By Craig Pearson on November 15th, 2013 at 9:00 pm.
X Rebirth is a typical Egosoft game: complex, big, broken in all kinds of ways. I’ve been playing it a bit, as you probably expected. I’ll have a Wot I Think early next week, and you should at least wait until then before thinking about buying it, because thus far it’s been a bit of a mess. Here’s what the first few hours have taught me.
Well, the first lesson is that you can’t judge an X game by the trailers and screenshots that got me so very, very excited. X Rebirth is, as the title suggests, a stab at a renewal: turning a series that was notoriously difficult to new players into a more accessible space game. Until now, it’s been a series that moved at a meditative pace, and one that you’d get the most out of if you have a mind for management and economy. It’s ponderous, and was built for a community that loves the slow, whale-like ships, detailed manufacturing set-ups, and a complicated UI. For everyone else, there is hopefully X Rebirth.
It’s functionally attractive, full of stars and light and ships and life, and well as being spectacularly pretty. I’ve discovered that the new way it deals with systems, one huge area with several zones around it, has given Egosoft leeway to create massive, incomprehensibly attractive dioramas that dominate the backdrop. The first of these I come across is a cracked open planet. From one of the outer zones, it looks like a moment caught in time: continent-sized lumps flying into space, the planet split open wide enough to see space on the other side of it. But I didn’t imagine I’d be dragged into it, through it, and out the other side, nor that I’d be stopping off at a city built inside the broken body of the planet.
But the care taken over how it looks and feels (it has to be said that the ship is reasonably responsive, though I’ve discovered unbindable keys in the controls), NPCs are basically badly-lit mannequins. In fact, that human element is the root of the biggest strain on my enjoyment thus far. The writing is appallingly low-grade, with chats occasionally ending in: “Nice Chat – Not!”, because Wayne’s World has somehow remained culturally relevant hundreds of years into the future. Worse still is your co-pilot. Even if care wasn’t taken over the random salesmen you’ll encounter, I’d have expected more attention to be paid to your constant companion. She is disastrous: a cliché spouting wreck, voiced by someone who sounds like she’s reading the script for the first time.
This is a real problem that extends throughout the game, not only because it impinges on whatever immersion they’re aiming for (and missed by a mile), but because it has actively hurt my understanding of what’s going on. In order to buy certain items, you need to leave the ship and walk around on one of the many stations, hunting for the correct person to talk to (who’re all unmoving and occupy the same positions in each system’s identikit station design). If you can’t find that person, it’s possible to ask someone for directions. Except they’ll often snap at you and not tell you where you need to go, and for the most part there’s no way of telling how they’ll react until they have. It can be a huge waste of time. I think I’d rather be insulted via the previous game’s menu-driven system. It’s quicker.
It’s strange that so much that was front and centre before is now hidden and awkward to get to, and the reasons for hiding it (immersion) are poorly designed. They’ve stripped a lot of functionality away for the sake of this immersion. In the cockpit, you can see your ammo, ship health, etc. But the view is totally cut down, with lots of solid elements in the way. At a basic level, this makes it tough to keep track of moving targets, and it gets in the way of the oh-so gorgeous world. And if you want a deeper look into trades or the map, you’ll swivel away and look at a panel that extrudes from the ship’s chassis, examining a menu that would be better served as a projection on the main view. And lot of interaction is clearly designed for joypad, requiring you to flick through menu after menu to get to selection that could easily be number 15 on a list.
In some cases, really useful features have been lost. There’s no auto-pilot, so for long trips through multiple systems you’re required to nurse your ship through each jump gate. Yes, it’s not as slow as the previous games, but there was more to it than that: I honestly felt more immersed in the world when I could set my ship going then sit back and admire the AI moving to and fro. That can still happen, to some degree. I can just hang about in a zone and watch, but it’s not the same as setting a course and feeling part of the world. Still, I’ve done that more than once, because sitting and watching the energy freighters manoeuvring, thrumming and fat with cells, is wonderful, particularly around stations: the vast space cities that players can build are like metallic coral reefs, surrounded by ships looking for sustenance. There’s one set of ships (the name eludes me at this moment) who have a little shoal of ships flitting around them. They’re mindless little drones, but I can’t stop crawling along beside their mothership and watching how they fuss over her bulk.
And it scales: I am just at a point in the plot (still the tutorial, really) where a huge battle is taking place, and there’s dozens of ships on screen. Huge, lumbering things spouting out flickering bolts of electricity at each other. There is a phenomenal amount of fury and it looks lovely. Of course, now I’ve said that, I followed a prompt that asked me to dock with a ship, and now it’s not acknowledging that I’m there. I hope I can carry on. Item 151 on today’s glitch list, which so far has included an audio setting crash, and getting stuck in a mission because I followed the prompts on screen and did what it said, which apparently wasn’t the way to do that mission. I’ve not had any real performance issues, though: my i7, 6GB of RAM, and 580 seems capable of supporting huge battles at a decent lick.
But, yeah. I’m a bit lost and sad, and really annoyed with myself that I didn’t see this coming. I’m sorry! I can see what they wanted to do, which sadly means I can see exactly where it’s gone wrong. Who knows? Maybe when I’m done with the tutorial and the game opens up, all this will make sense? Perhaps the UI will magically seem useable, and the chats I have with the annoying NPCs will turn into a stroke of genius? The menu has a ‘Free Play’ option (and like the rest of the game, it’s a cut-down version of the previous X’s multi-choice character start points), so I might just dip into that if the plot fails to resolve/work. If there’s a game under all this ‘immersion’, I intend to find it.