REVIEW: X4: Foundations

Multitasking busywork IN SPAAAAACE!

Released: Steam
Type: Single-player
Genre: Space Simulation,
Management,
Open World, Flight Sim
Developer: Egosoft
Publisher: Egosoft
Release Date: 30 Nov, 2018

Intro

X4: Foundations first came out 2 years ago, and Psygineer reviewed it then, but he also said, “Perhaps you might want to wait until it is more complete with its upcoming expansions first though.” Well, we’re now two expansions in, and several of the major systems have been reworked, or in the case of things like Ventures (a vaguely multiplayer feature that let player-owned ships appear in other people’s games), added then removed again! That being the case, while I was asked to review the DLC, I thought it would be worth doing an “updated review” to put out a review upon the current state of the game as a whole to go alongside the DLC review.

The X-series, for those new to it, are immersive space simulator sandbox games that simulate what it would be like if you spent thousands of hours obsessively piling up money so you can build bigger and bigger factories until you’re the largest economic powerhouse in the galaxy that turns traitor and declares war on the rest of the universe just to watch all the things everyone built go “boom”. The X-series isn’t so much a single game as a grab-bag of random game loops constantly on tap where individual opportunities are nevertheless available “only for a limited time”, playing on that same Fear of Missing Out that drives you to buy things on sale. It’s specifically designed to feed that sense of desire to acquire more, more, more insatiably, and if you’re the sort that’s vulnerable to that sensation, welcome to your latest (fortunately up-front priced) addiction!

While played entirely from a first-person perspective, as you buy more ships and hire crews to staff and fly them, the game becomes something of an RTS in combat and a business management game as you build and manage factories. This kitchen-sink approach to game design means that you can spend an hour managing your business logistics, and as soon as you hit your limit and get bored, you can just hop into your destroyer and go smash alien space stations until you feel better before sitting down to finish your paperwork. It’s a game where there’s a definite way to make money faster/better, but the real fun is to be found in going at your own pace.

The Story So Far…

Space simulation games had something of a dry spell in the late aughts after games like Freelancer had to be taken over by Microsoft to even be released at all. It was in this space that the X-series managed to climb to the top of the immersive space-sim world with games like X3: Reunion, X3: Terran War, and X3: Albion Prelude thanks to being basically the only names still in the game, but also being a true do-anything sandbox of a world.

Terran Conflict came out in 2008, however, and Egosoft wanted to move on to an X4 with a new, updated engine that might work on one of those newfangled consoles like the XBox 360. They planned to do this by having controller-focused controls including a radial menu basically ripped straight off of Mass Effect. This… wound up a liiiitle more time than they anticipated, and like how Valve released Portal to keep people tided over for Half Life 3, Egosoft released what would be its most complete game in the form of Albion Prelude in 2011, which basically took some of the best-received mods of Terran Conflict and made them official parts of the game. The main problems facing Egosoft during this time seemed to be problems making a game that would satisfy its new publisher Deep Silver.

Oh, look. an in-game universe news update saying, “HL3 Releases after 889 years of development”… honestly, Egosoft, this would be a funnier joke if you had your own shit in order…

Finally, in 2013, Egosoft came out with it’s brand-new reboot of the whole franchise after an in-universe disaster shut down the gate network so they could refocus upon a more story-driven game with a much smaller focus and a single playable ship you were stuck to, and they called it X: Rebirth, so that it wouldn’t have a number on it to scare away console-only gamers that would be wary of jumping on a franchise starting with 4.

X: Rebirth failed. Badly.

It turns out a niche franchise that grew its cult following based upon the total freedom of a pure sandbox gameplay where plot was only a thing you had to do to get the better mission rewards before you could play however you felt like doesn’t suddenly get more popular trying to shed most of its identity and become a more generic space game. Of course, it didn’t help that X: Rebirth launched as an absolute bug-riddled disaster that could barely run, much less operate the universe simulation it was meant to do.

So then, over a full decade after X3: Reunion came out, X4: Foundations has finally come out. (Self-published, notably.) The marketing is almost humorously geared towards saying “we’re totally not X: Rebirth anymore, we’re sorry, please come back to us, baby!” Gone are the linear scripted story lines, and they now promise a “dynamic story specific to your game”, which basically means that the game has a few core plotlines like finding the Player HQ, and then you’re dumped into the sandbox where you can join factions that have their own plotlines and resolutions based upon how the sandbox wars go. (The game simulates conflict for control of space in the background, and can gain or lose ground (well, space) completely without your doing anything or even discovering that region of space yet.) X4 lets you fly any ship in the game if you can take control of it, and even land on NPC ships and go stroll into their bridge(… but only their bridge, because no other parts of ships are modeled.) X4 also doesn’t restrict you to pre-selected “build locations”, and instead actually (hypothetically) lets you play the way you want to play in this supposed sandbox game. Basically, they’re trying to just make X3 but with fixes to all the problems X3 had plus some new features. You know, like players wanted X: Rebirth to be.

