Oh sweet mother of God, what did we do to deserve this?
For well over a decade now, I have played – and loved – every installment in the X series. Egosoft’s excellent space-simulation franchise has never been perfect, often requiring fan-made patches to fix the most glaring flaws – but they’ve always rewarded patience. For a long time, it was the closest that players could get to recreating the joys of bombing around the universe in a modern-day version of Elite.
Sadly, X is a franchise under attack. With Frontier Development’s upcoming Elite: Dangerous, Starbound and others on the horizon, Egosoft no longer has the genre all to itself. Where before they could afford the odd mistake, times have changed and it’s unlikely that players will be as forgiving as they once were.
But yes, I’ve always loved the X franchise; I’ve lost countless hundreds of hours building up my empires across successive games; and while they’ve always had problems, they’ve always been enjoyable.
Let’s be straight with each other: X: Rebirth is not a good game. Aside from horrendous technical problems, it takes a franchise known for its deep and rewarding gameplay, and guts it completely. Sure, it looks pretty – at least when the engine doesn’t decide to throw a wobbly and bugger up the visuals – but in their quest to make the game accessible, the developer has sacrificed too much of what made the franchise popular in the first place.
Case in point: In X3: Reunion, you could set multiple trade routes for your fleet and then leave them to it. Doing this enabled you to fly off and do other things, while your empire largely looked after itself. You’d need to check in on things from time to time, but by and large you could just leave your ships to their own devices. Not so in Rebirth. In Rebirth, you need to manually guide your fleet. Gone is the blessed ability to set trading routes, replaced instead with a system whereby you find yourself spending copious amounts of time escorting vessels or crewmen to and from their assigned destinations. It’s as though the developer escorted their grandmother to the corner shop one day to buy some milk, only to decide that it would be a good idea to replicate the experience inside the game.
Space is big. Space is supposed to awe-inspiring and full of possibilities; So why the fuck did Egosoft decide that our time would be best spent performing the equivalent of milk runs, instead of blasting around the galaxy, making a name for ourselves through our noble or nefarious deeds?
Sure, you can upgrade your ship. With enough money, you can outfit your fighter with plenty of lasers, missiles and other technology. In theory, you can become a death-dealing sonofabitch. In theory. The problem is that so much of your time needs to be spent dealing with the tedious minutiae of managing your fleet that you feel tethered to the most mundane aspects of the game.
It doesn’t help that the interface is horrendous. It’s fair to say that the X series has never enjoyed the most user-friendly interface, but here it feels as though the developer has actively sought to inflict the maximum amount of frustration by ensuring that even the most basic of actions is hidden away and difficult to locate. The game was clearly designed for pad control – and rumors abound that it was designed with consoles in mind, despite denials – but somehow it actually manages to make what should be a more streamlined system even less intuitive than the extensive menus the franchise has become known for.
Elsewhere, there are signs that Egosoft had great ideas; it’s just a shame that they’ve failed to execute any of them with any degree of competency. You can now leave the driving seat of your ship and roam around space stations – but each is filled with just a couple of – amazingly, completely stationary – character models with little of note to say to you. You also have a co-pilot, Yisha – seemingly existing to provide some respite from the otherwise lonely experience of traveling through the great void of space. Unfortunately, you’ll start off wanting to strangle her and end by wanting to strangle yourself. Dialogue in the game is truly absymal – both in writing and performance – and so having a companion sat next to you for the majority of the game, constantly chirping in your ear, will make you not just want to reach for the off switch on your speakers, but to take a hammer to them.
X: Rebirth is a game that should have been great. It comes from a long line of excellent space simulations, the developer is an old hand when it comes to the genre, and they started with a solid foundation from which to base their gameplay on. Unfortunately, for whatever reason, they’ve failed miserably in almost every single one of their goals.
It’s entirely possible that Egosoft – or, more likely based on previous experience, their fanbase – manages to salvage some vestige of enjoyment out of this mess.
The problem, though, is that it’s unlikely that there will be anyone patient enough to wait for it.