X2: The Threat
Remember X-Wing Vs. Tie Fighter? I do and it’s been a long time since I’ve sampled its simple but beautiful gameplay mechanic and style. Back in the days when a Pentium 166MHz was looked upon with awe, it was the game to have; a fast paced dogfighter embedded in the Star Wars universe, brilliantly crafted and addictive as hell. Space-based games usually have a small market, but if done well, can really push the boundaries of gaming. Writers and developers like space a lot; it is a blank canvas onto which they can paint whatever story they wish. They can invent pretty much anything out there and then place right bang in the middle of it all. The only problem is getting us to take it all in and then react to the environment in the way that they want us to. Space gives developers freedom, but it’s also a huge challenge to get gamers to accept the virtual world and flourish in it. Enter X2: The Threat, Egosoft and Deep Silver’s latest contender for the crown.
X2: The Threat throws you straight into the plot through a gauntlet of cutscenes when you begin the game. Yet it’s not as exciting as it might sound, with a predictable and slightly cheesy storyline. As the game starts, you are shown a scene in which you – Julian Gordna – and your partner are caught in the act of stealing spaceships in a graphically impressive but otherwise dull chase through space. You are given a second chance by a badly lip-synced bearded gentleman who won’t tell you why you’ve been released from space prison early. He also gives you – a hardened criminal – a ship with guns on to go zooming off in. Certainly not the brightest guy around, that’s for sure.
X2 doesn’t fall into the space combat category as easily as you’d think. More an economic tycoon game than space brawler, it offers a sandbox universe open for looting, exploring, pillaging, plundering and discovering. The main viewpoint is the cockpit of your chosen ship, but much of the game uses menus to do tasks like equipping weapons, setting up trade routes, getting messages, viewing space charts, and accessing the in-game help. Although it appears to offer a deep gameplay experience, most of X2‘s economics are unbalanced and require an initial play of a week to purchase even the lowliest of vessels, let alone the eventual armadas, space stations and satellites the game offers.
The pacing and the game’s beginning are a big problem in fact. When you read a book or watch a film, you want to be drawn into it, gripped by the atmosphere, plot and characters. X2 just doesn’t do this. The game bombards you with pointless jargon and a set of lifeless characters who you don’t really care about. In The Getaway, you see Mark Hammond’s wife shot and his child kidnapped right in front of his eyes in a superbly done cutscene and you care. X2 isn’t like that – Julian doesn’t talk and he’s just not exciting. The game is also fairly confusing for the beginner. Unsure of where exactly to go, I spent a while hovering around a sector of space, trying to get near an objective. I accidentally bumped into another spaceship and suddenly the commander is sending out people to hunt me down and chop me into tiny pieces. A bit harsh for a first mission I though. Not wanting to give up my – or Julian’s – organs to a blender so easily, it was time to put up a fight.
And that brings us to space combat. This is where X-Wing Vs. Tie Fighter excelled and X2 should. Yet Egosoft make the art of dogfighting strangely awkward. For starters, the cockpit view and the external view do not offer enough visual space in which you can see your enemies or your objectives. The cockpit is lined with HUD elements, full of little screens telling you what the hyper-thingy is doing, but you get hardly any peripheral vision. The external viewpoint behind your craft is also hard to use since you cannot see straight in front of you, only the glowing rear of your ship. But the game doesn’t stop there. In the cockpit view, your control of your fighting machine is strangely remote, as the camera doesn’t seem to move in sync with the ship. It like being in a revolving goldfish bowl, and makes combat feel rather odd.
Console gamepads are great because you know exactly what buttons are available and there’s little to remember. X2 on the other hand, is almost as bad as Flight Simulator when it comes to control. Almost every button on the keyboard does something, but to find out what these do, you have to look it up in the manual or access the in-game help menu. Now how do we get to this menu? We didn’t know, because we weren’t given a manual! Furious key tapping ensued until we found a button that worked. Okay, this was the result of it being a press review copy, but you’d still expect the game to be more helpful than just saying “look it up in the manual” every time. Even in the training missions, it says “look at the controls in the manual now”. It’s all so overwhelming for a new player and this is bound to drive people away. It makes you feel completely ignorant rather than easing you in gently. What a shame.
To its credit, X2 looks gorgeous. The spaceships look like the average sci-fi cannon fodder, but the way their engines glow and the light glistens off the silver panels makes it feel so much more authentic. The cutscenes are also nicely done as far as visuals go, albeit with rubbish lip-syncing. Some ships also have a feature that allows you to zoom right in to your target so you can inspect it from far away. Mighty useful when some objects are far apart. However, the camera angles do let it down, obstructing your view on more than one occasion, which can be very frustrating as I’ve previously mentioned. Audio is a bit of a challenge in space, seeing how it’s a vacuum. X2 sound effects and voice acting is decent though, with a soothing score and stereotypical but accomplished sound effects.
X2‘s replay value really depends on how dedicated you are. Some will be deterred by the sheer complexity and irritations that the game has, while the more committed sci-fi fans will keep playing for months. X2 does offer a huge amount of depth, but it requires a lot of time and effort to find it; something that not all of us are willing to do. At the end of the day, X2: The Threat could have been a whole lot better. It does offer an interesting economic gameplay mechanic and decent graphics, but this is accompanied by poor dogfighting, bad camera angles and a harsh learning curve. This is one hybrid of genres that didn’t work out so well.