The IN-UNIVERSE Story So Far…

So for those picking up the game with no idea that X1-3 existed, don’t worry too much, the story isn’t all that relevant, here except the part about how the jump gate network collapse happened. (While that is the inciting incident of X: Rebirth, all the sectors from X: Rebirth are in a totally different pocket of the still-fractured network so they never appear or matter for X4, at least so far.) Here’s a quick jump-start on the lore for those interested, however.

About 15 minutes into the future, humanity settled the solar system mostly in space stations. Some scientist invented a stable wormhole “jump gate”, and there were plans to send one to a nearby star system, but it turned out the new jump gate they had built just linked to an existing network of jump gates left behind by ancient precursor aliens. The humans freaked out about this, but sent some ships through to see what was what on the other side and establish some colonies in distant stars, including some AGI (Artificial General Intelligence, or “real AIs”) terraformers through the gates to make some planets around distant stars habitable to humans. (For some reason, they never got around to terraforming Mars, though.) Only, in one of the X series’s earlier attempts to be a more goofy and silly game in tone than it’s tried to retcon itself into being, some hacker kid decided to put a virus into an update patch for the AI-controlled terraformers, and so they changed into the Xenon, an AI faction bent on destroying all life, rather than seeding it. Whoopsie! So, after fighting for a bit, the people of Earth decided to blow up their jump gate and just switch to isolationism for a few hundred years, becoming the Terrans.

X4 has a side quest to collect data vaults that fill in the details of the X-series timeline, as well.

This is in contrast to the colonists that were already on the other side of the gate, who had to rely upon some new alien race neighbors that also rely upon the existing jump gate network to help establish themselves, with the five main semi-cooperative races forming the Commonwealth of Planets. After working with the Boron for a while, the humans on this side of the gate decided to hop onboard the noble gas naming convention and name themselves the Argon. The Argon are the “standard human” race, compared to the Terrans, who come off as the warmongering xenophobe humans that claim to want to eradicate the Xenon, but tend to spend nearly all their time fighting the Argon, instead. To be fair, emotionless drones don’t make for dramatic enemies, so the bad guys in these plots are generally other humans messing around with AI when the Terrans have standing orders to kill all AI users. (The “reunion” in X3 Reunion was about rediscovering a path to Terra, followed up by Terran Conflict, which had the Terrans fighting more human factions and finding another lost colony, followed by Albion Prelude, which featured a straight-up war between Terrans and Argons. Also, the war started because the Terrans built a wall around the whole Earth and tried to get the Argons to pay for it, only to have a main character from X2 and Reunion blow it up because the Terrans were “too militaristic”… thus launching a war! Great thinking! Oh well, these plots are just excuses for the gameplay to happen, and this game was supposed to have a big war as a main feature.)

In the far future, Star Trek outfits and giant afros are all the rage.

Some prefer the “FPS villain faction goon” look, however.

The X-series also borrows from 80’s cyberpunk fear of Japanese economic dominance, so nearly all written language is in this strange pseudo-hiragana. Terrans also heavily rely on Japanese or Chinese naming conventions, while Argons have European names… yet still use the pseudo-hiragana.

The Boron are the only main faction not yet in X4. (Look forward to next year’s DLC, I suppose.) Unlike the other races, however, they’re also aquatic squid-aliens that need to be kept in aquariums, so you couldn’t just casually stroll past them on the spaceports, anyway, so there’s something of a reason for that. (Granted, given how much soft-retconning this game tends to do in terms of presentation, I’m not sure why they don’t just drive some water-filled mobility scooters…) They’re most like the Thermians from Galaxy Quest: very friendly science-oriented aliens that keep getting killed in all the wars that are constantly happening in this game, and gave the Argon a ton of their tech to bring them up to a position where they could help defend them from the aggressive Split and Paranid races. At least in this game, they’re also hyper-upper-class-British, and Boso Ta always speaks with a cheery attitude while casually mentioning the fact that he’s kidnapped by Split and would rather like to be rescued, if it wouldn’t be too much of a bother.

Boso Ta is the only Boron currently in the game. Their fashion is… goldfish chic?

The Split are one of my favorite races, in terms of I like their ships. Every race has fighters, scouts, freighters, capital ships, and carriers, but they all have a different twist on them. The Split’s twist is that they are all about speed and firepower and sacrifice defense for that. As a race, they’re basically the Klingons of this setting. They’re warrior types that would be a grave threat to the rest of the universe if all their wars weren’t civil wars. They seemed more reptilian in X3, but in X4, they look like orange or green-skinned Mad Max extras.

Like most edgelords, Split fashion involves a lot of black leather and billowy bits. Clipping your arms through your chest is optional.

