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Genre: Simulation
Min OS X: Any Version    CPU: G4 @ 1250 MHz    RAM: 256 MB    Hard Disk: 2000 MB

X2 - The Threat
June 30, 2005 | Bryan Clodfelter

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In the past few years, the selection of spaceflight simulators for computers has been slim to say the least. The beginning of this drought began after the release of Vicarious Visions' Terminus in late 2000, and has only been recently ended. While we have not been suffering for lack of A-list titles by any means, the lack of a modern spaceflight simulator has been a sore spot for many people who love nothing more than piloting a large chunk of fire-breathing, death-spewing metal composites at speeds that would make NASA engineers jealous. This void has finally been filled by the recent release of X2: The Threat by Virtual Programming Ltd., an imperfect yet highly-addictive mix of space combat and RPG elements. These elements are wrapped into an open-ended package that will certainly appeal to budding space pilots and armchair micromanagers alike. In fact, anyone who loved Escape Velocity should definitely take a closer look at this title—fans who want to see what the universe looks like from the seat of their ship instead of looking down from a distant height can finally do so, and it's quite a ride!

The most intriguing part of X2 is its wide-open style of play that provides weeks to months worth of action and simply dwarfs the offerings of many other titles. In fact, you can simply ignore the single player story if you wish and play pirate, mine asteroids, trade commodities in the dynamic markets, police the various human and alien systems, or even attempt to dominate the galaxy with your personal fleet. Yes, you heard right: a fleet! Unlike Escape Velocity, you may own as many ships as you like from the 70 available in X2's arsenal. These are split up into 11 different classes, ranging from the smallest and fastest fighters to the most massive capital ships, and all are upgradeable to the nth degree. The way that you develop your fleet is up to you: you can earn money and increase your fleet the peaceable way through trading and accepting missions that require you to ferry passengers and cargo from place to place, or you can simply begin blasting other ships for bounties and/or capture them to sell or refit. Adding to the complexity of the X2 universe, you can buy and construct space stations. These in turn will require you to assign ships to supply them with resources, defend them from alien forces and pirates, and manage the price of your completed products in order to stay competitive on the galaxy-wide network of systems. From the relatively simple ore mines to the enormously complex and expensive weapons manufacturing fabs, the only limit to your ability to earn money and progress up the ladder is your creativity.

All of this requires a lot of flying...and fortunately, each ship has an onboard SETA device, which compresses time and makes your journeys up to ten times faster. Still, many missions that require you to fly through several gates to reach your destination will take 3-5 minutes with SETA enabled, and that can become very tedious. I quickly found that I could play X2 and grab a snack every few minutes, which was fine by me, but those who lean towards ADD will not be so pleased. Fortunately, a jump drive is available later in the game which speeds up travel drastically. As far as I'm concerned, a large time requirement is typical of these types of simulations, and it makes the completion of your personal empire all that more satisfying. Rome wasn't built in ten hours, and your empire will take longer as well.

Combat in X2 is swift and exciting. While the AI prefers to engage in head-on slugfests, closing to short range results in swirling dogfights that force you to aim carefully and control your fire in order to not over-extend the capacity of your energy banks. Running out of energy, while not fatal (as it automatically recharges) is not a good thing to do when you finally line up that perfect shot. When all else fails, you have missiles and mines that can finish the job. Many ships have auto-targeting turrets that can be commanded to perform various invaluable tasks via the onboard computer such as missile defense. As a tribute to X2's flexibility, you could theoretically target and shoot down incoming missiles with other missiles or your primary energy weapons, provided that you're fast on the trigger.

I have two bones that I have to pick with X2's handling of ship classes. My first complaint is that ships are horrendously expensive. Most of the worthwhile ships cost more than a million credits fully outfitted, and in the beginning, you're lucky if you can earn credits at a rate of several hundred per minute. Like the old saying goes, "it takes money to make money;" the earning process speeds up dramatically as you build your empire, but in the meantime, expect to spend a few days or even a week getting started. The second issue that I have with X2: The Threat is ship balance. Your first ship, an M5-class Argon Discoverer, is basically the equivalent of a gnat—the best it can do is annoy someone before it gets mercilessly squished into goo. In the X2 universe, even the alien M5 craft have you almost impossibly outmatched, and you'll find that attacking a wimpy freight-hauling craft will get you killed in a matter of seconds. To solve this problem, most people buy an M3-class Argon Nova as their second ship in the game since it represents the first real worthwhile purchase that they can afford. This is a quantum leap in performance—in good hands this fighter can take down swarms of M5s and M4s (or a couple of M3s) simultaneously without suffering a bit of damage in return. You have suddenly turned into an elite fighter-pilot, but at the same time, you've skipped the enjoyable time period where your current ship is more or less evenly matched with other ships and you actually need to be good at dogfighting in order to win. It always seems like you're either completely outmatched or vice versa. I must say, it is quite a lot of fun being able to simply flatten fighters that I previously had to flee from, but I miss the challenge of a fair fight.


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