X Rebirth has finally warped into release; here's our X Rebirth review.
X Rebirth launches on Friday. Egosoft's space simulator has torn down everything the decades old series has built, stood proudly atop the debris and vowed to create something beautiful from its remains: an open universe, cosmos exploration game in which you're free to pursue a career in piracy, trading, or barreling through hyper-dense space stations making pew pew pew sounds.
I spoke to Bernd Lehahn, founder and manager of Egosoft, about the challenge of rebooting the long-running X series, the expectations of fans and the mechanics of accurately modelled interstellar capitalism. Here's what he told me.
PCGamesN: Maybe we can start by talking about how long X Rebirth has been in development. Why is this game taking so long compared to previous titles like Albion Prelude and Terran Conflict?
Bernd Lehahn: That’s a good question! X Rebirth is a complete redesign and restart. Terran Conflict and Albion Prelude were more or less expansions to X3: Reunion. They were sold as standalone games, but they were based on the same engine, and that’s also why they were just considered “Act 3”.
But when we released X3: Reunion in 2005, we already knew that we had to really change some things, because the game was getting complicated and increasingly more difficult to get into for new players. The fans love the fact that we add features on top of features to the game and listen to what they want, and that’s a good way of working because you always have something to build up on.
But the problem is that this also means that new players will unintentionally have a much, much harder time of getting into the game, because of the user interface but also just simply because you have so many features available right from the start of the game, and the designers never took that into account. The game design was created in 1999, basically, when X Beyond the Frontier was done, and since then we've just been adding features.
And now there are some features that just don’t work so well together, and some are even silly when you look at them. The ability to fly a capital ship from a cockpit view is always one of the examples that I pick out, we added that because the fans requested it.
it is definitely a cool feature and I can understand why everybody wants to have it, and it is a bit controversial that we took that out for X Rebirth, but it was a pretty easy decision for me to remove it. It just doesn't work the with usual input, because if you have a joystick and you have this large capital ship and you steer in any direction; these ships have to turn slowly. This is just something that simply doesn’t make sense from a cockpit perspective. I’m not saying you shouldn’t be able to control capital ships, but not from a cockpit perspective, yeah?
PCGamesN: The addition of the highways means that you've gotten rid of time acceleration, right? How does this affect the rest of the game, in particular traders who would time accelerate to amass cash?
Bernd Lehahn: Yeah, that is just an ugly hack that isn’t possible anymore. Time acceleration was always an ugly hack – I never liked it, it’s just necessary because of the slowness that I described, and we tried to fix that slowness at the root with time acceleration. Accelerating time is not a good way of playing this game, and that’s not possible anymore, yeah.
I consider that cheating if, like you mentioned, you just leave the game running. We always try to fight it. Also, with the past games we did do things to basically punish the player when they did leave the game running by having a higher chance of enemies attacking your stations while you’re not watching.
Like I said, there are things that we are changing, and some people won’t be happy about it. That’s also the reason why X Rebirth isn’t called X4 – it is a different game. We are not trying to make everybody happy, we’re trying to make as many people as possible happy, and that means sometimes some of the hardcore fans will have to face a couple of things they don’t like. But I think overall we are pretty sure that the majority of people will love it, because there are so many cool new things and we are doing these things for a reason, and the overall goal is always to make the game more fun and better overall.
The trading aspect that you mentioned is a good example – it’s much more believable and authentic now... amassing money happens through just having larger and bigger operations. In the past you were able to trade an unrealistically large amount with unrealistically small ships, that is not possible anymore.
Now you transport the goods in large capital ships that work for you, and those ships need time to be loaded and unloaded, this shows the epicness of large transporter ships docking and undocking, and we were able to decouple that from your normal gameplay, because you don’t have to babysit the ship all the time. Instead you can give it commands to land, to buy wares and sell them somewhere else and in the meantime you can do something completely different.
If you focus on trading, you can still do that manually but you can also fly around and look for new offers, you fly around to collect and discover discounts. But whenever you look at your automated trading ships, you can see that it’s all really happening and that these ships are loaded with lots of little transporter drones and all of that is presented in a much more realistic and authentic way.
PCGN: One of the biggest changes that I’ve noticed fans react to, and I’m sure you probably feel quite defensive towards this question now because you’ve had to explain it so many times, is just having a single player ship. How do you think that changes the feel of the game, if at all?
Bernd Lehahn: As I said in the beginning; not everybody will be happy with every decision. I know that people would like to have more ships to fly. It is, though, going back to our roots, because that’s also what we had in X: Beyond the Frontier.
But as I also explained many, many times, just because you only have one player ship doesn’t mean you only fly one ship – there are many ways of owning other ships and operating them. Capital ships, as soon as they are in your command group, you do control them. You control them from within your HUD for example. It’s not just that you can communicate with the captain and give him commands, that is similar to how we did it in past games, but you can also more directly give commands by clicking on objects in your HUD.
For example, if you want to mine an asteroid field, you see the things that you want to pick up, but you don’t pick them up personally, you let them be picked up by your capital ships and they send a drone to do it for you, and there’s no big barrier there. Because they are in your group, the AI always knows what you want those ships to do – “this is a mining ship, it is in your group, here is an asteroid field, there are crystals” ...as soon as you tick them, the captain just confirms and sends out drones to pick them up.
I think this fits much, much better with large ships and their slowness, and then at the other end of the extreme there are also those little drones that you can personally control from first person with the help of your ship's virtual reality glasses.
The reason why there is only one player ship is because it allows us to have epic presentation, the ship is much more detailed than anything we’ve ever done in the past – you can move around inside the ship, you have NPCs that you can hire and that work inside that ship, it has a cockpit with all the real instruments in it... yeah. Maybe we will have more ships in later games, but at the moment there is only one.
And it's going through a lot of changes; this is a very special ship, also historically, and it also helps with the storytelling. This is not just one of many ships, but a very special one. You get it in the plot at the beginning in a very damaged state, and you repair it and it develops – it has its own story and that of course also works much better with only one ship.