The Teladi are one of my favorite races, at least in terms of how they are presented. They’re reptilian Libertarians IN SPAAAACE, (or, basically, they’re the Ferengi,) and everything they do is related to the profit motive. Sadly, the distinctive death cry of X3 Teladi (“LOOOOOOSSSE PROFITSSSSS!” with a trademark raspy hiss) has been replaced with just having Teladi wish you good profits as a kindly farewell or declare that there is no profit in this for you as a combat threat. In terms of ship design, they’re all about trade, so all their ships are bulky and slow, but they have as much cargo capacity in their scout ship as other races have in their small freighters because even fighters are made to haul cargo for more profit. Teladi also don’t care about piracy or smuggling so long as they get a cut of the proceeds, so you can ship illegal goods around without fear in Teladi space.

A rare teladi not wearing a colander-like space helmet, this is the faction representative.

The Paranid round out the general “PC races”, and are the most alien-looking, being three-eyed, bird-legged aliens. They’re basically this setting’s Romulans. (Notice a lot of references to Star Trek yet? I’m not a Trekkie who instantly compares aliens to Star Trek types, but Egosoft sure deliberately made their games’ races based heavily on Star Trek…) They are a paranoid, secretive, religious cult race. Because their empire was split up when the jump gate network went down, it factionalized with different isolated sectors proclaiming their own new space pope (called the Pontifex) to lead each sector’s religion (which worships 3-dimensionality for some reason), and now that they’re reconnecting the jump gate network, every Paranid sector’s space pope now declares the other Paranid sector space popes to be heretics and it’s another big civil war you can jump into. Paranid ships don’t have the same one outstanding feature that defines them, but instead seem to have more specialized ships. Their scout ship is the fastest ship, even faster than the normally fastest Split ship, for example.

Paranids come in religious robes or space suits.

Besides those main races, there are pirate factions made up of various races, the aforementioned Xenon, and the Kha’ak, which were the titular threat from X2: The Threat. They’re big bad beetles that hate how everyone else mines nividium, the local flavor of unobtanium used in jump drives, so they’re genocidal and never communicate so Egosoft doesn’t have to bother giving them character models. They do get cool LED-lit triangular pyramind-shaped fighters, and buzz when they fly, though.

A Kha’ak heavy fighter up close.

As an aside, in this game’s voice acting, in spite of the accent apostrophe, they always pronounce “Kha’ak” like “cock”. Sadly, in all the chatter that goes on between pilots when dogfighting where they insult each other, nobody yells at someone else to “Go eat a Kha’ak!” Truly, passssing up profitsss on that one.

Interface – Controls

I can’t beat around it, so I have to start off with my biggest frustration and disappointment with X4. The game is generally touted as having a wide range of support for controls, but the problem is that it’s fundamentally not true because of a few baffling design choices and unalterable controls that ruin many custom control schemes, and ultimately force you to use either a HOTAS or other joystick with a ton of buttons, forgo use of some important controls, or just use what is basically the default control scheme no matter what you wanted to do. I honestly wound up spending the first 7 hours playing this game just cursing and having to rebind controls because some new aspect of the game’s interface flaws would ruin a control scheme I was comfortable with.

Perhaps appropriately enough for a game about aliens, the X series controls have an absolutely stupid number of hotkeys bound to buttons all over the keyboard in a fantastically un-ergonomic and unintuitive fashion, which makes me think the control scheme was designed for people with four arms, or perhaps tentacles.

In X3, I was able to play the game using either a controller or half a controller in the left hand and the mouse in the right hand. I liked mouse aim, but hate mouse steering and aim, and prefer analogue controls with a thumbstick to fly to digital tapping at keyboard keys to steer. I made the right-hand side of the controller handle things like opening menus and selecting things, and I could rapidly go through menus just through pressing up/down and then right on the d-pad, even while steering the ship in a “monkey grip”. It’s one of my favorite memories in X3 being able to run away from attacking ships, pulling corkscrews by nudging the analogue stick with my left pointer finger, navigating the menus on the d-pad with my middle and ring finger, and hitting the throttle on the shoulder button with my pinky, and punching in orders on the right side of the controller while using the right stick for strafing. Being able to fly evasive maneuvers and go through menus to call in backup at the same time when I found myself outnumbered and outgunned was one of my crowning moments of coolness in X3.

So, naturally, I tried to set a similar control scheme up in X4.

X4, however, has some sort of “feature” in it that makes it so that if you so much as nudge the mouse, it freezes up your controller and invalidates all commands.

At this point, I own a Steam controller, so I tried to just make the Steam controller emulate keyboard buttons. Only, some other “not a bug, it’s a feature” of X4’s control scheme somehow makes it ignore my Steam controller even while it’s supposed to be pressing keyboard buttons if I don’t set the game to recognize an XInput controller. Additionally, even though I have left trigger set to press the “Q” key and do rolls to the left, if the mouse has been moved in any way in the past several seconds, tapping the trigger buttons will instantly kill the throttle. (Needless to say, because I want to roll mostly in combat, I use the mouse for aiming in combat, and I never want to come to a dead stop in combat, this is [b]extraordinarily [/b]frustrating.)

I apparently can’t even steer my ship when menus are up anymore, it seems like there is something in the control scheme that blocks it (and you have to use a menu option to even prevent the game from automatically stopping your ship when you open a menu!) Yes, it’s possible to just be boring and [i]pause[/i] the game to go into menus, but that’s a [i]massive[/i] buzz-kill in what otherwise feels like an RTS in first person.

