X4: Foundations is how I imagine Brian Cox imagines space. It’s big and impressive, because Brian Cox can grasp those two concepts just fine. But any actual fine detail is lost in sheer gawking wonder at just how big and amazing everything is. From minute one, the game offered me a lot of choices, but turned out as evasive as a buttered rat when it came time to convince me that any of those choices were worth caring about.
If you’re already a fan of the X series’ schtick, fear not: It runs fine. Occasionally, the mouse wheel would stop accelerating my ship like it was supposed to, and once, I got stuck on the outside of an elevator. Besides that, it was smooth spacing. Also, the Egosoft folks have already patched the game three times in the last week, so that can only be a good thing. Have at it, champ, space awaits you.
As for the rest of you? Let me regale you with some exciting tales of space adventure. Minus the excitement. And the adventuring. Also, possibly stretching the concept of a ‘tale’ beyond breaking point, too. I am space-moist with space-ticipation.
Before you start, X4: Foundations lets you choose an origin story - either a fighter, explorer, or ‘young gun’. This mainly affects what ship you start with, but I appreciate the game facilitating different player mindsets. I went with ‘young gun’, because it came with the tantalising promise of tutorials.
I’m going to avoid eulogising said tutorials, because they were neither fun nor good, but after about three hours of skipping between the game and Youtube, I’d managed to cobble together some semblance of a clue. Keep in mind that X4 is supposed to be one of the more accessible games in the series. I took off from the starting station and flew around for a bit, waiting for some local toughs to get surly so I could give ‘em a bit of the old laser cannon.
X4 has, I must admit, a very active radiant-AI style ecosystem of ships and factions and trade and crime. You can, for example, get scanned by space police and forced to jettison any illegal goods you’re carrying. This can also happen to AI ships, and sometimes a criminal will try to fly off, meaning that they’ll turn red on your radar. If you help police shoot them down, they’ll give you a shiny monetary reward. Obviously, helping cops is bad, but one joy of games is that you can play out any fantasy you like, including a dirty cop helper.
Dogfights in X4 are less fun than in Wing Commander 3: Heart of the Tiger, which remains my main metric for how good space games are. The small amount of fun they do provide comes down to the scale of the theatre, rather than the talent of the actors. Knowing there’s this vast, uninhabitable space stretching off in every direction lends an awesome, poetic weight to what would otherwise be fairly rote shoot-outs.
Anyway, I killed one stray criminal in a shit ship and decided I was now the king of space, which no-one contested. Collecting some salvage from the wreck, I thought I’d dock and try out the trading systems.
Docking a ship in X4 is extremely cumbersome, as you line up your nose with various axes, but oddly satisfying as a result. It’s also tied to some of the worst type of upgrades a game can have - docking computer upgrades that make an action that shouldn’t have been tedious in the first place slightly less tedious, leading me to believe it was deliberately designed with tedium in mind just to give you something to upgrade. Boo.
After leaving my ship, I gaze upwards at space to see a battle between the station’s security force and some cool, sexy criminals. This fight, I believe, arose completely organically from the AI. Again, X4 does scale very well. The platform I’m on is huge. The space above it, by virtue of being space itself, is also huge. I can see the tiny ships fighting high above me, see the tiny lasers, and hear the crackling static comms as they insult each other. I think it’s the same voice actor, though, so it feels like one dude shouting at himself in the mirror through a megaphone, which kills the vibe a bit.
Also on the platform is a three-eyed lizard guy. I want to ask him about his three eyes, but can only either hire him, or ask him for directions. If I had hired him, I could have also bought him a ship, promoted him to captain, and sent him off on trading missions. I could, theoretically, eventually build up entire fleets of ships like this, making obscene amounts of space cash.
The problem being, X4 had skipped a step here - getting me to care about its universe. If the three-eyed lizard guy had maybe had a cool story about his eyes, that would have been a start. But this issue is microcosmic to X4 micro cosmos as a whole - it seems far more interested in the math behind its simulation than the soul of the thing. It’s all spreadsheets, radar blips and possibility without purpose. The main promise seems to be that of becoming the biggest fish in an ankle-deep ocean.
And it’s impressive math, to be sure. I remember my first time playing Oblivion, watching in wide-eyed excitement as a quest-giver moved across the map in real time. X4 does the same, but for entire fleets of fully-customisable, player-controlled ships, which can be ordered to zip back and forth on the most profitable trade routes, buying space weed (I didn’t make this up) in one arm of the galaxy then selling it off in another.
You can individually tailor each of these ships to your needs. You can buy police scanners for your drug ships, or big guns for your shooty ships. You can upload a picture of your hamster and emboss it on the side of your fleet. You can build a ship big enough to put other ships inside it, then dock the big ship in a base you built yourself after buying a plot of space. Look at this banana I taught to speak fifty languages! No, of course it doesn’t have anything interesting to say: It’s a banana.
Base building is similar. It’s definitely there. It’s there as heck. It’s extensive, and varied, and complex, and allows you to make your own, personal mark on X4’s universe. You can tie these stations into your economic empire, outfit them with docking bays and weapons to ward off potential marauders. Nearly everything I bullet point about X4 sounds utterly fantastic, doesn’t it? So much so that I’m left to wonder if the game was designed with this premise in mind. A galaxy of shining bullet points posing as stars.
So X4: Foundations has the Skyrim problem. It provides a framework for a good time if you approach it completely dead set on having a good time, but you’re going to have to do much, if not all, of the work yourself. It does scale, and it does isolation. But it doesn’t do wonder, or discovery. There’s nothing notable or distinct about X4’s universe, save a few creature and ship designs with no sense of history behind them. And honestly, remove the ‘opera’ from space opera, and you’re just left with space. As in vast emptiness.
But look, here’s a thing. There’s a lot of downtime in X4, because even the fastest your ship can move is slow compared to the vastness of the locations, and I often found myself floating through space for several minutes at a time. I have a small essential oil diffuser on my desk that lights up different colours. When I piloted my ship over long distances, I made sure I had that light on, glowing a soft neon violet in the background, because it made me feel more like I was in the cockpit of a spaceship. Sitting back, gazing at orange-tinged ephemera and passing mining freighters, my bedroom cast in the early evening darkness of South Walian winter, X4 completely transported me to the pilot’s seat.
Exploring the universe to bubbly, excitable synths is always going to stir something inside of us, I think, and X4 is no different. There’s beauty to be found here, among the stars. But it's going to take a more dedicated role-player than myself - or at least someone far more interested in systems for their own sake - to buy into this flimsy simulation for very long.