X2: The Threat
No other game since the dawn of home computing has been the source of as much retro-lust as the mythical Elite. Over twenty years after it was released gamers are still waiting for the definitive modern update. Over the years there have been many pretenders to the Elite throne with titles such as Hardwar, Privateer, Mercenary and Freelancer taking the Elite premise and trying to do their own thing with it. Even a couple of legitimate children of Elite have vied for your patronage, although by some bizarre irony these have been some of the weaker challengers to Elite's continued supremacy. A few years ago an unknown German developer going by the eponymous title of Egosoft released X: Beyond the Frontier. It was the latest attempt to capture the freeform nature, intense combat and empire building of Elite and marry it to the abilities of modern computers. It was a worthy attempt. Yet its limited scope, non existent plot and repetitive gameplay mean that X: Beyond the Frontier was destined to join the piles of slain knaves and knights that have smashed themselves against the seemingly insurmountable supremacy of Elite. Fast forward a couple of years, past one expansion pack, and Egosoft are back for another stab at the prize.
X2: The Threat has a lot going for it. It takes the massive improvements that the expansion, X-Tension, made to the original X and coats them in the most sumptuous graphics this side of a pre-rendered cutscene. The images that X2 paints onto the monitor are so lusciously detailed and coloured that they initially overwhelm the player with their beauty. This time round the entire galaxy is literally there for the taking. Whereas in the past you could build a few factories and set up a couple of trading runs, this time round you can oversee the construction of an entire trading empire. Rather than humble yourself with a single fighter you can invest in your own armada, even owning carrier ships which will empty squadrons of fighters onto any who dare to stand in your way. There's even a rudimentary plot tacked on. X2 should be the daddy, the space empire game we have all been waiting for these many years, the title that will hold us off until the holy grail of an online persistent world Elite has been realised.
But it isn't. Rather than a Queen Victoria who builds on the achievement of her predecessors and then takes her empire into realms never conceived of before she is more akin to an Edward VIII. It gives up on the legacy that it has inherited, preferring to go slink off and peruse its own whims and desires. This isn't the space game you were looking for. Where intense action should be we find frustration. Where believable worlds should be we find cut and paste alien civilisations which, while all looking different, have about as much differentiation in their personalities as a clone army. Where we should have the exquisite cyber-tools of an intergalactic space trader emulated on our computers we have a system that feels as if it has been designed for pulleys and levers.
Where to start? The game breaks you in very gently with a soporific introductory cutscene, which sets up the lamentably poorly acted and scripted story. You are a criminal, captured and given a second chance by some benevolent figure who gives you 20 pence and a wanging big spaceship as a punishment for your crimes. Then you are dumped into a space system and told to go pay another captain a visit. And that's as much help as you get at the beginning of the game. Sure, if you follow the instructions the next few missions will help to give you an idea of how to go about things, but this only works if you can find the bugger in the first place. And all this as you have to fight your way through what must surely rank as one of the most abysmal interfaces known to man. You know those fancy pointing devices that have been common for nearly 20 years? Well, you might as well ditch the thing because the only thing it can do in X2 is sway your ships nose from side to side. No, to do anything on your ship you will have to use the keys. And the shift and control keys in conjunction with the keys. I almost gave up in total frustration within ten minutes of encountering this interface. You can't view information and fly at the same time, the info you need is buried under the hierarchy from hell and the whole thing looks like it came out of the serial port of a very ill BBC Micro. It isn't quite as terrible as this picture paints, but how Egosoft managed to make the less-then stellar interface form X so poor is, after the graphics, the most incredible feat of programming in this game.
You will also have to use the keys to fly your ship as well, and let's not be thinking any rashly independent thought such as remapping the keys so the dead-stop key is less than six inches away form the go forward key. As my joystick is long dead, and the mouse controls are even worse than playing X-Wing with a pointer, you will have to resort to the keys. While they are just fine for getting your ship from one system or base to another, they are not very good for flying a spaceship in combat. Which isn't that big of a deal because the combat in this game has to be some of the most un-enjoyable of any space game I have played over the years, and I have played just about every one. The pirates in the game are hard as nails, and they will waste you every time until you have amassed enough money to upgrade your ship. Now there are plenty of options to upgrade the weapons and actual model of your ship, with plenty of far-away bases and hideouts offering rare and powerful equipment. But the combat model is so amateurish that you'd have to be really into the game to bother with them.
That's the thing about X2. If you can get past the abominable interface and risible combat, there is a massive galaxy out there to explore and appropriate. X2 has been wrongly billed as an Elite-type game when it really is closer in spirit to Championship Manager in space. It's all about trading empires, keeping an eye on the prices of commodities and transferring your cargo to the right place, all the while keeping your eye on the bigger picture and your goals within that picture. The universe is highly dynamic, so your actions will have a noticeable affect. The economy model in the game has the potential to be robust but is all too often frustrating. You can buy trading software so you can program routes for your fleet of transports to take the tedium out of being a merchant, but the tools you need to run a larger empire reduce your input down to selecting destinations. Now if you like that kind of stuff you will probably be able to get past the dodgy interface, and the story will be irrelevant, allowing you to concentrate on forging your empire in the manner you choose. There are a lot of people out there who love this game, and they seem to be the ones who really enjoy building up empires. Now I don't dislike that kind of game myself - the amount of time I have spent playing Civilisation should be criminal - but X2 is still weak when it comes to delivering entertainment in this genre. Your ship will take ages to traverse each of the sectors, and it will be aeons before you can afford a jump drive which allows you to go wherever you want from wherever you are. This is a game of patience. You have to put a lot of time into it before you even begin to get anything back in return.
The wait for X2 itself was similarly lengthy, but to be frank, the only real tangible difference between this and X-Tensions are in the graphics department. It really does look lush, so lush it can cripple all but the strongest of beasts. It is also frustratingly prone to crashes and buggy glitches. But those ships, bases and environments really do utilise all the power of the latest hardware. I've never seen so much bump-mapping in a game before.
X2 reminds me of Hidden & Dangerous 2. Both are successors to well loved, engaging but hideously flawed originals. Both are not that different from their predecessors except in their looks. And both have a fanatical following which sees past all the faults and stupidity to a game that they cannot help but love. If you are similarly forgiving then you may manage to bleed some fun out of X2. Otherwise, I can only recommend that you give it a miss and resign yourself to another few years before the crown of Elite can be passed onto to a truly worthy successor.