There was always going to be a catch when I finally got my hands on X Rebirth. On the evidence of the previous games, I'd need about a week to get myself settled comfortably in the cockpit of Egosoft's vast space sim, and I was never going to get that. The demo that was sent to me was the Gamescom floor demo, and it wasn't set up for the sort of game X is. It was ten minutes long. I can't say I got a true understanding of what it's like to play Rebirth, but I still managed to explore a little, and discovered that there's a lot you can do in an open-world in ten minutes.
At least they're a repeatable ten minutes. The demo is set-up as three fights beside a large station and an asteroid field, and scales from a fight against two inert ships, to taking part in a station defence with multiple ships, and then a final battle against a large ship. There's no time to get comfortable, but that wasn't much a problem because Rebirth is surprisingly accessible.
Rebirth's simplification is, in part, achieved by immersion: I'm in a cockpit with a limited view of space (previously you were basically a floating head, with an uninterrupted view). I'm holding a joypad and flying without any of the odd contortions that I associate with the series. I can move in every direction (but not roll; Q and E on the keyboard do that), and select weapons, ship states, and drone activities without having to burrow into a nest of menus. There's info of the immediate target set into a monitor on the dash, and everything else on screen is positional. That's it. The other info is hidden, and in a nod to the modeled interiors of the ships and stations, bringing it up means your character swivels in his chair and pulls up a monitor. Everything from trading info and galaxy mapping is handled that way, and while I won't need it in the demo, a look shows it has plenty of nested menus.
Egosoft's Director Bernd Lehahn explained to me what they were aiming for with this system: "In many ways, the X games that have come before X Rebirth represented the layering upon layering of new features - many, if not most, of which were never part of the game’s original design. Even before 2005, when we were working on X3 Reunion, we realized that this development model had made the game inherently complicated and extremely difficult for new players to grasp if they had not played the X series from the very beginning.
"X Rebirth’s game management system is much more streamlined. One thing we tell press and fans asking about X Rebirth is 'complex is good, complicated controls are not,' and that 'you won’t need a PhD in space game menus to play X Rebirth.' The goal is to have X Rebirth be as deep as fans have come to expect, but accessible to all gamers."
Imagine if Bohemia took that approach, and remodelled the Arma interaction system? That's the sort of wholesale reworking we're dealing with. It's a real shame I never had the opportunity to go deep and plan things on a large scale, because that's where X shines. But I did shoot things, and order others to shoot things. Two enemy ships arrive. They are basically target drones and hang motionless and unthreateningly in the air. A squeeze of the trigger and I can tell that Rebirth's combat is going to feel satisfying: a metallic scree flies out from the mounted cannon, sounding like nails in a blender. As it strikes the drone, I can make out the shards ricocheting off, flying into space. There's an extraordinary amount of detail. A click and missiles are launched, the inset monitor shows me their progress. It's a neat way of showing you if your precious missile cargo arrived.
A second wave arrives, this time mobile and armed, and I'm told by a stilted voice actor that the station needs protection, so not everything about this has been refreshed: the acting and dialogue are still dire.
The fight is big and messy, and a little disorienting. In the cluster of battle, the targeting system is there to point the way: it's a tiny, red-yellow arrow and tended to be swallowed by the colour scheme of the glowing yellow planet dominating the scene, but I found a way around that. Bound to the X key on the pad is a tactical selection wheel that gives me access to drones. Highlighting the target and popping open tactical set-up will send a group of automated deathbots into the fight. There's nothing I love more than watching controllable drones attacking things.
I'm even able to take direct control of hacking drones and demolition drones, but I'll admit I could never figure them out and turned to Berndt for more information: "There are actually many different types of drones available in X Rebirth representing a wide range of functions. To borrow from military terminology, drones serve the function of being force multipliers. For example, there are a variety of defensive drones that you can deploy to help protect your ship during combat. There are also a variety of offensive drones that can be deployed to increase your firepower in any engagement. The strategic deployment of drones in a wide variety of gameplay situations is an important player consideration in X Rebirth.
