By Craig Pearson on November 21st, 2013 at 1:00 pm.
X Rebirth was the one game in the current glut of space adventures that I was certain would work. After all, Egosoft has spent the last decade making the most visible and complex space games on the PC. They know how to do this. They also know that the X series has been built for people with an innate understanding of how to play their open-world adventures. X Rebirth was supposed to be a game as complex and as malleable as their previous games, but one that was accessible to everyone. It’s neither of those, and in trying to figure out how to make it work for everyone, it’s gone horribly, completely, utterly wrong. Everything I wrote in my Impressions piece still stands, so if you haven’t read it I’d take a look at it. I’ve spent 30 hours trying to find something functional in what they’ve released, and now I really need a hug.
Egosoft has released broken games before, but I could always see through the fog of bugs into the game beneath. X3 took two updates and years of patching before it turned into a game that matched its lofty goals, and left me feeling like I was part of a living universe of ships, stations, trading, and fighting. That complexity has been stripped, and Rebirth’s problems feel too all encompassing for me to think that I can return in six months to find a game worth playing.
It’s an attempt to redo an entire universe, to create a more organic world for the players to explore. The biggest change is in the structure of the galaxy. They’ve moved on from a series of interconnected systems that were shaped and traversed by compass points, where space somehow conformed to a patchwork quilt design. Rebirth is a world of systems, smaller sectors, and interconnected zones. Now moving from zone-to-zone is accomplished via the highways, charged tubes that snake through space, delivering you from point-to-point, or you can choose to hop-off wherever you choose. That could be at any of the zones along the way, or even between those areas, where there are at least a few things to discover. This is probably the only good thing to come out of this mess, because it allowed the world’s designers to think big: zones might be far apart, but they’ll still be part of a system dominated by, say, a huge sun, and it’s impressive just how often I’ve marveled at the view the new zone provides. But, really, I’m only saying that because I don’t have many more nice things to say about it, and I wanted to get it out of the way. I like the look of Rebirth, even if the textures are murky, but I just wish the developers had given me a cockpit that I could see out of, a third-person camera, and a wider FOV. Even when I’m going out of my way to admire it, it lets me down.
I stuck with the narrative because Rebirth introduces wholesale changes to trading and how you order your fleet around, and I could only find that out while torturing myself with the abysmally told story of a Ren Otani, the captain of a salvaged ship who’s dragged into an ideological battle between two huge factions. The slavers of The Plutarch Mining Company and the remnants of the military movement The Heart of Albion are at war, and you’re dragged into it by a witless co-pilot. Yisha, your constant companion, is honestly the most annoying character I’ve ever had to deal with in a game. Aside from her utter uselessness (she doesn’t take control of the ship when you need to pilot a drone), she’s performed with all the skill of the child from Revenge Of The Sith.
There is an early mission in Rebirth’s story, one where I was asked to deliver 100 electric cells from one station to another. A change from the previous games (though a similar set-up as the original) means the player only directly captains a single ship, but will eventually accrue a flotilla that you’ll use to perform these tasks. I needed to visit a station and order electric cells, and then visit another station in another zone to deliver them. This would be fulfilled by the trade ship in my squad. The first thing that went wrong: the ship wouldn’t follow me. This was a bug, not a flub on my part, and it meant I had to travel all the way back to the region where the trade ship had stalled (manually, because in this huge, complicated world there is strangely no autopilot), remove it and then re-add it to my squad. And it still wouldn’t make the trade. My mistake? I doing everything correctly. I was following the mission prompts that popped up at the station, selecting them, and then expecting the game to follow through the orders. What I needed to do, though it was never made clear to me at any point, was ignore the pop-up and instead use the game’s trading menu. This is a plot point. Rebirth wouldn’t carry on without it occurring. I ended up returning to an earlier save, but for those players unlucky enough not to have such a thing, the alternative is restarting or hacking the save file. Why do they have to hack the save? Because there is currently no in-game method of removing trade orders, so the flubbed order would block the correct one.
I just wrote 285 words describing all the ways a simple delivery mission messed up. It gets worse. I was about to be introduced to the concept of drones. Drones play a few roles in the game: as one of the meagre upgrades to the ship they can act as defence buffs, and they can be directly controlled by the player in offensive roles. In this case, I was told to use a hacker drone (actually called a “Beholder Drone”, but why use the actual word when an unused term can be substituted?) to compromise a station’s defences. But because of my standing with the zone’s police state – a standing that the plot forced on me – my ship was a beacon for all the police in the zone. Leaving the ship in the drone meant I couldn’t defend it while it was under attack, and there are no automated defences: the co-pilot just sits there, dimly allowing the shields to fail and the ship to be destroyed. I had to return and defend myself, which only escalated the problem. This isn’t really bugged, but it’s a good example of the lack of care Rebirth has received. I managed to complete the mission by jamming my ship into a gap in the zone’s station.
I was then dragged into a huge space battle. My role was to disable a prison ship so a small team of marines could board it. Following ridiculously woolly instructions about collecting the marines and their commander, I was able to populate my ship with the people who’d be able to take control of the target vessel. For whatever reason, the game substituted the ship I was supposed to be boarding with another, a ship that didn’t advance the story when it was defeated. It allowed me to beat it up, to send my acquired soldiers to board it, and then the order came in for me to flee. I lurched through the space highways, trying to find some joy in the tedious slipstreaming mini-game that would make the journey speed up, and arrived at the target zone. The ship I was supposed to disable had somehow appeared here, and because I’d completed all the plot-mandated action on the other ship, this one was an inert, plot-blocking clog. I tried again and again and again, but there was no shaking myself from the trap that it had laid.
