In space, nobody can reproduce bug reports.
I want to love the X series. I really, really do. But they’ve all had one thing in common: an atrocious UI that started with the first game and never got any better. It was a mess of nested menus driven primarily by keyboard commands – mouse support for the UI was an ugly hack-job that didn’t help the underlying problems. The map was a mess, barely functional and entirely reliant upon an outdated keyboard control system that didn’t need to exist in the modern era. It made even simple tasks like ordering ships to move to a specific location much more difficult than it needed to be. I could have fixed the system with one simple design – an RTS-style map. That’s all it needed. On top of that, information was often hard to access, buried in particular menus which were sometimes found in inconsistent places. Fighting was frustrating and nigh-pointless at times – deeply unsatisfying and prone to random, unavoidable deaths by stray shots which meant flying anything other than an M6 or up was death. Trading and empire building, along with the dynamic universe economy, was what made the game special. And trading was a bit of a mess at times too thanks to that UI.
Well, forget about all that because they’ve made it worse. Christ, Egosoft. What the hell were you guys thinking?
Okay to be fair, I want to come out and say that I don’t hate this game. In some ways this is a positive step towards fixing some of the problems with the series. Ironically some of the more ‘immersive’ features, which I desperately wanted back in 2003 when I was playing Freelancer, are some of the ones that clearly don’t work in practice. All of this mixes with a big pile of bugs to create an experience which may or may not become something compelling. It’s still hard to say. Oh gees, where do I begin?
If you don’t know the X series, it’s pretty much the ultimate in single player freeform space-sim goodness. You can dick around as a humble trader, become a bounty hunter, built stations and become a mining mogul, or lead a fleet to crush anyone who gets in your way, with real consequences for the universe. Destroying every single energy production facility will lead to an energy crisis if nobody can rebuild them. This sort of reactive universe is what we’ve been salivating for over the years, but it’s always come with a terrible UI and less than satisfying combat. X Rebirth hoped to fix a few of the problems with the series. It has a storyline, but Christ is it boring with even worse voice acting than the series is infamous for. Also it’s buggy. I won’t even bother to repeat it because it serves as a thin veneer for the fundamental changes to the game. Firstly, you physically fly one ship called the Albion Skunk, which in old game terms probably equates to a cross between an M3 and an M6 (for those who don’t know what I just said, it’s half-Heavy Fighter, half-Cruiser). You can own a number of capital-class ships, which has been expanded to include the new freighters which are much larger these days (and are essential for any sort of trading). You can also own and operate a number of Drones, some of which are remotely operated by you, others are AI controlled. I’ll have more to say on these changes later. The universe is somewhat smaller but the sectors are larger and travel is more freeform (no more jump gate loading scenes) though in practice it doesn’t really make a difference. You can now hire crew to staff your ships, give orders to that crew rather than using the old Command Software Mk3 (or whatever) interface, and spend a lot of time walking around stations looking for people to talk to. That’s the basics of it.
Engine: 1 Point
The universe is smaller in that there are less sectors, but the detail packed into each one is remarkable. Stations are now absolutely massive, sprawling complexes that dwarf your ship. You can pilot a drone through the substructure, observing internal factory processes through convenient windows, ducking and weaving between various station elements for fun or tactics. A multitude of ships go about their daily business, from small passenger transport craft to massive freighters and other capital class ships. That said, this game is ridiculously bugged. On initial release the game wouldn’t launch if you had your audio quality set to 24bit – this has since been patched. There are numerous other bugs, like ships passing through stations or getting stuck in various objects, which will take longer to track down and eliminate. The campaign also suffers from some show-stopping bugs at times which quite frankly shouldn’t exist. I’d advise you to just skip the campaign but it introduces some gameplay elements so maybe that’s not an option. Detail on stations and ships are stunning but they’re also practical – turrets, engines, various subsystems and other bits and pieces are all physical objects attached to the ship, and can be individually destroyed. Character models are ugly as sin, with horrible animations and even worse voice acting – and you’re going to be spending a lot of time looking at them, so get used to it! I’d bump this up to 1.5 points once the bugs are fixed, but some of the graphics are ridiculously sub-par. Performance is atrocious on my i7 4770, 8GB RAM, and 660Ti, although it seems marginally better in Free Play mode. It seems to lag regardless of graphical settings, so I can’t definitively answer if my GPU is a bottleneck in this game, or if there’s an actual problem (from reading the forums, it seems to be the latter).
