A sequel to X: Beyond the Frontier, X2: The Threat returns players to the distant area of space known as X Universe. Players take control of a pilot being given a second chance at life after being arrested while attempting to steal a ship. First given a job as a miner, the player soon learns new details about their father as well as their own true identity. Now they must help prevent the X Universe from being taken over by a new alien race known as the Khaak.
As players progress through the game they can build their skills in one or a combination of professions: Trader, Bounty Hunter, Pirate, and Miner. Players also have a ship that can be upgraded throughout their travels. Some of the defensive systems that can be altered include the hull strength, shield system, warning system, and enemy radar tracking. Offensive abilities include a variety of missiles, and lasers with different damage properties, rates of fire, and ship placement.
X2: The Threat features a universe with thousands of objects to see and interact with: space stations, ships, weapons, commodities to trade, and races, each with their own agendas and technologies. There are also visual effects that players can take advantage of, such as hiding within gas clouds.
X2 isn't so much a full-blown sequel as an iterative part of the development of Egosoft's X: Beyond the Frontier, initially released in 2000. After getting patched up and then expanded with the X-Tension pack, Egosoft presented something very close to X2. But with X2, they've tied it all together, upgraded it, and smoothed it out considerably. The result isn't just one of the most ambitious space sims; it is also one of the most successful space games for how well it lives up to its ambition.
X2 opens with a long silly cutscene that you should just skip. If you plod dutifully though the storyline, you'll not only miss the game's main appeal, but you'll be plunged into a mess of tedious hokum about a mysterious stranger's destiny in an intergalactic war. It speaks volumes that your boss is named Ban Danna and the menacing aliens are called "Khaaks," which have to be two of the worst transatlantic nomenclatures since Brazil's Varghina Incident (Egosoft, in case you're wondering, is a German company). The sooner you break out of this awkwardly told story (with some of the most truly wretched cutscenes you'll ever suffer through), the better. There's a universe out there waiting for you to jump in and the short stilted storyline is one of the least interesting parts of it.
Instead, you'll get the most out of X2 by approaching it as a sandbox game. What's most remarkable about X2 is how well the developers have left it open to so many different approaches, each with its own unique feeling. You can trade, chauffeur, hunt, pirate, mine, hijack, police, or any combination thereof. But that's just the beginning. As you sink deeper into the game, you'll be able to build up your own industry in the universe's dynamic economy. Buy space stations, supply them with transports to bring in raw materials, and sell the processed goods. There's a living universe with a dynamic economy at work here. It's like playing Railroad Tycoon in space through the cockpit of a ship. But be warned that it's a drawn-out process since you have to let the game run in real-time and keep yourself otherwise engaged while your pokey transports ply the lanes of commerce.
If that's not for you, you can become a pirate, attacking other ships to steal their cargo. You can even force some pilots to abandon their ships, which you can then steal and sell. Each race sells a police license that lets you hunt illegal ships for bounty. But you don't have to go it alone. You can hire wingmen and escorts. You see all those big capital ships floating? You can have those, too. You can build fighter drones and load up carriers. Become the admiral of your own fearsome battle fleet if going solo isn't your style.
In fact, this is a lot of the appeal of X2. There's so much to do, so many ways to interact with the universe, so many toys to experiment with. If you can see it, somewhere down the line, you can probably have it for your own. Grant Theft Auto's free-form gameplay is a claim many games would like to make, but X2 is one of the few that really lives up to that claim. In a way, it's the polar opposite of Digital Anvil's recent Freelancer, which took place in a slick but ultimately shallow universe. X2 isn't as polished, but with so many interactive elements, there's a remarkable amount of depth to plumb. This isn't just a game; it's a career.
This is also one of the main drawbacks with X2. This is not a very accessible game. And not just because it takes a while before you can earn enough money to really experience what the universe has to offer. The documentation is so scant that you'll have to spend some time saving and reloading to experiment with how things work. You'll constantly contend with an unwieldy interface, which consists largely of unintuitive lists and offers virtually no mouse support. In fact, you might as well disconnect your mouse. You can use it to fly, but the spongy movement of the cursor really makes this impractical. For all intents and purposes, a joystick is mandatory. It doesn't help that the keyboard controls offer only limited customization. This is one of those old-school interfaces you'd find in a hardcore flight sim. But once you sink a few hours into the game, you'll be able to breeze through arcane keyboard commands like they're second nature.
Visually, X2 is a stunning game and not just because the graphics are good. While you may think you've seen everything that can be done with spaceship and space stations, there are some refreshing and imaginative designs in X2. The graphics will need a bit of tweaking to run smoothly on most machines. Fortunately, once you've toggled off shadows, bump maps, and anti-aliasing, you've still got a good-looking game. The sound is pretty weak all around, with the loudest sounds being another ship whooshing past you or the veritable roar of a tiny spacefly. X2 could use a bit of an aural boost.
Another significant problem with X2 is the combat. The weapons are pretty unremarkable and the AI is downright ridiculous. The usefulness of maneuverability is sadly limited by the lack of anything approaching actual physics. You can improve your ship's turning ability, but combat is usually a matter of just slinging firepower without much thought for precision. In fact, most gunfights end with the combatants ramming each other, so you'll usually just want to stay out of the way and let the automated turrets and expensive missiles do all the fighting.
But it's a testament to how good this game is that these problems don't detract from what X2 accomplishes. This is what space games should be about: lush scenery, freedom, and room to roam. Elite is dead. Long live X2.
People who downloaded X2: The Threat have also downloaded:
X-Gold (X: Beyond the Frontier & X-Tension), X³: Reunion, Wing Commander: Privateer - Gemini Gold, X-COM: Interceptor, Freelancer, Wings over Europe: Cold War Gone Hot, Starlancer, Wing Commander: Prophecy - Gold
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