At least it gave me a look at the combat: the cramped cockpit view and tight FOV turns the dog-fighting into space jousts with the smaller ships, and larger cap ships are taken down with a game of turret whackamole. There’s no tension in those larger fights, because everything you need to do is called out by the idiot co-pilot. It brought out one of the more bizarre elements of Rebirth’s UI: I can use the awful, unzoomable in-game map to find out where ships are zones and zones away, but I can only target what’s directly in front of me. There are no targeting hotkeys of any kind. There are at least some upgrades to the ship: new engines can be fitted for different types of piloting, enabling boosts in direction or speed, and I can upgrade the guns once. But in comparison to X3’s selection of ships with multiple hardpoints, this is nothing but a dirty little smear of space dust. The only way out of the space battle was to acquire another person’s save, because I damn sure wasn’t about to restart the entire game.
I was sent to an outer system, a zone built in the corona of a star. As you’d imagine, the people living here were outcasts trying to keep away from the on-going war, but in need of resources. I was told to bring some food supplies to the base. When was I told that? When I arrived at the station that needed the supplies an icon popped up asking for me to complete the delivery in same instance I was being informed of the mission. How was I supposed to carry out the task? Not with the previously mentioned trade ship, which was now nowhere to be found (it was impounded, apparently), but with a new station-building ship that became part of my little crew. That new ship, by the way, was not equipped with the drones that would enable it to trade, and it’s not like the game told me how to fix it (though I suspect that the dialogue was missing). When I discovered what I needed to do (thanks to Google), which was procure some automated cargolifter drones, I couldn’t find anyone nearby to kit the ship out. I had to hack the save file and give myself the equipment in order to carry on.
I’m getting depressed just writing this out. It doesn’t include all the little bugs: menus that forget they’re mouse-driven, the engine crashes, a time I got stuck inside a station, the other time I was blasted out of a zone-to-zone travel corridor millions of miles off course, the animation bugs, the missing dialogue… Jurassic Park had a shorter buglist, and it had less disastrous consequences. There is honestly a support network of players providing save games for people who are stuck.
But by now I thought I’d have enough know-how to make a go of it in the plot-free wonderland of “Free Play”. There you start with a decent standing with everyone, 100,000 credits, and a dream of a working game without constant interruptions from your witless, stilted companion. Don’t dare to dream, people. You’ll only end up hurt like I was.
With the freedom to think and plan, I butted right up against the UI (and left an impression of my tear-streaked face upon it). It’s been built with a controller in mind, with radial controls forcing you to flick through menus that could otherwise be readily accommodated. Instead of allowing the player to contact people on stations, to buy goods and hire goons, you’re now forced onto the station to make contact directly. And when you do, out pops the radial menu again. The goal of this is immersion, but it’s a time-consuming waste of effort: there’s nothing immersive about the stations populated with a poorly written population of data points, who might or might not have what you need. There’s no character to anyone you meet, aside from random snark, and everything they say or do could be accomplished by a machine.
It’s not like there’s not a system in place. There are icons on stations that allow you to deal with some people without the tedium of landing and hunting them down. Missions can be taken from these, though the selection is slim: protecting the station from invaders, assassination trips, escort missions and deliveries all pop-up. None are worth writing about.
Fleet management and trading have both been exposed to the vacuum of space for too long. You can’t have trading without ships in the X series, though previous games allowed you to get your hands dirty and also allowed you to set up an incredible system of automated trades. Not Rebirth. No, as I mentioned before, you must manually order ships to collect and deliver. You have to personally gather all the information about sales, which means swooping near a station and gathering the nearby info, and then order a ship to buy it, using the trade screen to figure out the distance and difference in price. It’s all so clunky, and the trade menu’s language baffles me. It says “to offers” and “to sales”, and I keep forgetting which of those means I have something to sell because the language is so murky. Not that it really matters: you can make more money using the long-range scanner and pinging the universe for loot. I managed to upgrade my ship, adding the best guns, fastest engine, and the best selection of shields after an hour of looting, selling my wares to the station dwellers.
This about sums it all up: when one of your trade ships runs out of fuel, even if you have a pilot, an engineer, and a captain on board, it waits for you to tell it to refuel and where to get the fuel from.
It’s not like Egosoft don’t know how to do this stuff. The previous game in the series, and the prequel to Rebirth, Albion Prelude is ponderous, but it’s slick and remarkably satisfying. A slow space brain-sink that you happily can lose hours to. The only hours I’ve lost to Rebirth are the ones that I had to claw back from various crashes. The final one happened just as I was watching a station come together: it’s an interesting process, and at least one that involves some planning. You grab an architect NPC and go through the selection of what the station should spawn with. Then you need a construction ship, the parts, the materials. It’s a goal, to be sure, though there’s also the option to pay for all of that and let the process run its course. It was the one moment when I felt like I was making a meaningful decision, even if the game will only allow the station to be placed at pre-determined points. The only time I felt like I was making an impact, changing the world. It was going well enough that I looked up some mods to see if there was a chance that I could begin rebuilding the game. If there’s anyone who can parley a disappointing game launch into something positive it’s the people who made X3. They wouldn’t be here if they hadn’t. And neither would the community.
Then it crashed and the save corrupted. I’d spent about 30 hours getting to that point, and I’d had enough. It’s an appalling, broken mess, and I’m not going back.