I even tried just playing entirely by controller, with mouse emulation on the controller, but this is also impossible to use properly because the Steam controller refuses to allow sensitivity settings in the Steam interface, and tells you to use the in-game menu sensitivity options. I maxed the mouse sensitivity out, and it’s still not even a third as sensitive as it needs to be for me to comfortably use the controls. Oh, and also, mouse emulation on the controller also freezes out the XInput analogue controller functions and makes hitting left trigger kill all throttle.

Inversely, by the way, using the pad with keyboard key inputs to look is hyper-sensitive and causes my character to go flying in 360s or stare at the ceiling at the slightest tap, and there are no sensitivity settings for this one…

Beyond this, for a game that gets advertised as allowing a lot of customization of controls, there are a terrible number of keys that cannot be rebound, including nearly all the menu navigation keys. Worse, the customization apparently refuses to accept any other keyboard key as an input for these functions, and since I can’t give it any XInput controller functions, they basically cannot be rebound. You can’t even rebind the left click function and mouse wheel is permanently tied to throttle! You can’t call it keybind customization and then freeze out the most vital keys or controls from rebinding!

Keybinding prevents rebinding many important keyboard key controls. Also, moving the mouse at all makes it assume you want to set that control to moving the mouse, which is a frustration in itself. Finding a workable control scheme is an hours-long process in this game of trial-and-error.

I was looking through the options, and all I could find as a hint to why this game does this when no other game I have ever played has been so hostile to using a controller was an “accessibility” option that makes it so the game can auto-aim if you’re using a controller (of course, I turn auto-aim off, because that’s cheating), and I presume that there is some switch that gets flicked when the game detects mouse movement that says controller inputs are now invalid until it gets other controller inputs.

Interface – Design

When X: Rebirth was in the works, one of the things people were saying needed to be done was a redesign of the interface. The interface was designed without a lot of features that were added in later expansions like X3:AP in mind, and that’s why the menu was so cluttered, and the interface would need to be rebuilt with all the features in mind! It’d be a new interface… with Mass Effect-copying radial menus with six options for everything… and that’d make things better for people using controllers, somehow.

Again, I did use a controller to navigate the menu in X3, and it worked out quite well. X3’s menu was fairly responsive, and it’s always ordered in the same way, so I just got used to mashing out a quick series of d-pad presses to get to something like ordering a player-owned ship to jump, and then navigating the sector map and hitting confirm twice to order a jump.

It turned out the control scheme in X:Rebirth designed to make things easier for people using controllers made it harder for people using controllers and people using mice.

So then they tried making it use just the mouse in X4, and now it is even worse for people who use controllers and for people use mice.

The orders menu is an absolute nightmare of multiple nested menus where a single misclick or forgetting to hit the confirm buttons in three different places for the same orders before clicking anything else will negate everything you just did. I have to emphasize “misclick” because in lists, there are significant caps between choices where you think you’re clicking on a choice, but you’re actually clicking between two choices in a list, and that counts to invalidate every command you’ve put in up to that point, making you go through four or five layers of menu all over again. I don’t even remember if it was possible to issue orders while paused in X3 because I never did it, but it seems to just be the assumed default that the control scheme in X4 is such a flaming disaster that you have to pause the game to issue most orders to any allied ship.

I’m certainly not the only one who has trouble – I think I’m actually better than most, judging by the way that people who make “tutorial” YouTube videos for X4 seem to have to constantly pause the game and look down at their keyboard to perform even basic functions, I just try to actually build a working control scheme out of what this game gives me, in spite of itself.

The mouse also ruins controller or keyboard controls being used to go through any menu, because the slightest movement of the mouse moves the selected item to where the mouse cursor is pointing, rather than where you had pushed up/down keys to go in a list. This makes where you will be in a menu unpredictable, which means I can’t rapidly punch through menus like I could when using the controller to navigate menus. The menus themselves are also laggy, adding an extra quarter second to every step of what is often a dozen-step process to perform even the the most basic and routine commands.

I’m saving the “how to give standing orders” rant for the “no tutorial” section of this review, so let me cover how to place satellites in X3 and X4. Satellites are an important tool in the X-series, because you (and more importantly, your trading managers) can’t see what prices and quantities of goods are up for sale without a satellite nearby, so you cannot autotrade without satellite coverage. X3 had many more sectors, but smaller sectors than X4 does, but it also had a feature that let you just tell a couple of M5 scout ships to just go to every sector in the whole map and place an advanced satellite in the same position of each sector (I liked 20 km above the center of a sector). You basically hit this command for a couple M5s (a few would inevitably be shot down before completing their task), and you were done. In X4, you have to manually place every single satellite on the map by hand, even if you’re ordering someone else to do it, and you have to eyeball distances while doing it. You also can’t just select “drop satellites” and then click next to stations. You need to left click one of your own units (if you misclick, you need to find your unit and left click it again), right click a position to drop the satellite, left click on “civilian” in a drop down menu, and then “satellite”. You’re not done yet, though! You then have to hold right click somewhere there are no icons and drag up to change from viewing along the X-Z plane to along the X-Y plane, and left click and drag on the satellite to move it up or down to align with the Y-axis elevation of the station to ensure it’s in the covered area. Do this whole process for each of the one to two dozen stations in each sector in all over 100 sectors (or over 1,000 manual placements) early in the game, and you’re ready to start trading, one of the most core elements of the game.

