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Developer: Egosoft
Publisher: Enlight
Released: November 2003 (USA), February 2004 (Europe)
Format: PC CD-ROM (2)
Genre: Open-ended space simulator + story

X² The Threat's American release occurred at a very unpropitious time. It had to contend with X2 the movie and Deus Ex 2 and Final Fantasy X-2 the games, and as such, was quite outclassed with the cheesy "The Threat" tacked on at the end. Nevermind that it was not only a fairly niche genre game, but it was also produced by a rather raw (if dedicated) team from Germany which has so far only produced ... previous iteration of the same game (see X, X-Tension and X-Beyond the Frontier).

In short, X2 (or X², used interchangeably) is an open-ended space simulator where you can do just about anything in the vein of Elite - if you can make it past the horrific interface and the abominable cutscenes.

The good

First of all, the game includes a simulated economy, with prices driven by actual supply and demand. The supply is regulated by random events throughout the galaxy (such as a plague on this crop, or explosion in such plant or another), and the demand driven by all parties trying to make a buck (or a credit, anyway). Factories will send out freighters to obtain needed supplies (to make the product) and subsequently ship their product to trade stations and further factories (for example a solar plant needs food for its workers and crystals to produce energy, and then sends its product - energy cells - on to everyone who needs that, which may include trade stations, food plants or factories). The production cycles, occurring in real-time, determine how often these freighters go out or come in, and the clockwork machine continues moving as the prices fluctuate. Pirates hijack shipments, cops scan ships for illegitimate cargo, rival freighters cut in line (and thus set the price of sale), and other shady dealings go on on the edges of sectors. It's all good fun that adds a little spice over fixed-price "economies" such as that of Freelancer. There are shifting opportunities everywhere.

Secondly, you can do any of the above-mentioned activities yourself. From freighting around cargo from system to system, and cutting in line, to pirating shipments or even ships (since a pilot of a damaged ship will often eject, leaving the scraps for the taking), to purchasing sector police licenses to do your own pirate hunting, to building stations and factories of your own in a SimCity like manner - all of this can be yours. Except Europa...ahem.

Perhaps this is obvious in light of the above, but X2 is also one of few space simulator games where you are not limited to a single spaceship at a time; in fact, quite the opposite. You would in fact be unable to take advantage of most of X2's world if you stayed with just one ship. Fortunately there are multiple ship classes for you to choose from - ranging from light to heavy fighter, corvette, transport, destroyer and bus - and each race has its own take on those. Again unlike Freelancer, where as you progressed in the game you simply bought more and more powerful versions of the same 3 ships (light, heavy, freighter), each of X2's races' variants has its own weaknesses and strengths, lending yet more personality to the game.

Finally, you can really go anywhere. There are no sectors that are randomly closed off due to storyline constraints, and there is no hand-holding to protect you from hostile sectors. Paying attention to your in-system map and the environment is highly recommended instead. Use your brains and the fact that your little scoutship is the fastest thing in-system, and in no time at all (ok, actually quite a while) you'll have your little empire on the edge of Imperial space.

The bad

That sounds fine and well, but there's a few grating issues that mar this otherwise finely crafted piece of entertainment. First of all, as we all know from SimCity, planning and executing are two different things. As long as you're on your own, zipping about and buying and selling are fairly easy - easier yet once you purchase upgrades for your ships such as the Best Buy locator and remote price viewer (obtain pricing info from stations without having to dock). However, it's not fairly profitable - for that, you'll need a freighter with 10, 15, 100 times the cargo hold size of your little scout. The story gives you a leg up here, outfitting you with one of those that you can put on automatic. Here's the kicker though: the game does not have a script for "buy cheap, sell dear".

Ponder this lack of a basic concept (in an economy-based game!) with stunned silence for a while. Now hear the rest.

Every interaction in the game is accomplished through menus, navigable with the keyboard; mouse support is strangely absent. As you may imagine, this makes the simplest task feel like you're navigating an obtuse, archaic spreadsheet - this is not helped by a horrible choice of eye-unfriendly, non-fixed width font, poor anti-aliasing of text and lack of such basic amenities as digit separators (!). Reading anything (but especially long strings of prices such as 488221123) is a literal headache.