Gameplay: 1.5 Points
Where do I begin? Let’s tackle the obvious one first – one ship to rule them all. Yes, you do have one ship under your direct command. It’s called the Albion Skunk, and like I said before it’s more or less a faster M6. It’s fast enough that you won’t get bored flying around in it, but hardy enough to make fighting in it not so suicidal. People have complained about this feature since it was announced, but let’s be honest – piloting capital ships in X3 was boring because they were ridiculously slow and all the weapons more or less had to be automatically manned. Piloting fighters was fun but they were incredibly fragile, and death was only a missile away in some cases, ending your game. With that in mind, most people were flying freighters or M6 ships on a regular basis, and the Skunk should fill that role… except it can’t trade. What, what? I’m serious – no trading. But we’ll get to that. The new addition are Drones, which are either AI controlled or can be controlled by you. Drones are recovered unless they are destroyed, and effectively fill the role of the old fighters. They’re smaller than your ship and zip around within a limited (but still generous, we’re talking several kilometres) range, carrying out particular tasks. This at least lets you play fighter pilot without the risk of ending your game prematurely simply because you wanted to get into dogfighting – drone gets destroyed, oh well you’ve just wasted a bunch of credits, keep playing. I don’t know how effective they are in practice, but they’re fun enough to play with. Yes, there are plenty of people bitching that the game doesn’t let you pilot the big, lumbering cap ship that takes 5 minutes just to turn 180 degrees, but to those people I say this: you’ve known about this since it was first announced. It was never going to change. The game has gone in a different direction, so complaining about it is missing the point. Go back to X3.
With that said though the shift hasn’t been smooth. Firstly to do any sort of trading, you need a freighter. The Skunk can’t trade. Why? I don’t know. Since trading is still the principle way to make money, you’ve got to have a freighter. Freighters, being lumbering capital class ships now, take forever to get anywhere. To get that ship up and running you’ll need to staff it with at least a Captain, which you find hanging around on stations. This means you land, get out of the ship, and go hunt them down and hire them. While is adds to immersion, and is actually something I’ve kind of wanted since Freelancer’s station rooms showing your character standing around in a bar or whatever, it just gets in the way. You wander all over the station, find out nobody there can help you, and you’ve just wasted 5 minutes to accomplish nothing. That’s not fun. Back to trading. To trade, you’ll need to have freighter as part of your squad, meaning it’ll follow you around like a slow, lumbering puppy that lags so far behind that you’ll forget about it. Then you fly around a station and look for a trading opportunity. You hail them, enter into an even more confusing trading UI, then complete the transaction. Sometime in the far off future, your freighter will turn up and accept the goods. Repeat the procedure to sell. You can queue up trading jobs, but there’s no way (that I know of at least) to access that queue or even see what the ship itself is doing – it just says “Following Albion Skunk” whether it’s doing its trade run or not. It’s complete bullshit and it’s not even remotely an improvement on the old system.
To their credit, they’ve gotten rid of the old nested menu system, though they’ve swapped it for a new system which still fundamentally relies on nested menus. The only reason it works better (in most cases) is because a lot of options have been removed (since they’re effectively useless). It results in a problem though – information is now not just hard to find, it’s practically non-existent. How do I find out what my ships are doing when they’re in my squad? Why do I have to have my freighters in my squad just to trade? What orders can I give to my ships? I don’t know the answers to these questions. The manual doesn’t tell me. The in-game tutorials occasionally give instructions that don’t correspond to in-game actions. Half the time I’m not sure how to accomplish what I want to do, I just flounder around hoping to find the option I want. The UI is different, and it’s faster by virtue of having less options, but damn it I still don’t know how to work it! Ironically I’ve had more success with the Xbox 360 gamepad than I have with the keyboard and mouse – at least there are less things to accidentally press. The lack of command options still confuses me quite a bit. You give orders to the captain of your ship, but damned if I really understand what’s going on. It’s the sort of thing that requires an enterprising gamer to write a tutorial for – because Egosoft sure as shit aren’t going to tell you what’s going on!