The highlighted satellite placement command looks close enough to cover two stations…

But shifting perspectives show it’s actually several kilometers below the map system’s assumed plane at Y=0. You can only perform the initial place satellite command at Y=0, so you have to then change the axis and then drag the satellite down to change Y-coordinates.

You also need to left-click drag to move the map, but if you left-click drag on any point in the traversal path, you’re setting a waypoint, instead. To delete that waypoint, you need to then left click the token for the unit, right click the unit token, hit ‘information’ (the page that unintuitively controls orders, not the part with the ‘orders’ header), then to the ‘behaviors’ tab, then you can find the order you want to change, and click ‘x’ to delete it.

This is the simplest stuff to do when commanding allies, again, I’m saving the needlessly complex for later. Setting up a galaxy-wide satellite system in X3: AP took 2 minutes of my attention, but it takes 4 hours of my attention in X4.

Seriously, Egosoft, just give us a “deploy satellites near stations” standing order and cut the thankless micromanagement.

Again, there’s a fantastic game in here, but Egosoft apparently wanted to build the thickest possible interface barrier between the fun and the player.

Goals

In X3, it said right in the manual that your main goal is just to make money.

Yeah, basically, this is one of those capitalism games where your main activity is making money for the purpose of spending it on more factories that make you even more money.

One of the problems with just making money, however, is that once you get the factories and miners and traders set up, your space empire makes money for you, so while you can do missions if you want to, there’s no real in-game benefit to most of them, as you’re making vastly more money just letting your gas miners scour the nebulas for helium and methane than you will pulling taxi missions.

To this end, there’s a lot of stuff that money can’t buy, or at least, buy in sufficient quantities readily. This is what the “player inventory” that is separate from ship inventory is mostly for – you can see ship inventory item prices galaxy-wide if you set up a large enough satellite network, but to buy player inventory items like secure containers, you need to scour black markets routinely in person because they only show their inventory when trading with them face-to-face. (This is also basically the only gameplay purpose of having the on-foot mode, as it otherwise generally serves as just a meaningless commute between things that are actually interesting. The graphics of the station are certainly good, and I can see the hypothetical appeal of being able to tour your own space stations you built yourself… but you can’t. There’s just the half-dozen dock types and the same three to five rooms repeated on every station. Even the hallways from the elevator to the engineering room are the same as the hallways from the elevator to the security room. The hallways are the same for every space station of the same race, and only cosmetically different between races. It’d absolutely make for a great immersive sim to have a giant procedural world with characters you can talk to and the ability to traverse most of your own station, but that’s clearly far more content than Egosoft is capable of creating, so it winds up being a massive waste, with only the differences in ship cockpits being interesting more than 15 minutes into the game.)

Beyond that, there are also many cosmetic items and special ship upgrades that are tied to completing faction quests, which make up the main storyline. Some minor factions have a linear plotline, but the major ones have procedural missions that can spawn infinitely, being essentially four successive basic missions with some more variety and a overarching theme. (For example, a couple “expand our satellite coverage” missions and a couple “repair our damaged satellite” missions, or a couple combat patrols and a couple “kill this specific ship” missions targeting the faction the quest-giver is at war with.)

Applying the bright “Utopia” paint scheme that is a reward from the Segaris faction to a Segaris-specific Takoma fighter. The “Company Skin” paint scheme is a Teladi Corporation reward and their company colors of olive green.

This does give some direction to your activities, but it’s notable that there isn’t the mission reward scaling there was in previous games. (As your combat or trader rank went up, missions would pay more, even for the same effective work – it may seem insane for a taxi mission to go from being worth 50,000 credits to 5,000,000 credits for the same distance traveled, but when you’re getting close to being a trillionaire, you don’t get out of bed for less than a few million, so it’s just representing the inflating value of the player’s time. With taxi missions always being worth about 35,000 credits in this game, they’re just not remotely worth the time it takes to land and pick a passenger up even by mid-game, so it’s an entire form of content that loses all value.)

Oh, but with patch 3.0 (if not earlier), you also can claim sectors yourself. (This requires building an “admin” section on a defense station and destroying all rival defense stations with admin sections older than your own.) There are apparently no limits to this, not even against eliminating all stations from a given faction, allowing you to eradicate whole factions from the game. Hence, as an ultimate end-goal, you can pencil in “conquer the galaxy (at least, the parts of it in the game right now)”. Obviously, this isn’t the “canon” end goal, but this was added because a lot of players obviously get their kicks aiming for “I win everything completely.”