"Some other types of drones include stealth drones that can lay mines and gather intelligence. There are hacker drones that can disable electronic systems of enemies. There are mining drones that the player will want to use to facilitate mining operations. The list goes on.
"Depending on the situation, the correct deployment of drones will have a big impact on gameplay. The player can have any number of these on their ship (given available cargo space), or any ship in their inventory. "
With the station defended by a dozen or so protective ships and me and my drones (and at no point was there a hint of slowdown), the third stage lurches into action: protecting a mining ship. I'm escorting the huge digger to the asteroid belt when another equally large enemy appears. I deploy my drones again and take the fight to them. The ship I'm is very manoeuvrable, and apparently upgraded for the demo. I slice down onto the attackers surface and notice that the radar blips are sending me to specific points on the ship's chassis. I'm not just spamming this ship with fire, but aiming for specific points and draining them first, dodging the return fire and zipping past. Honestly, X has never been an exciting game, but this is great fun.
According to Berndt, it's also only a glimpse at the complexity of the bigger battles:" Destroying a capital ship is no longer a function of mindlessly draining its shield. With X Rebirth a capital ship can have over 100 discrete surface elements that can be individually targeted and destroyed. If you want to trap a capital ship where it is and prevent it from escaping, the player can target and destroy its jumpdrive and engines. If the ship is heavily armed, the player’s best course of action could be to destroy some of its turrets first. "
I start wondering about the automation. The battles I fought in had dozens of ships, and the win state felt like like it would resolve even if I wasn't around. So what's to stop me just abandoning the fight and investigating the station?
Nothing, apparently. I load up another game and head straight past the story nonsense to the metallic coral reef hovering in space. It's a working station, and though I can't tell what it's producing, I can say it's busy: there's a row of delivery drones snaking through the spokes that I start harassing. After satisfying my curiosity by ramming one out of the line (I was making sure they were all individual ships), an industrial surveillance drone zips up and scans me, the bleeps and blorps of a police siren breaking through the ethereal sci-fi soundtrack. I slip between the station's spokes, admiring the construction and being utterly thrown by the notion that this sprawl of industry, by far the biggest thing I've ever seen in an X game, could be built by a player. But it's true: every station you've seen in trailers and screenshots is indicative of what the game will enable you to build. You just need the skill.
It goes deeper: the station has points of interest dotted all over its frame, glowing icons that I could arrive at and trade or chat. As I activated one, the screen dimmed and then came back. My ship was now docked on the side of the station, and I'm walking about in first-person on a little pad with a few NPCs. We chat, with this group being made up of hireable helpers. I start up a negotiation and a Tiger Woods style swing meter appears to make the chats something you can game.
It's only then that I notice that the fight I ignored is going on around me. I stand and stare, forgetting the conversation and watching the station's automated defences lashing out at the intruders.
It's the first glimpse I have at the wider universe going about its business, something I was worried I wouldn't get to see. I take a great deal of joy in discovering it in a guided demo, because it shows that Rebirth's heart is in the right place. You don't play this sort of game to be the centre of the universe, but to be part of the world. To be able to find it in what should be a scripted sequence of events is incredibly heartening.
I've replayed those same ten minutes over and over and each time was blown away by how utterly gorgeous it was. I did miss some of the menu interaction, because the player swiveling to the monitor actually takes me more out of the game than having it as an overlay. I was pretty upset to discover that I can't just select a ship in my view and follow it with the autopilot. In fact, the autopilot appears completely gone, with the only hint of it occurring when your co-pilot takes over when I'm remote piloting. I loved those quieter moments where the game took over and I could just watch as the universe ticked along. I also miss the various camera angles and being able to see the whole scene: the cockpit takes up a chunk of view, and there are no external camera angles of any kind. It's brave of Egosoft to take away functionality, and it might make sense in the bigger picture, but that's only something I'll get to see when the game's out.