I remember the joys of Elite...way way back in the good old days of the Spectrum and other computers, the wire-frame graphics of Bell and Braben's masterpiece thrilled me and my friends with a combination of new gameplay and the fact we were left pretty much to our own devices - to fight, trade and explore this new universe.
Now we're in 2004 and we've had a slew of games attempt to capture the feel of Elite, from the seminal Independence War and it's sequel. To the original X: Beyond the Frontier, a game that tried to capture Elite's gameplay philosophy but didn't quite pull it off. Things got much better with X-tension the expansion pack for X but were not quite there yet.
Last year one game almost made it to the coveted Elite status, but Freelancer fell a few pegs short of being an Elite style game, and wasn't as open ended as some wanted.
Of course there could be hundreds if not thousands of people who disagree with me and rally to the defence of their favourite games. But I'm not here to fight the good fight with them, I'm here to lay it out in black and white why I feel X2: The Threat is one of the best space sim, flight and trade games I have played for a long time.
X2's story picks up after X's and catapults you into an alternate universe once again, the X Universe where things are totally different from Earth. I won't go into the story here because I don't want to spoil it, one of X2's key points for me is the plot itself which I think is very good, so it gets some extra points for having a decent background story to the game.
It's a nicely woven plot and meshes easily with X2's open-ended style of gameplay, while you'll get reminders via the in-game message system that you have a certain task to do, as long as you're not on a main mission you can spend as much time as you like doing what you like.
Let's get down to brass tacks shall we; my main gripe with space games has been that they always seemed to push you in one direction, while not giving you the opportunity to experience the Universe for yourself. While you could always follow the main plot, it seemed to me that really, no matter what the developers said - you could never deviate from it and do your own thing.
What I wanted, craved and badly needed was a game to come along that had a good story and came loaded with lots of do-what-you-want goodness. I missed X the first time around due to my PC lacking in the power areas - now I have my new PC and it runs X2 without a hitch or a glitch.
Then X2 came along...and I have to say that for me this is as close to space gaming Nirvana as I can get.
But why does it have me drooling buckets of wolf slobber? Well now, read on and learn the nature of the game's open-ended gameplay.
X2's gameplay sits on so many levels it's almost impossible to accurately describe each individual aspect of the game, but I'm going to break this down into several sections and give a general overview of each type of gameplay.
To call X2 a Space Sim is a very broad statement, this is the game that combines several genres into one and does it rather well if you ask me. While it can be played as an out and out shoot everything in sight and attempt to win through force of arms style game, you're going to have to understand and use some of the other gameplay dynamics.
Explore the Universe in your chosen Starship (One of 70 or so vessels) that range from small fighters to immense Battleships. Shoot down the pirates or attack friendly ships, it's really up to you - but remember that the X Universe isn't static...it responds to everything that you do, and blasting someone in their home system is likely to result in you becoming highly unpopular and very dead.
But let's back up a moment and remember: You can do it if you want to.
It's pretty standard Space Sim controls and fans of this genre are going to feel right at home, they're easy to use and everything is laid out with a fair intelligence. There's a hand help console if you really get stuck and some of the usual systems on your ship are automated - handled by your 'bitching betty' shipboard AI.
Trade and Economy Sim
Yes, you heard me right; I said the word that had Elite fans dribbling back in the day. X2 comes packed with a fully functioning Econ system that reacts to your trading habits and produces a fairly realistic change in pricing as you go about trading.
But X2 also allows for several additions, one of them is the ability to construct your own Stations and Factories. With this neat system you can buy a Station or Factory, hire a ship to transport it to a place within the sector and put it down - it will then be built and when it's done you'll have a place that you can call your own.
Various adjustments can be made to the Stations prices for trade and you of course will have to keep your Factories supplied with the needed raw materials. You can buy and assign transport ships to automatically run the needed trips to buy these commodities, which is an excellent way to do things.
You may want to build Factories that produce various wares and sell them off; in X2 you can do this without a problem as long as you have enough money. Money can be gained by doing trade runs and of course through many other legal and illegal means. You can also now get a program direct from the game's website that upgrades your Ship's AI to be able to trade on its own in a particular sector.
Just remember that you have to balance your Station's prices and subtly undercut the opposition, or you'll end up making a loss on your wares. Not to mention of course, you need to make sure defences and perhaps even fighters adequately protect your installations, as piracy can be rife in the X Universe, you don't want to get caught with your pants down.
So you have your gigantic Trade Empire and more credits than you can shake a funky chicken at, what do you do with it all? That's really up to you, you can make more Stations and increase your holdings or you can of course buy ships...lots of ships.
Thanks to the way that X2 handles commands you have a ship command console, which has to be one of the most useful and effective tools in the hands of would-be Commanders, ever. This device can modify the way your ships react and even what your on-board AI does when it controls turrets that can be mounted on your vessel.
With a few changes to a setting you can command your ship turrets to blast all your enemies or protect the ship, at any time you can switch into the turret yourself and let your AI do the flying.
With the right in-game control software installed you can create fleets of automated combat ships, have them shadow you as you cruise around the sectors - blasting pirates into space dust. It's as simple as giving a few orders via a menu and sitting back to watch the action.
You can even activate a couple of monitor screens and set them to watch your fighters in action.
By deploying navigation satellites you can keep an eye on far distant sectors and control battles from afar, it really is quite impressive to see come all together and leaves you feeling like some kind of intergalactic chieftain with a real army at their command.
I've been lucky enough to cruise around in one of the many larger ships and they are capable of taking fighters on board, fighters that you can fly and defend the ship with. Or you can bring up the command console and order them to take off, blast all enemies and then land.
Now it's stuff like this that takes the Space Sim genre into new and fun directions, I wish more people went into the serious kind of detail that this game has.
