youíll certainly make more money working under your own agenda, following the script does have itís own rewards like free ships and upgrades that would take you a long time to buy on your own.
X2 is one of the most visually stunning games I have played since EVE, and in many ways surpasses that MMORPG in sheer technical brilliance. X2 supports all resolutions and plenty of configurable options, so you can tailor this game to systems falling within the minimal requirements all the way up to computers that havenít been invented yet.
On my XP3200+ system with a gig of RAM and an FX5900 video card I was only able to play the game at full detail at 1280x1024, and even then there was some framerate issues on some of the more complex screens. Turning off the shadows helped things along nicely and if you are hurting for horsepower you can turn off the textures, but they do look nice when you have them on.
As I stated in the opening, this game looks like a tech demo, something you might see in those benchmark programs. The space vistas are breathtaking and the ship models are unlike anything I have ever seen in any space game to date. The bump-mapped textures make these ships and space stations jump off the screen.
The cockpit graphics are excellent and you have independent control over your view so you can look all around at the animated and fully functional control panels. You can also switch to several external camera views including chase and target.
My only complaint is the command interface. The font just isnít that crisp and all the commands are jumbled together in a spreadsheet like table that is confusing and unwieldy. Games like Independence War 2 had similarly complex commands but presented them with much more style and grace.
The movies are decent enough but the character animation is a huge contrast to the rest of the game. The characters arenít modeled very well and their textures are rather plain. They are also crudely animated and donít move around naturally. They look more like puppets than CG.
The music is your typical sci-fi techno and electronic themes, nothing nearly as majestic as the space vistas would normally inspire. There is a modest selection of tunes, but if you are playing this game for the long haul it will certainly get repetitive.
Sound effects are adequate and come from the standard space and sci-fi sound effects library. You have engines, lasers, explosions, and anything else you would expect from a game in this genre. The voice acting is surprisingly good, certainly better than the characters look, and the script is equally as well written. Even some of the missions are creative.
This is a game for serious space traders and strategy enthusiasts. If you are looking for your next dose of Freelancer move along Ė nothing to see here. If you are prepared to invest significant time in learning and mastering the cumbersome interface, working through the dismal economic model, and slowly building your empire then you can look forward to countless hours of space simulation.
Unfortunately, much of the games length is derived from its slow plodding pace and a profit system that forces you to play for lengthy sessions with minimal rewards. Given the four directives of Trade, Fight, Build, and Think, youíll spend most of your time Trading while Thinking about what to Build and who to Fight when you can finally afford some weapons.
X2: The Threat is a bold experiment that ultimately fails under the weight of its own ambition. There is nothing here that hasnít been done in other games and done better, and while X2 might combine these elements, it fails to improve on any of them.
Diehard gamers who enjoy immersing themselves into diabolical economic sims will certainly find plenty of material to lose themselves in for months to come. You can play X2 for a long time but you might be surprised at just how little progress you have made in that time.
Despite what has been a predominately negative review, I am still forced to concede that X2 is a deep and complex game that simply wasnít to my liking. As long as you know what to expect you will either love or hate this game. My best advice is that if games like Freelancer and Independence War 2 taxed your patience then avoid X2 like the plague, but if those games only scratched the surface of your desire for building an empire in space then dive right in to one of the most complex games of the year.