X Rebirth Review
Misses the golden opportunity to call itself X Reboot
In an age where linearity now means 'dragging the player through overblown set-pieces by the scruff of the neck' and gets openly gobbed at in the streets as a result, it was only a matter of time before somebody hopeful went to the far end of the scale, got out a set of jumper cables, and attempted to grant life once again to the dusty metallic monstrosity that is the space sandbox genre. The contender this time is the X series, and I'm sure you can understand why I went into its latest iteration – X Rebirth, that is – with an extra dollop of that ever-present healthy scepticism. When your game is presented as a dumbed-down reboot of an ageing niche franchise – moreover, a reboot that has evidently been rummaging around in the Videogame Subtitle Bargain Bucket – that's my cue to reach for the hacksaw. Having said that, if the tales told by jaded space veterans over a Martian camp-fire are anything to go by, then the earlier X games were about as straightforward and approachable as a copy of Microsoft Access lodged in Medusa's unruly perm.So perhaps a bit of simplification was in order after all.
Things start off about as token as it gets: you are a young generic faceless spacefaring type whose name I completely forget (okay, I checked: it's Ren Otani), down on your luck and picking up whatever odd jobs you can in the outer space colony of Albion. You've just looted a priceless prototype ship from an ancient battlefield – quite functional, of course – when you pick up an escape pod containing a member of the local underground resistance, whose name also escapes my mind (checked again, it's Yisha Tarren). In between fiddling with the radio and hand-feeding you the prerequisite basic tutorials, she asks if you wouldn't mind making a little road trip across the sector and dropping her off somewhere safe. Naturally this has bad news written all over it, but I certainly wasn't deterred. I familiarised myself with the basic controls, eased the throttle forward, pointed the bow towards the stars and mentally prepared myself for an exciting science-fiction adventure that spans the cosmos. Then, about thirty seconds later, I had to pause and fiddle with the graphics sliders a bit. Then I had to Alt-Tab my way out and make absolute sure that my processor hadn't melted into a toxic silicon sludge while I'd been gaping slack-jawed at the game's glittering skyboxes.
To put it less passive-aggressively, X Rebirth runs like a Morris Marina with a petrol tank full of soap suds. Speaking as an owner of a fairly beefy computer, I was flabbergasted to find that the framerate was barely brushing up against 30 per second – you know, the sort of number that next-gen console owners get in a tizzy about – and this was just when all the game had to render was me, my ship, my co-pilot's frankly unsettling visage and the empty expanse of space. Encountering a sprawling space station or cluster of ships only served to drive the already-crippled framerate into zoetrope territory, which might have been bearable for cruising around but certainly got on my nerves during dogfights in and around larger structures.Which is, as you'll know if you've played a space sim before, the more interesting kind of dogfight since it doesn't involve turning end over end looking for your opponent's thruster trail several thousand miles from the nearest space-bollard.
In an ideal world such dreadful optimisation would be justified by gorgeous polygon-crunching graphics, but in humdrum reality X Rebirth is a bit patchier and prone to occasionally throwing its graphics down a flight of stairs. Sure, it's a looker when you're out and about in space, gazing through the parting dust clouds at the diffuse alien light of distant suns as you skirt around the hulking ruins of an abandoned mining station (etcetera etcetera) but it soon becomes apparent that X Rebirth, demonstrating a telling symptom of many games of this era, knows how to do impressive vistas and not much else. You can dock your ship at various points along structures and go poking around inside, though doing so will reveal that the environments are achingly small, repetitive, uninspired, populated exclusively by residents of the uncanny valley and plagued by texture quality that a Deus Ex mod would have laughed at. This isn't even granting mention to the way the game often fails to render their geometry in time for my arrival, which looks hilariously low-budget if you don't mind ruining your immersion. It's not to say that X Rebirth isn't a treat for the eyes – far from it – but only on an astronomical scale. Get up close and it loses all its appeal.
Just a moment, I seem to have my notes all mixed up. Graphics before gameplay? What kind of hollow excuse for games journalism d'you call this?
I'll say this for it, though: few things are quite so married to a concept as X Rebirth is to sandbox gameplay. There are two options when you start a new game, 'Free Play' and 'Campaign', and it should be a testament to the game's open-ended nature that the only difference between them is that one has a badly-written campaign tacked onto the side while the other throws a few thousand credits into your account from the word go. Naturally the universe is huge, something that's to be expected in such a game, but thanks to the constant traffic and closely-packed settlements feels refreshingly busy as opposed to the black empty vacuum of space that characterises most of its kin. I'm still not sure what to think of the fast travel mechanic though, which replaces the monotony of pointing your nose-cone at your destination and hitting fast-forward with the slightly less-insipid monotony of flying your ship onto the stellar equivalent of the motorway network and playing a little tailgating minigame for the next few minutes. It's not especially offensive, but it gives the impression of a game that's jumping up and down looking for ways to retain your attention, like it just wants to stop you from getting up and making a cup of tea halfway through the journey. It's alright, X Rebirth, I'll be back in just a second.
Combat's a bit of a wet fish too, mind. There's no particular aspect that kills it – unlike the bits we'll get to later, subtle foreshadowing be damned – but the minimal HUD makes it difficult to keep track of opponents since you don't have a proper minimap, the off-screen indicators aren't nearly sufficient enough, and it seems to be a toss-up whether you'll get the icon telling you where to lead your shots on a target or not. Going up against larger less-mobile ships feels more like pruning a hedge than a space battle, what with you slowly circling around taking out turrets and shield generators with well-placed missiles, but the extensive barrages of returned laser fire certainly raise the challenge somewhat, giving the impression that taking down a big meaty bruiser of a battleship is a task to not be taken lightly. The game also has this strange obsession with encouraging me to use remote-controlled drones at every opportunity, apparently oblivious to the fact that my ship is kitted out with far more sophisticated methods of ending promising young lives and – more significantly – stops moving the moment I dig the remote out from between the cushions of the captain's chair, leaving me at the mercy of whoever I'd been failing to make diplomatic relations with. Presumably Yisha never got her pilot's license because she certainly doesn't offer to fly for you during these sections. That or she's too busy playing with the dashboard vents or something.