So you have bundles of options at your command, you're going to need to play the Tutorials to get the way things work, but it's mostly common sense stuff and reading the manual will help a great deal.
With these options you also have X2's overriding sense of open-ended gameplay, you can follow this story if you want or you can spend hours just trying to make a small trade empire to build up your funds.
X2's gameplay is a glorious mix of RTS (Stations and Fleet Battles) Trade (Economy and Trade runs) Space Sim that really does work, the only gripes I have heard from many people is that it often takes too long to get from one place to the other - thankfully in X2 they increased the SETA drive (Time distortion device) to a X10 so that a journey takes less time.
X2's NavMap is also pretty easy to use and remembers all the salient information in a sector from your scanners, eventually it's simple enough to find where you want to go. It might require some exploring to find some of the jump gates to other sectors but that's what the game's all about.
The game features tons of upgrades and additions you can have to your ship and captures that mad upgrading frenzy that Elite first tantalised us with, many moons ago. You will have to search around for the best options and my advice is to make as much money as you can early on if you want to really become a legend in the X Universe.
I'd better point out that some ships can be blasted and their pilots will eject, you can then eject from your own ship and cross over in your space suit to do a bit of EVA and steal the derelict. This is getting close to my most wanted feature - X2 devs take note.
Wolf wants a game where he can get out of the ship and walk around on foot - X3 please, thanks, love you bub-bye.
Everything you do is watched and you're ranked and tallied accordingly by each of the game's races, so there's also the matter of diplomacy to take into account - or that mercy mission you're flying might turn into a slaughter as you pass through a now hostile sector of space.
All because you had to take a pot shot at the President's Daughter in her shuttle or something equally nefarious.
Remember - You can fight, trade, explore and build to your hearts content in X2 and it doesn't suffer for it at all, as I said before this is close to Space Sim Nirvana for me. Or you can just follow the story and try to finish the game without going too deeply into it.
Graphics and Models
The graphics in X2 are excellent and the ship models are much better than those of many of the other games, not to mention that there are around 70 or so different types of ship. All of them have moving parts and they are put together beautifully - they use the latest graphical niceness and take advantage of bump mapping and all those other lovely technical terms, I'm not going to bother to go into.
It's a beautiful game in my opinion and the whole richness of 3d space is pulled off perfectly, lens flares and star formations all whirl and dance in a veritable cornucopia of joyous quality - you'll need a fairly powerful machine and gfx card to see all the goodness - but it's worth it to watch the real time shadows and lightning as the big starships ply their trade across the Universe.
Another wonderful thing about X2 is the awe-inspiring sense of scale; a huge Battleship looks and behaves like a huge Battleship, while a tiny fighter looks and behaves like a tiny fighter - fleets of escorting ships are mesmerising to behold and the whole thing had me humming the theme to Babylon 5.
The guns show a decent amount of animation as well and the game comes packed with interior views, cockpits galore and they're not just for show, each one has readouts and dials packed with information - you can even look around in them since they're full 3D. It's attention to detail like this that transforms a simple game into a glorious journey and suspends that disbelief dragging you into the world for a while.
Explosions and spot effects are nice as well, there's a good level of detail to the booms and the weapon sfx have some nice phosphorescent glows to them. I can't grumble at all when something goes boom in this game; it's a nice satisfying explosion.
One of my only gripes here is that there's a little less attention paid to the character models in the game, but it's only a minor gripe really. Some of the faces look the same and some of the models seem a little re-used, the texturing could do with being a little tighter too but you only notice this in camera close-ups.
Sound and Music
Space games have it a lot easier than the Mil Sims or other kinds of realistic games, you don't have to worry what a TenBoomMegaWattDeathCannonOfDoom sounds like, as long as it makes the player feel as though they're using a cannon that can devastate half a planet.
So the sound in X2 is good, there are a lot of ambient and spot noises, space ship idle sounds and many others in the game. There's a wonderful level of audio detail that wraps you up in the X2 world, it's quite something to hear the engines of a Battleship as it passes a few feet from your tiny fighter - especially if you have a Subwoofer active at the time, I had to nail down a few things on my table.
Moody stuff and brilliantly orchestrated to match the pace of the game, the docking music is reminiscent of the strains of the Blue Danube and brings back memories, oh so many memories. The action and suspense themes are enough to remind me of the wonderful soundtrack to Babylon 5 but don't quite hit the same oomph as the music from that, but it's still excellent stuff and I can't fault it at all.
It's also in Mp3 format so you can shift music tracks around to your hearts content, swap in some of those hard rock tunes for the action scenes if you like. Or if you really want a stroll down Memory Lane, grab the Blue Danube and find the docking music, a few swaps later and voila - instant trip back to the good old days.
Sorry but this is where the game falls down for me, but it's not a big fall that could plummet you into an abyss of despair and wailing. It's a slide down a rocky scree-slope between good and bad acting, but it's only to be expected in the computer game industry - very few games have the budget to hire the likes of Phil Lamarr for instance, who does the voice for Samurai Jack and the Green Lantern in the show Justice League.
X2's VA is ok in places and suffers from the fact that the in-game cutscenes are a bit too long, some of them are short but a lot of them will have most people pulling their hair out and looking for the skip button (Esc thankfully.)
It's not going to win any awards in this area, but I have truly heard worse.
I've probably missed out a lot in this review that I really needed to say, but X2 is so packed with content that it's going to take a while to get to grips with it all. Not to mention that the developers have placed content download on their site for ship upgrades and new styles of AI script.
I'm going to go out on a limb here and say that X2 is probably a game I could call my new Elite, it takes several ideas from the genre and packages them in new and exiting ways, while adding hosts of new stuff from its' own backyard.
So if you love Space Sims and you want to spend hours just doing what you want, X2 is the game for you.