Plotlines

As mentioned before, X: Rebirth’s more linear narrative didn’t go over well, in part because plot mandates a major trading company become your permanent enemy, and this is supposed to be a “choose your own path” sandbox game, so being a mostly-pacifist trader was invalid as a playstyle. Even in X3, I found the story missions to be an annoying chore that you really couldn’t ignore because they gave out incredibly powerful rewards or unlocked major gameplay features you want unlocked as quickly as possible, such as the player headquarters, unique ships more powerful than regular ships, or the jump gate hub that lets you reconfigure the jump network. I remember at the time X: Rebirth was being developed arguing in the Egosoft forums that a sandbox game doesn’t really need a plot, it would be better working with a purely emergent storytelling structure.

Well, mostly good news for those like me who wanted that procedural story – they tried to do exactly that!… Kinda-sorta. There are still a few linear plotlines, including the Player HQ plotline (although this is available almost immediately from the start), but besides that one, others like the Free Hatikvah plot are heavily optional and lack any overpowered rewards that make you feel like completing them is mandatory.

Beyond that, the “plot” mostly revolves around faction reputation. You can join basically every faction in the game besides the always-hostile Xenon and Kha’ak by just raising your faction reputation up to 10. (Reputation is most easily gained by either trading with them or destroying enemies threatening their stations. Leaving a mining ship automining and selling in one faction’s sector is an easy way to build faction reputation passively.) The game starts with some factions at war, such as the Paranid civil war, and clearing all the missions of linear plots or achieving certain goals in procedural faction missions will trigger choice opportunities that can get factions to agree to peace or cause further conflict.

“Joining” factions after gaining 10 reputation is mandatory to gain access to any of a faction’s decent equipment or buy blueprints to build them yourself, making getting high relations with at least one faction of every race a priority, even if you betray them eventually.

It’s also worth mentioning again that different factions can actually gain or lose territory in X4, unlike X3, which makes fighting in wars not feel like beating on endless simulated pinatas for no gain but score. It also tends to light a match under the player, as factions have actual economies, so when a faction gains territory, it tends to snowball into having more resources that results in being more powerful and being able to take even more territory. If the player doesn’t hurry, all the territory will be taken, and there won’t be any left for them to claim for free!

That said, there’s a serious benefit to going the “friend to everyone” route, even joining up with factions opposing each other in war. This isn’t really a “pacifist” role playing route, however (even ignoring that Xenon, Kha’ak, and pirates don’t care about pacifism), it’s more of the “shady arms dealer that sells weapons to all sides” role playing route. Ultimately, your big money-making ships are lightly armed and vulnerable, and less enemies means more stations you can trade with, which means a bigger potential market for your goods for more potential profitsss.

Gameplay – the Prole Phase

As mentioned earlier, there isn’t a major “rubber banding” of quests like there was in X3. In X3, missions would have higher difficulty (in mission types where “difficulty” can be changed) when you have higher ranks, and combat missions in particular scale to the power of your in-sector military assets, but payouts climb with the combat power of your opposition, as well. It can sound cheesy that “the game just spawns in more enemies from nowhere when you get a better ship”, but think of it this way: If there’s a bunch of threats to a faction, and a pilot comes up asking for a combat mission, and that pilot is a rookie in a rusty obsolete single-seat fighter, you’re not going to give that pilot any job bigger than scaring off those couple pirates in scout ships bothering the local freighters because that pilot won’t be able to handle anything bigger than that. Meanwhile, if that pilot is a living legend that has wiped out whole sectors of Xenon and sails up to your station in their own personal carrier stuffed with over a hundred fighters and escorted by a whole task force of destroyers and frigates, you’re not going to waste their time offering them a job going after a couple pirates in ships that can’t even scratch your shields, you’re sending them to the front lines where the Xenon are mounting a full-on invasion of a nearby sector. Also, from an out-of-game perspective, as mentioned before, anything that isn’t paying out 7 or even 8 digits by late-game isn’t money even worth considering when your automated star empire is making 10 digit income just letting the game idle for an hour. Still, even taxi missions could be made “hard” by setting tighter and tighter time limits until they eventually could become literally impossible to complete even while boosting the whole way to help justify their 8-digit price tag for just picking a guy up and delivering him to another station (super-primo shuttle service). You still can do the missions that have no pay worth mentioning if you want to, but there’s no in-game benefit to doing them, so you should only do the ones that are inherently fun. The problem is, sadly, a lot of them seem designed more to be busywork than an actually engaging activity that plays to the system’s strengths the way that freighter supply missions or combat missions can.

So with that said, there’s a pretty clear distinction in the gameplay between when you’re poor (which is about 5-10 hours into the game) and the “everything after that point” section of this game that, once again, can last you for a thousand hours if you want.

Crystals are a new feature added to X4 to help give players a chance to “pull yourself up by your own bootstraps” with even the most garbage equipment. Crystals are for some reason only collectable by the player, so autominers never get them, but you basically can just go into an asteroid field and look for sparkles to lead you to crystals. I think crystal spawn rates were nerfed in 4.0, however, because I had serious trouble finding any, and all I did find were purples and yellows, with nary a white in sight.

