To put a few things into perspective, I picked up X3: Albion Prelude about a year or so ago and have just surpassed the 250 hour mark. While this may not seem like all that much for a year worth of gaming, keep in mind that I have also been churning out reviews on a near-daily basis. I always find time for X3, no matter the situation, I love the X series as a whole. Between the first X title and X3: Albion Prelude, well, I likely have in the upwards of 3,000 hours (mind you, X: Beyond the Frontier was originally released in 1999), if not more though it does get a little hazy given my long stint as a die-hard World of Warcraft member. I have a long and wonderful history with the X-line of games, they are some of the only games that really ever allowed me to realize the dreams of space and seeing the universe, all the while participating in large-scale battles and streaking through space, weaving and dodging other craft as you attempt to out maneuver that devastating poltergeist missile.
Some of my fondest memories come from Albion Prelude, the final expansion to the X3 family; hopping into one of my capital ships, like my Colossus M1 and issuing fleet commands, then switching over to an Elite M4 that is part of a wing of 10 or so ships, and wreaking havoc amongst the Terrans, weaving in and out between their Tokyo’s and their Katanas as I take my Gold Wing to the stars as I hunt down the devastating Claymores. There is something invigorating about blasting through space debris to cut hard around an asteroid, watching your aft cameras as the exhaust trails of the poltergeist missiles disappear into large explosions on the asteroid, only to whip back around and unleash a devastating salvo of Mass Driver rounds and silkworm missiles upon the unprepared enemies. Just thinking about flying through heavily contested sectors like Omicrom Lyrae, Asteroid Belt, and Treasure Chest with my Wing at my side brings out the goosebumps and gets the blood pumping. To say the least, X3: Albion Prelude is one of my all-time favorite games. Period.
When I first heard about X: Rebirth some time ago I was more than just ‘interested,’ I was feverish for more information. As launch approached I was extremely intrigued, there were some new features, some more restrictive features, a different perspective; while I love my X3:AP, sometimes different can be good. Unfortunately X: Rebirth launched to low acclaim, a lot of users being fans like I have been, felt a bit betrayed at the difference between the lauded, yet flawed X3: Terran Conflict and X: Rebirth in terms of build quality. Performance issues aside, X: Rebirth felt much more shallow than others in the franchise line and a lot of early adopters took to the Egosoft (and Steam) forums to voice displeasure.
What set Egosoft apart though is that they listened, they took our feedback to heart and made every effort to bring X: Rebirth into the fold and let it grow into a worth addition to the X franchise. Some six or so months later, Egosoft starts feeding out some tidbits that changes will come; changes that will help remove the bad taste in our mouths that X: Rebirth had left when it launched. Two or so months later, X: Rebirth 2.0 was released, toting a whole host of changes, from multiple gamestarts and cockpit configurations to new ships, improved graphics and a huge list of fixes and improvements to go along with the large list of additions. Did Egosoft listen to our complaints? Did they essentially re-release a title that can fit well into the X franchise? Did they appease the fans of their series while bringing in ‘new blood?’ Read on to find out more.
In the initial launch of X: Rebirth the game looked great having some excellent models and textures for ships though lighting was a bit off and the overall engine was not optimized well, leading to numerous performance issues and crashing. On top of that, I personally had quite a bit in the way of screen-tearing where textures would grey-out and shoot off into the distance. It was troublesome and heartbreaking in ways. When I loaded up X: Rebirth 2.0 I was not sure what I was going to find; was it going to be the same? Was I going to have to deal with an over-heating video card? So prior to loading up X: Rebirth I took a moment to make sure I had all non-essential apps closed in the background, that drivers were updated, the whole shebang, I wanted to make sure nothing would get in my way. I loaded up X: Rebirth and set everything to “ultra”, just because I hate myself and I watched my framerate drop to about 15 FPS. Scaling back I was happy at what would be between a High and a Medium setting, as I was getting a regularly constant 60 FPS at 1080p; not bad for aging hardware. From a first glance a lot of the optimization features have been nixed, which is excellent, and new graphics and textures were added too which is also excellent.
I still feel that the human models need a lot of work, but I will be honest, I do not play the X games for the human models, but rather for the ships. Now, the ships previously looked great, same with stations and the scale was great if a little small at times. This has not changed in 2.0, though I believe that the models have gotten a bit sharper which is likely due to the improved textures, though I did find that seeing some of the different craft was much more difficult. It may be due to my own aging eyesight but there were plenty of cases where I was flying around doing my thing (mining more often than not) when I would suddenly flatten some smaller ship and generally make someone unhappy with me. I did not mind though, since I relished any combat I could get as it feels a bit more roguish or nefarious than in previous titles. I believe that is attributed to the scale of the game; I mean, you can actually fly into your freighters and other capital ships. I am really sorry, naysayers, but I find that awesome.
While the graphical updates to X: Rebirth have been successful overall, the audio has yet to retrieve much treatment. It is not that the thuds of a rocket or the whine of the mining laser are not great, since they are, it is the voice acting that is a bit deplorable and awfully flat at times. I really struggled with the voice acting since in one hand, most of the script (and the execution) is terrible to the point that Mystery Science Theater 3000 (MST3K for life!) would likely not touch it. Ever. However, a shining example of all that is holy in the X universe is the voice acting for your onboard AI. The minute I heard her voice I was instantly calmed and taken to my happy place. The stoic, informational tone that is used sounds just like X3:AP (Albion Prelude) and was an instant reminder that I am flying through freaking space in a freaking ship mining and blowing stuff up. How cool can that be? Seriously though, if there was a way to rip out the audio dialog and switch it to text-only, I would and X: Rebirth 2.0, while being better than the initial launch still has bad voice acting; I am beginning to wonder whether the excellent space exploration, combat, sandbox style, and bad voice acting are the staples for the X-franchise.
