X2 The Threat

8Much like the highly regarded Freelancer, X2 The Threat is an open-ended space sim and a micromanager’s utopia. An entire galaxy is dropped on your desk, along with the capacity to explore it at your leisure — and if you find something you can’t do, chances are it’s not worth doing. X2 models every conceivable aspect of space exploration, from dogfighting to trading goods to managing whole space stations. You can even harvest asteroids and then build refinery stations to process them, if you’re so inclined.

Of course, such a level of involvement is immensely complex, and it took me hours to crest the learning curve on my way to memorizing the myriad keyboard-driven controls and menus. To call X2 a challenge to casual gamers would be like calling Mount Everest a challenge to the Segway.

The graphics, for their time, are beyond stunning, with beautifully designed ships, space stations, and celestial effects peppering each star system. (The only sore spots are the atrociously wooden characters in the game’s cut-scenes.) You’d better have a speedy system to render all the glory, though: even a 1.5GHz machine had fits of chugging during hectic battles.

Seventy ships are available to you in X2 The Threat (Freelancer had about 40), in 11 different classes of vessel. Eventually, you can command full battleships; these gigantically proportioned behemoths can even dock your old fighters inside. You’re not limited to controlling just one ship, either: you can direct a whole fleet of fighters, corvettes, transports, and scouts in the later stages of the game.

7For those less belligerently inclined, the trade systems are also robust. Though X2 lacks the handy color-coded price indicators of Freelancer (which helped you avoid getting fleeced), X2’s market is definitely more varied and dynamic. News bulletins in different docks can alert you to a hot item on the market, or to a wheat plague that drives prices through the roof. You’d better really like trading, though, because this market’s a huge part of the gameplay. While commerce moguls will have a ball, those lusting for constant plot-driven action will suffer through extended lulls in the violence.

Some other time-management annoyances include a frustrating docking sequence that you’ll have to go through with every station you visit. Later in the game a “Jump Drive†is introduced that allows instant flight to distant systems, and you can also find a docking computer that’ll help autopilot you to berth, but until you locate these options, you’re faced with hassles that no one should have to deal with in the first place. If I wanted to simulate the inherent tediousness of space travel, I’d watch 2001: A Space Odyssey.

0In combat the biggest flaw is the ship control. Since you can’t control acceleration and direction simultaneously using the keyboard, combat can be a real hassle without a joystick. And, try as it might, even the time-accelerator key didn’t prevent a two- to three-minute wait to fly across each system. That’s a lot of thumb-twiddling. X2 The Threat gets bogged down in a few of the traps created by its ambitious, free-form design, but an invigorating game emerges anyway. It’s certainly in the same gaming universe as Freelancer, if a lot more challenging.

System Requirements: Pentium II 233 MHz, 32 MB RAM, Win95

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