Well, that was sort of deflating. In proud Egosoft tradition, a brand new X game comes out with poor graphics optimisation and bugs. I suppose that should have been expected. After all, X3 and its subsequent expansion Terran Conflict didn’t start life being smooth and slick either. However, rapid patching, feature improvements and the general modding community make it well worth the while to stick with it. Though there are bugs and low frame rates, the trade off is an amazingly pretty and detailed universe. Unfortunately, where the pretty visuals make quite a lovely setting, there are some questionable choices by Egosoft which make you wonder just what happened on the long road to release.
By far the biggest issue is the user interface. Now, I admit that the previous user interface used from X2 onwards could only be described as obtuse and difficult to understand and many players asked for it to be simplified. However, in an attempt to simplify it, a lot of actual functionality was lost. I’m still yet to find the window that tells you where all your assets (stations and ships) are and the overall universe map which was so crucial to running your interstellar empire in previous games seems missing. Gone also is the autopilot, which honestly makes no sense given the size of the universe we’re flying around in. Although, it does stop you from leaving your computer on all night with time acceleration turned up to maximum and raking in the dough.
Now, I get that Egosoft took some inspiration from the Mass Effect series with a radial wheel based interface designed for character interactions and dialogue, but that ultimately doesn’t work in a large, complex space trading and fighting game. In fact, it’s deplorable. Where you could customise the controls to suit whatever you were familiar with, now you get no customisation. You can’t change any of the key bindings. Why Egosoft? Yes, simplifying the user interface is important, but why not allow the useful and accessible keyboard shortcuts to remain if someone wanted them?
To make it worse, flying around in space with the default steering mode is frightfully stupid because you steer by click and holding the left mouse button. Other wise, you fly in a straight line. Alternatively, when you switch modes, your ship flies in the direction the cursor is pointing. However, the cursor doesn’t actually do anything since you can’t really interact with anything on screen apart from targeting spacecraft or stations. This would be totally unnecessary if they allowed the kind of targeting mode present in the old games.
Then, there’s the matter of trading. I wouldn’t mind so much if you could contact a station and see a big screen of all possible trades in wares and commodities. But you can’t. Instead, you have to fly up to a small icon on the side of the station, make the order and wait for your giant capital ship freighter to park next to it to have smaller freighters transfer the items. This gets incredibly frustrating due to the slow pace of your freighters. Hopefully there is a way to just buy smaller cargo shuttles and have them do the lifting.
I could also gripe about the character models that makes everyone look aged and pruney, absurdly bad voice acting and cookie cutter space station interiors. However, Egosoft has always traditionally been terrible at character models and voice acting, so people should really have expected this. The space station interiors were a good idea and are a genuine attempt at greater immersion in the X universe, however, this is undone when it’s clear there are only a few overall layouts. Unfortunately, the immersion is further broken when stations only appear to be populated sparsely by vendors and function as a massive dole queue for unemployed people and there are no other NPCs apart from those. It would be good if the station interiors could be just as lively as the outside universe. Even static bystanders that populate hub areas in RPGs that don’t do anything, but say random gibberish would be better at giving life to a living universe.
However, step back and take a long, hard look at the visuals in space and you forget about these foibles. The reason? The new X universe is is prettier and sexier than a Victoria’s Secret lingerie parade (well, maybe not), the individual sectors have more personality and life than ever before and even the quiet areas devoid of much population are filled with possibility. Where previous titles clustered lots of small stations in a small area of space between gates, we now have lots of humungous stations clustered around and between jump lanes within a larger star system. I think this is an improvement because the small clusters of stations felt strangely isolated, especially those around a planet. Speaking of the stations, they are teeming with detail that previously were never there. Solar power plants crackle with electricity, you can see the biodomes feeding water through the individual plantations and smelters are processing ore for weapons and ships. It is a wonderful sight to behold.
Ultimately, I was sort of expecting a buggy release from Egosoft as it continues the tradition, really. However, that’s no excuse and neither is the fact that X Rebirth represents a hugely ambitious and complex change of direction for the X franchise. The only consolation that players have is that while Egosoft are good at releasing buggy games, they are even better at listening to the fanbase, furiously patching out bugs and optimising for hardware. Egosoft are also incredible at mod tools, support and adding features to games they’ve released. Case in point, the original release of Terran Conflict was just as buggy and slow as Rebirth, but within a few weeks most were ironed out and content features were already being added for free. Now starts the waiting game for Rebirth’s upgrade program.