Outside of the comically horrendous, lower-than-B-rated movie audio, the sound effects are actually really nice. There were plenty of instances where I would be minding my own business mining asteroids with not a peep around when I would see a freighter and a few escort ships whip by only a moment later to see a swarm of attackers on them when my radio would squawk, only to have me ignore it completely because money! But still, watching these battles from an observer’s point of view, something I never did in the previous games, felt bigger, more alive and more lifelike because the audio was properly tuned and the effects just right. In X3:AP I would fly escort for my own freighters, or just pilot the freighters themselves, often enough but the scale just was not there, not like it is in X: Rebirth. More than once I felt like I was in a Battlestar Galactica scene or even a scene from the wonderfully perfect Firefly series. The audio, minus the voice acting, brought it all together in a fashion far more compelling than the original. That said, it is still not much of an improvement and I sincerely hope that Egosoft continues to refine the title since they are doing a stellar job of cleaning it up so far.
Gameplay has not changed much, it is still a space combat / sandbox simulation game which means it is already a step ahead of the competition. Where 2.0 improves is in the number of missions as well as the flexibility of the content, the overall game remains largely unchained. This is not necessarily a bad thing, as there is a lot here that feels similar to the other X titles, just in a different fashion. It is sort of like putting on a new pair of your favorite shoes; comfortable with a hint of the old shoe, but new and unbroken still. Egosoft has humbly accepted the task to retrofit a fairly linear experience with the same open universe that we all had come to love and respect and in 2.0 they have come very close to being a full-fledged X title in the same vein as X3:AP or X3:TC; they are almost there and with additional tweaks and updates I can comfortably say that X: Rebirth will be what we all wanted it to be. Amidst the general overhaul, Egosoft added a series staple, multiple game starts, into the game. This will allow you to start the game in more of a loose free play than the structured campaign, which is a massive step towards the core of the X series.
While only a few game starts, the inclusion of the Argon Merchant and Argon Mercenary (as well as the Empire Builder) helps to bring the game more in line. It would be nice to see, moving forward, the ability to play other races and ships rather than simply changing cockpit designs, though the addition of different, more tailored cockpits is a nice touch. With the new game starts and cockpits you are a little less restricted in the overall feel, though at times I felt a little cramped (figuratively) when compared to the open feel of previous titles, but it would generally pass after a few moments. Egosoft has also added generic Secret Service missions which helps build rep with the Argon Secret Service which will further drive a side story in the longstanding struggle between the Argon government and the dreaded Xenon threat; a nice and welcome addition that helps show Egosoft’s dedication to the franchise. The final note I would like to make regarding the overall gameplay overhaul is this; thank you so very much for context menu choices for items like Autopilot as it was oddly missing from the original release. This makes navigating the huge universe far easier and it does not feel like such a chore to get from one location to the next. Seriously, thank you.
Without going into too many spoiler-y details, X: Rebirth 2.0 is an excellent example of a development studio’s dedication to not only their product, but to their fans. Gracefully taking the intense blowback that was given by new fans and old, Egosoft is working as hard as possible to bring X: Rebirth into the fold. While the original release back in November was rough, performance issues, general lack of direction and some of the worst voice-acting in the business, I felt that some of the reviews were a little harsh and that still holds true to today. I give great props to Egosoft for working diligently to appease its fans, but I also want to stress caution; the X franchise is your “baby” and it is up to you when it comes to creative direction. Do not simply buckle because some loud people did not like what you have done to the franchise.
While largely similar, X: Rebirth is exactly that, the reincarnation of the series into something new, something different. Development studios should certainly cater to certain feedback (game-breaking bugs for example), but they should stand their ground and continue on with their vision even if it is a different vision of what their fans want. The perfect example is Blizzard Entertainment’s Warcraft franchise, released 20 years ago this year as an RTS game, Warcraft: Orcs & Humans spawned some of the games that defined my younger years; from Warcraft II: Tides of Darkness to WarCraft III: The Frozen Throne, the Warcraft franchise was the franchise to compete with. Then it all changed. Eleven years ago Blizzard announced something that would define a genre while drowning a dream. World of Warcraft. A complete turnaround from what was expected; fans of the Warcraft games were hoping (and still are) for a Warcraft 4 announcement and instead they were greeted with a massively multiplayer roleplaying game. World of Warcraft, to date, is still the most successful video game in history, outshining classic titles and landing in more homes than one could imagine, Blizzard stood up and said “We’re changing the game” and change it they did, regardless of what the fans wanted. It paid off. While I cannot compare X: Rebirth to World of Warcraft, I can say that it is alright for a development studio to take a chance and change a game and they should not be afraid to do so because it may turn out better than expected.
When X: Rebirth launched in November and it was terrible on the best of days, Egosoft took a big risk in reincarnating the series in a slightly different direction; it takes nerves of steel to do it. Unfortunately it was not well received and Egosoft needed to backstep to address a lot of issues, thus X: Rebirth 2.0 was born. Fortunately X: Rebirth 2.0 breathes much needed life into what was a stale title and is a successful retelling of X: Rebirth. I for one felt comfortable sitting behind the flight stick of the Albion Skunk and am thoroughly enjoying my time in the various sectors. All that I ask of Egosoft is to continue refining X: Rebirth; if they do they can come up with a runaway hit that will have its share of dedicated fans well before the likes of Elite: Dangerous and Star Citizen are released.
Review by Robert