The typical viewpoint of a starting player – staring at a field of rocks, looking for shiny rocks.

Your typical purple shiny rock, the most common and least valuable.

My typical haul of shiny rocks: 157 of the least valuable, 3 of the second-least valuable, 0 of everything else. Screw it, this is halfway to a mining ship so I can get on with the game, anyway.

Beyond that, you’re basically reliant upon missions for money, but any mission that pays well is also a mission that requires something you don’t have. You basically take these just because you’re bored of staring at rocks waiting for a twinkle. These include the aforementioned taxi missions.

It’s worth mentioning that because there is no rubber-banding of content, you can get ludicrously impossible missions for your current point in the game, as well, such as boarding and capturing capital ships when you’re still in your single-seat scout with no crew.

At least the mission briefings are amusing.

Other missions are seemingly simple… only if they are procedurally spawned in the right spots. One mission that was only worth another 30k or so was to go find some lockboxes and open them up. This would hypothetically be easy, if only the lockboxes weren’t located in the region of space where Xenon and Kha’ak raiders spawn in to attack and I at that point had only my pitifully-armed scout craft…

I should probably throw a screenshot of the map mode up at some point, since you’ll spend so much time with it. The little green triangle is me, and the red triangles are genocidal robots and insects with nothing better to do than spawn infinitely and murder me, and the little gold line is the kilometers-long stream of invectives I’m screaming at having three more swarms spawn in on me after I just lured the last batch into defenders to just FINISH THIS STUPID MISSION ALREADY! P.S. the lockboxes whose contents I had to return only contained bandages I could buy at any trade station, anyway. I so desperately wanted to use my spacesuit laser on that quest giver…

I seriously spent about five hours failing that mission getting killed every time I thought I had lured the Xenon away, got out into my space suit and started working on a lockbox, only for more Xenon to respawn and blast me to death before I could get back to my ship. Bitter, bitter tears of rage. I should have just aborted that mission the instant I saw Xenon over it, because there is no faction reputation gain for doing basic missions, pitiful pay, and no price for aborting the mission.

Lockboxes are another hidden collectable that spawns infinitely, and requires going out in a space suit to collect. They spawn rare goods like AGI Heuristic Cores you need for hacking or ship mod parts. Data vaults are a hidden collectable that are preset in nature and add game timeline lore for solving a “find the panel” puzzle in your space suit.

Gameplay – the Bourgeois Phase

The game changes after you buy your first mining ship. You can hire a crew that for some reason only asks for a single upfront payment and no salary, and from then on, you get to earn the fruits of their labors, and use it to buy more mining ships and hire more bizarrely happy-to-be-exploited workers to reap even more profitsss from their labors. Capitalism, ho!

The mining ship – say hello to the rest of the game on easy street.

After you set your miners to auto-mine, you can literally make money just staying in dock and alt-tabbing out to do something else while the game runs in the background (so long as you’ve set your game to borderless window instead of fullscreen). That’s not all, however, as reputation faction is a key game element, and the easiest way to gain faction reputation is to sell them goods they want… like ore from miners, which you’ve now set up ships to do on your behalf without your input. Basically, the most important aspects of your gaining wealth, influence, and power, are now on autopilot, and as long as you occasionally spend money buying more miners until you have a couple in every faction’s territory, you’ll eventually spam your way to success.

Now that you’re filthy rich and never have to work again in your life, what do you do with your time? Well, besides do plotline missions and “whatever I want, I’m RICH, bitch!”, you build stations to make even more money because you eventually start to build more miners than there are refineries to take your minerals.

The station-building interface, and a basic microchip factory refines silicon into wafers and then turns them into microchips, with solar power. No habitation pods yet, though, but hey, I’m only 50 hours into the game at the time of this screenie, I’m not THAT rich yet. Unlike X3’s chaotic “spaghetti and meatballs” approach, you now buy a plot and have to link station pieces directly to one another on the pieces that allow attachments. There are, however, “linking” pieces that just exist to serve as connectors that are relatively cheap.

The AI builds stations that only have one or two factories, and they have prices that adjust based upon supply to give your and AI freighters a way to buy low and sell high. You aren’t compelled to play by those silly rules, and you can make super-factories that put every step of production from raw material (which takes miner ships to deliver, but you can own those miners so you don’t have to pay for the material) to finished product, and sell those goods direct to the shipyards.

I mentioned before that Egosoft has a bad habit of making a sandbox, but then having a linear plot they make you go down because the rewards are too good to pass up, right? Well, while they mostly try to get things over with early, the Player HQ plot is just Christmas for players, giving them all kinds of massive advantages, including the whole ship upgrades system. (Which is different from customization. These are upgrades above and beyond what’s available on the market that you get from doing side-quests.) The research lab in particular is something you will feel like an idiot if you dawdle getting (like I always dawdle in finishing stupid linear plot missions in my sandbox). Teleportation in particular allows you to jump between ships anywhere in the game area, and although early versions of teleport only allow you to jump a certain number of sectors at a time, a relay chain of strategically positioned ships will take care of that. “Research”, as with most research in games, is also a joke, and just takes a bunch of items you can simply have bought with money automatically, and then wait 10 minutes for it to be over with.