Continuing with this motif, finding any information about a targeted ship is made difficult by "real-looking" serial numbers used to reference said ships. While they lend authenticity, they do not help in making the game easier to deal with; it is easily observable that Freelancer's descriptions such as "Outcasts-Barracuda-Mark Stepanos" are far more easily identifiable (especially with color coding ranging from green for friendly, white for neutral, red for foe) than X2's plain-white "AM4EA-82".

Things like this continue to add up until the interface falls apart into a mess that even Jakob Nielsen couldn't pull any usability out of. One ship, it's fine, two ships, okay...but when you get to that spot where you have 5-10 and would like to make a hefty profit, you might as well give up, if the micromanagement doesn't drive you insane first.

If you think that's no fun, just wait until you hear about the combat (non-Newtonian, but that still doesn't save it). Having multiple ships at your command opens up ridiculous possibilities for fleet vs. fleet combat - and the game does indeed provide such opportunities. However, I recommend staying out of any conflict directly - the AI likes to kamikaze and ... little else. The disparity in ship classes also changes combat into a numbers game - either you have more shields and you win, or you have less and you lose. Tactics become irrelevant when shield strengths differ by a factor of 10 and your weapons cannot even scratch the opponent. Realistic perhaps, but again, no fun.

The Ugly

To even experience these issues however, you must sit through a ridiculously elongated cutscene made with the game's engine. The 3D engine is optimized for rendering beautiful space vistas and objects - shining, bump-mapped starship hulls, glowing laser bolts, flickering plasma balls, lens flaring suns and stars, hulking steel space stations, micro-meteorite pock-marked asteroids; you get the picture - inorganic, rigid stuff. To say that the engine is not suited to rendering humans conversing, walking or heavens forbid - bending - is a gross understatement.

The cutscenes are awful; not only do the animations look like they were done by 1st year animation students, the voice acting (badly translated from original German) is on the level of 1st year drama class students. This might still verge on passable, if only the writers didn't feel the need to go on, and on, and on, and ad mega nauseam. As it is, every phrase that would potentially take a sentence to say instead takes five.

Much like my reviews.

Anyway! Forging bravely on, we're almost there.

Summary (see!?)

There's a lot that you can do in X2, and the graphics are extremely sharp - and that's me saying so even without the most advanced options turned on, for framerate saving reasons. Planets, space stations and battleships are a magnitude of order larger than any previous game representing such; each alien race has its own characteristic ship and station design; every surface is lovingly bump-mapped and gleaming; heck, there's even a locational shield shimmer effect when you hit a target. If you're a fan of the good old Elite type sims and can forgive even the clunkiest of interfaces¹ to fulfill your dreams of building a space empire and kicking some alien arse in hi-def graphics, then this is definitely it.

If on the other hand you'd prefer to have a bit of fun along the way at the sacrifice of depth and a lot of detail, you might want to take another whack at Freelancer. X2 has a lot of downtime, a lot of menu-surfing, a lot of built-in frustration as you try to figure out how to do the simplest of things (and run into stations in the meantime), teeth-grinding cutscenes (necessary for the story² to progress, but at least skippable) and unsatisfyingly clinical combat. Impatient folk should give it a miss.
¹ As of this writing, the built-in script engine has been unveiled to the public and can be accessed via a small hack. The www.xscripting.com site can be accessed to download scripts that do just about anything, but most notably allow your ship to automatically explore the universe (ship flies to nearest unknown sector, repeat) and the auto-trading script. The game should in theory become much more palatable.
² I haven't talked much about the story because most of it can be summed up in the subtitle of the game: The Threat. If you have read this far and understood all my technically intricate wordings, you are clever enough to figure out the rest. The story is not very involving or original, and feels as if it were slapped on top as an afterthought to this "build your space empire" game.

X - X-Tension - X-Beyond the Frontier - X2: The Threat - X3: Reunion

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