Combat has been improved quite a bit – dogfighting is now a bit more entertaining and not a one-way ticket to frustration, although the targeting system is ridiculously broken. It’s supposed to be some sort of automatic system but sometimes it refuses to lock onto the target at the centre of the crosshair, and once or twice I’ve had it lock onto a piece of wreckage and refuse to target anything else. There’s no hotkey for targeting either, you’re at the mercy of this system, but Egosoft are aware of this and are looking at patching in a hotkey. A bigger issue is that the AI are apparently brain-dead; their only move so far is to fly directly at you while shooting, and after their first pass (which you’ll survive easily) they never manage to reacquire you. They’re also incapable of navigating around stations, frequently getting stuck or confused when they get too close. These are clearly bugs but it’s amazing that the game shipped in this state! Granted, the combat AI in the X games has never been particularly great and seemed to rely more on having a high damage output than being difficult opponents, but we’ve crossed into ‘broken’ territory now.
With all of that said, there are moments of brilliance. The manual is filled with storyline fluff that gets in the way of explaining mechanics, and the tutorial is nigh-useless, but when things do work and the sense of scale hits you, the game does become compelling. The same feeling that struck me in X3 strikes me here, but while X3’s was bled away by a horrid UI that would get me killed, in Rebirth it’s a feeling of confusion… in conjunction with a UI that’s different but still ineffective. These moments more readily manifest in free play, where you can go out on your own without an annoying, poorly voice-acted storyline harassing you every 5 minutes. It’s at those points when you realise that the fundamentals of the game are still intact – you can still build up your trade empire, build stations, and so on. But this new UI is taking a while to come to grips with, and god damn what did they do to the trading UI?! There’s a lot of work still to be done to fix this up, but Egosoft at least are good at post-release support.
In some ways, this feels like an expanded Freelancer – which ironically is something I’ve wanted for a long time. I wanted a Freelancer where I could raise up a fleet or own my own stations. I wanted a Freelancer with a dynamic economy where my actions made a difference. The best praise I can give X: Rebirth right now is that we’re seeing glimpses of that here! It isn’t the same scale as the previous X games, but this isn’t X4 we’re talking about here, it’s a new game set in the same (somewhat bland) universe. That Freelancer that I wanted all those years ago is close to reality, and it’s something I want to embrace. But damn these bugs are getting in the way, and some of the UI still isn’t up to scratch. There are some odd decisions here which need to be fixed, but fortunately nothing is beyond repair. If you wanted to pilot multiple ships or have some other problem with core elements then you’ll never get what you want. If you wanted X4 you’re never going to get it from this game. But if you accept that it isn’t a sequel to X3, then you might be able to glimpse the goal behind the curtain of bugs.
Overall: 2.5 Pass
Let me be clear – X: Rebirth has some major problems. Many of them are related to bugs, which makes it hard to give an accurate assessment of the game. I’d give this a ‘Good’ rating based on potential, but potential is hard to guess at. The biggest flaw with gameplay is trading, and the fact that the UI is still ultimately a mess of nested menus, just with less options. But when it does work, when things click into place, it shows a glimmer of brilliance, enough to make me want to stay to see where the game goes. If you haven’t bought it, I wouldn’t buy it – but I wouldn’t relegate it to the scrap heap just yet. Wait for the bugs to be fixed, wait for some of the other problems to be resolved, and then come back and check again.
On a final note – the Steam forums are burning with rage over this title but that’s just standard new-release complaining that occurs on every forum. Every single thread on the Steam forums when a new game is released relates to it being broken, dumbed down, made for consoles, or deserving of a refund. They’re not even worth reading half the time.