Posted by Rampant Coyote on August 12, 2013
I’ve had a soft place in my heart for the entire X series. I discovered the first one – X: Beyond the Frontier, on accident, at a *gasp* game store one afternoon, and bought it on a whim. I’d never heard about it before. But it had several things going for it: It was a game in a favorite and poorly represented subgenre (space trading sim). The screenshots on the box looked cool. It said all the right things on the back of the box. And finally, it’s title hinted – I’ve never known if it was deliberate or not – that it was a spiritual descendent of the game Frontier: Elite 2.
Frontier had been one of my hardcore gaming addictions. Yeah, the combat was utter crap in it. With larger ships, you were better off just equipping the largest shield you could mount on your vessel and just let the enemy ships destroy themselves when they ran into you (which was, like, all the time…). It was really one of the most complete and interesting “sandbox” universes of the era. The explorable galaxy was effectively infinite for all intents and purposes. Not all of it was inhabited, but it was huge. I discovered how huge after some hyperspace accidents left me far, far from inhabited space. There was this one time (One of the cool things about sandbox games with this level of depth is that players are always telling stories that begin, “There was this one time…”) that I tried to make it back to inhabited space the hard way, scooping off gas from the atmospheres of gas giants to be refined by my ship’s own built-in refinery systems. I think I spent two full nights trying to get home, ultimately failing as I realized just how far I was from even traces of civilization, and the various systems on my ship were failing from lack of maintenance.
Good times, good times.
As much as I enjoyed Wing Commander: Privateer, it lacked the open-world sandbox of Frontier, and so didn’t have quite the same level of awesomeness. It had way better combat, though. The sequel to Frontier – Frontier: First Encounters – was a buggy mess that never worked with my joystick, so I never played more than 30 minutes of it.
I would call X: Beyond the Frontier “pretty good.” It lacked the scope of Frontier (although the combat still wasn’t a whole lot better), but it was a great start. It did have some very intriguing elements of supply and demand. I remember coming with a huge cargo of some trade good for a station that was suffering a shortage. I was almost there, when I saw a giant trade ship approaching. I couldn’t beat it in, but I was within range of guns. I very nearly pulled the trigger. But I let it dock, and sadly watched the shortage turn into a surplus. I made very little money on that run.
The sequels have expanded on the concept, and increased the scope and flexibility of the game world. It’s good stuff. It seems that they keep digging into the brain of fans like me to give us the kinds of things we always wanted to do in a game like this – since the early days of the first Elite. (Or in my case, Frontier, as I was a latecomer to Elite…) They were good enough to channel your inner Malcom Reynolds, Han Solo, or even Boba Fett (or in later installments, your inner Admiral Naismith of the Dendarii Mercenaries).
But deep down, I’ve always had this dream of a sandbox space-trading game that is just one gigantic uber-detailed galaxy simulation. Where you, as a powerful player in the universe (you know, eventually…) can do things and they’ll have a predictable impact on the galaxy. You can watch the game world react to what you do. And then, of course, there’s this hope – this dream – of being able to go from this star-spanning high level simulation and get a close-in view of what’s going on. Even to the point of actually visiting those space stations you had a hand in building. I guess that’s the power fantasy of this kind of game.
It sounds a little like X: Rebirth is really pushing harder in this direction. I hope it is as cool as it sounds. For those of us who enjoy single-player space sandbox experiences, this looks like it could be a winner.
In the interest of fairness, while once upon a time the X series was something of an oasis in a desert of the genre, today there are lots of indie games catering to different variations on the theme. Dang it’s a good time to be a gamer. Two more that you can play right now are Drox Operative, sort of a top-down take on the concept with a very dynamic and interactive universe, and Evochron Mercenary,which was recently greatly expanded with version 2. Both games are pretty dang cool. They are the ones I’m most familiar with, but there are others (and plenty of older titles). The Open-Source Vega Strike also comes to mind, but I haven’t had much success getting into that one. And there are several other interesting titles also on the radar: From David Braben’s return to the game that started it all with Elite: Dangerous, to Chris Roberts big multi-player & single-player offering with Star Citizen.
I’m delighted that it is no longer quite as barren a field as it was back in 1999.
I don’t think you can call the EgoSoft series a “AAA” game – they’ve always been a little weird, niche, and quirky. But they are the currently the biggest-budget entry in the genre. While I doubt that X: Rebirth will prove to be the holy grail of the genre, it does look very promising. Could it be the one that sucks me in like the old classics did so long ago? I don’t know, but right now it’s one of the very few “big” games on the horizon that I’m really looking forward to and considering grabbing on release day.
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