X Rebirth Review27 Nov 2013  by
You should now be ready to sell the energy cells. To do this, you need to babysit the freighter to the point of sale in another zone and make the trade with the relevant space port (later, it’s theoretically possible to do this remotely.) If you are very, very lucky the freighter will acknowledge your orders and make the sale. If you’re like me and many other X Rebirth players, it will sit in space and do absolutely nothing. The reason for this, I suspect, is because another freighter tends to park itself in front of the plot-critical space station and your freighter has to wait for it. Not necessarily a problem, except trade is currently so broken in the game that the NPC freighter is not actually buying or selling anything. It remains in place, blocking your trade forever.
This blocked trade is a game-ending glitch that I could only bypass by finding someone online who’d been kind enough to post a saved game file from the relevant point. Later, I came across another lovely bug which made the in-cockpit menu screens entirely disappear. Those are the screens which allow you to organise your missions, navigate the world, see the status of your ship and … well, basically do almost all administrative tasks in the game. The way to solve this was to bring up the (invisible) map screen, visit the tiny back area of your ship where the crew hang out, then return to the cockpit in order to re-trigger a “getting into your seat” cutscene. Of course. I mean, how else would you resolve it?
Previous X titles allowed the player to buy and pilot new ships, giving a sense of purpose and a reason for earning all of those credits. You would come up against difficult foes or see a shiny ship with a desirable design and set about trying to scrape together enough cash for a new ride. In X Rebirth you are relegated to the ‘Albion Skunk,’ a ship that is neither a rapid dogfighter nor a capital craft powerhouse. It handles very much like a starter ship; one that does the job just fine but that you’d aspire to leave behind for a superior vessel.
In fact, you’re stuck with it. X Rebirth has no other ships for you to directly fly. The only changes you can really make are in the form of underwhelming upgrades with lackluster names (no space sim fan in the history of the genre has ever been excited to swap a Plasma Cannon Mk 1 for a Plasma Cannon Mk 2,) and the addition of drones. Certain types of drone can be piloted remotely from your craft, but offer a pathetic substitute for the thrill of owning a new ship. These ones also leave your ship floating and vulnerable to attack, so their uses are somewhat limited to situations where that would be desirable. Still, it’s rather apt that the game’s only option for an alternative craft to pilot is a synonym for tedious, monotonous speech.
Since the Albion Skunk is the only craft you can pilot, the game’s combat has to be ‘balanced’ to reflect this fact. This means the Albion Skunk can take on any other ship, including larger vessels, with relative comfort. Only overwhelming force provides a serious risk of harm, but it does helps that the enemy AI pathfinding is so poor that it regularly leads them into getting stuck inside the external structures of space stations. The most difficult aspect of combat is keeping track of the tiny red triangle icons which denote an enemy craft, because X Rebirth has no radar/gravidar and absolutely no way of cycling through targets. You’d think there’d be room for at least one of those features inside the Skunk’s gigantic cockpit since it has the indecency to take up about 40% of your view, but no.
Being trapped inside the Skunk also means being trapped with Yisha, the Jar-Jar Binks of the X series. Yisha is terrible in every way. She’s a blank-eyed automaton who delivers her lines as if at gun-point (though, in fairness, so does everybody else) and makes ill-advised attempts to inject her grating personality at any available moment. It’s ironic that she tells the on-board ship computer to shut up so often (so, so often) because Betty’s robotic tones are one of the few pieces of voice acting in the game that don’t make me cringe in horror. Turning the voices off helps to some extent (as it does with the freakish clones who inhabit all of the space stations,) but it means you have to put up with her staring eerily at you in silence.
Between the show-stopping bugs, awful frame-rates and tedious busywork masquerading as game mechanics, X Rebirth does apologetically provide some classic moments of space sim wonder. Alexei Zakharov’s soundtrack is absolutely terrific, and I’d like to offer personal thanks to Mr. Zakharov for keeping my spirits up through hours of monotony and despair. Drifting and rolling in the great voids of space as the music evokes an unreleased Brian Eno-Human League collaboration of the mid-80s, and a distant sun spreads its rays across the sector, you’d almost be forgiven for slipping into some brief moments of enjoyment.
Then you remember that the trade system in this trading game is broken, the method of space station construction is confusing and possibly broken, the combat is facile, the ship upgrades are mundane and the whole process of scanning and tramping through space stations to ‘talk’ to the equivalent of a drop-down menu with a face on it is really not worth the effort. It’s pretty telling that the most popular X Rebirth mods at this time all remove features from the game.
I don’t like to just give up on games, but after spending another evening trying to complete a simple trade of 300 food rations while suffering cold sweats and flashbacks to the 100 energy quest, I threw in the towel. The systems in place at this time are too convoluted, too frustrating or simply too bugged for me to be able to rationally take X Rebirth’s sisyphean campaign beyond the twenty hour mark.
Look, I’m very receptive to the idea of walking around space stations and having meaningful interactions with NPCs. I’m fine with the concept of highways being used for rapid travel instead of a time speed-up feature. I can even see the potential in investigating parts of space stations to learn useful information and leverage better deals. Unfortunately, the implementation of these features has been unanimously awful. NPCs provide no life, no spark, no interest in the universe at large whatsoever, while highway travel and space station scanning are both tedious chores that add nothing to the game but wasted time.
X Rebirth has something rotten at its heart that has poisoned a reported seven years (seven!) of development. Attempts to make the series more accessible and a search for broader appeal are not inherently to blame for this, but have both backfired catastrophically. Instead, we have a game that will devastate the fan-base, repel anyone new to the series and enrage anybody who pre-ordered it. I didn’t think anything would be able to top SimCity and Total War: Rome II’s abysmal launches, but somehow, someway, Egosoft has managed it with X Rebirth.