X: Beyond the Frontier
The thing with online games like Everquest and Ultima Online is that apart from the human interaction, you become part of a world where if you log off at any point, it carries on regardless. Essentially, you feel like you're missing out if you're not there - hence the reason our editor, Chris, has a phone bill the size of Nebraska. Maybe someone should have told him about X - Beyond The Frontier.
You may not think Ultima Online or X have much in common, one being an online fantasy RPG, the other a singleplayer space combat game, but both immerse you to much the same degree and in strikingly similar ways. You see, X-BTFis, in a sense, an RPG in space. Instead of building up skills and buying poleaxes, you build up your ship with better engines, strange time compression devices and more lethal lasers. And just like Ultima Online, whenever you leave the X universe, you get the feeling that you're missing out, as if you not being there means some computer-controlled player will build a solar power plant or weapons forge right where you wanted to. Quite how it does this is difficult to explain, but shamelessly efficient German developers Egosoft seem to have arranged all their 1s and Os in almost all the right places.
After a wonderfully atmospheric introduction that seems to go on for hours (even the credits are worth a watch), you start the game at the helm of the X-Prototype, an X-perimental and no doubt X-pensive spacecraft that's been developed to take mankind to the stars. Unfortunately, as with all computer game prototypes, something goes wrong and you are propelled into a distant galaxy from which you must find your way home.
Found drifting in Teladi space by a passing cruiser, you are given the most basic of information, a much-needed MOT and a loan of 100 credits. From then on, the game follows the legendary Elite formula of trading and fighting to build up your bank balance. Unlike Elite, however, instead of having hundreds of systems selling the same commodities, each race produces a number of specific products, many of which are unobtainable (and sometimes illegal) in other systems. Later on, when you have about 30 grand, you can even build factories of your own - perhaps an illicit Bliss Place, procure a few defence fighters to look after them and indulge in some exploring, piracy or bounty hunting while the credits roll in.
From the outset, the game is a voyage of discovery, thanks to the fact that the manual gives nothing away. There are no histories of the six discordant races, no maps of the systems - just a few technical details of some of the ship-early-available upgrades. While this lack of information ensures a wealth of surprises, it also guarantees an unhealthy dose of frustration as you try to work out which goods are best to trade, where and how to build factories, and which aliens to befriend.
It's this frustration that is Xs biggest failing. There is certainly a lack of dialogue between yourself and the various ships. Almost all of it is story-driven and of little use while you struggle to get to grips with the economics of finding profitable trade routes and setting prices at which your transport ships should buy raw materials. It literally takes about 20 hours of gameplay before you can really get stuck into the story and start exploring. Until then, your ship is hopelessly outgunned and, as you can only save in trading stations (there's one at the centre of each system), you can easily fall prey to the pirates who hang out at the jump gates.
If you prefer the lightning pace and linearity of games like Wing Commander, you'd be better served by Freespace or its imminent sequel. If, however -like me - you consider Elite to be the best game ever made, X -Beyond The Frontiers by far its closest relation. You just have to stick with it. If you do, you'll be rewarded by some novel upgrades, an involving story and some impressive pitched battles. Some may berate the fact that there is only one ship to fly and no swooping over planets, but with the wealth of trading possibilities, such features are hardly missed.
Right On Commander
Graphically, Xis perfectly balanced. The ships are well designed and yet simple enough to be PC friendly in large numbers. Neon signs adorn factories and space stations and distant nebulas cast their eerie glow across the cockpit. The game has an almost hypnotic effect at times, perfectly in tune with the pace of the game. Again, it's not for everyone, but for the Elite fan, frustrated for 15 years, Xthrows you into an alien universe rich with life and awash with atmosphere.
At times you'll feel hopelessly lost, at others captivated by the unfolding story. Its presentation is unique and its scope breathtaking. If you play for a day, you'll still be at it six months later. What more could you possibly ask?
Download X: Beyond the Frontier
- PC compatible
- Operating systems: Windows 10/Windows 8/Windows 7/2000/Vista/WinXP