Teleportation helps make some missions far more bearable, such as those annoying prospecting missions. You need to be on a station in person to pick up a passenger, then fly around and drop resource probes until you get a high enough ore concentration to satisfy the mission requirement, which is just a ton of tedious trial-and-error made worse by having to pilot the slow and clumsy mining ships… only you can just teleport back to your normal ship and order the mining ship to drop resource probes remotely with far more speed and far less player attention. It’s probably not a great sign that I’m looking for so many ways to skip out on the “fun side missions”, but the fact that you aren’t forced into just combat missions all the time if you get bored with the other stuff too easily is still a good thing.

Research also gatekeeps the ability to steal station blueprints with suit EMP bombs. (You can’t build anything without its blueprint, so gathering them is another one-time speedbump on the path to building factory stations and dominating the economy.) To understand why that’s a good thing, let me put it this way: Making suit EMP bombs is a bit of a hassle because it takes rare Secure Containers that are hard to source, but they cost about 10,000 credits to make if you buy the parts (although you can get lodestones much more easily just following some miners around and picking up their scraps), or 100,000 credits to buy an EMP bomb outright at a pirate station, even though all of these have limited stock. Comparatively, most station blueprints cost millions, and some cost hundreds of millions of credits, and are only available if you are in the highest reputation tier with a faction. Now as previously mentioned, your time becomes worth more and more money, so the time spent building and deploying EMP bombs isn’t worth it for the “mere half million” credit small storage part blueprints, but you’re just going to feel like an idiot if you spent tens of millions, much less hundreds of millions of credits on something you could have gotten for free. After all, you do get to the point where 100 million is a drop in the bucket, but not before you’ve built your super-factory stations, and you need these blueprints first to make those.

After finally finding a secure container saleswoman, I know what I must do…

Beyond that, you can start buying capital ships, and start to threaten major powers.

Once you have enough money to buy a fleet, the game’s somewhat cumbersome interface can actually be put to good use, because while it demands too many confirmations for every little thing, you can set up ships to follow a “commander”, and those followers can be commanders of other followers, as well. What this means is you can set up naval task forces with a chain of command and clearly-designated roles within the force. Set up a carrier as a fleet flaship, give it destroyer escorts to be heavy bruisers while the corvettes and fighters (carriers can carry corvettes as well as fighters) are used as quick-strike craft to prevent any from escaping your might. Leave a carrier task force outside a sector that spawns baddies like the Xenon, and you can have massive fleet battles occurring semi-regularly. (It might take deliberately helping the Xenon to do that, however, as the Xenon seem weaker compared to the rest of the races now. Antigone was able to drive the Xenon back all on their own, for example. Destroy some defense bases of the other races, and sit back so the Xenon can expand a bit, or just declare war on one or all of the major races, and you’ll be enjoying truly massive fleet battles, however.)

Outside of missions, you absolutely can play this game entirely from the map, or just stand over the shoulder of the captain of a capital ship as they shout out how they are about to engage travel drive or watch the turrets on the deck of the ship swivel and blast away without steering the ship yourself. As you gain more wealth, you gain more ships to command, and the map screen becomes the more natural home of the player, and while they are frustrating to set up the first time, many automation commands are thankfully fairly decent. (I just wish there was an auto-station-satellite command instead of the useless “revisit stations”.) You’ll definitely want to turn off alerts for things like police inspections or finding lockboxes, however. They will spam you endlessly as you gain more ships.

Eventually, you can gain the ability to purchase blueprints for your own wharfs and shipyards. When you have a self-sufficient mega-factory with your own miners controlling the entire supply chain from raw material to finished ship, congratulations, you have now invalidated money. Your empire has no upkeep costs, yet can sell ships to any empire it wants for credits without end, while you can just order your own factories to make whatever you want for free.

That said, it takes a long time to get there, and any time you get bored with building up factories (or just need a little more time for cash to roll in from your already-built ones to afford the next one or just time for more miners to roll off the assembly lines), you can just hop into your personal jet fighter and get involved in small-ship combat in some remote sector, or ride a personal war yacht destroyer into a larger engagement, or just do a space taxi mission for the giggles if that keeps you distracted. X4 is nothing if not a constant firehose of missions being sprayed at you for you to accomplish if you want directions in how to have fun, although as previously mentioned, most missions only give you cash rewards and the cash becomes increasingly irrelevant, so you’re just doing it for the giggles.

This freedom of choice really does help blow away some of the memories of all the frustrations it took to get to the top.

Again, there’s something to be said for the sheer scale of the game, going from an unnoticed nobody to the single greatest power in the galaxy. There are those moments when you have breakthroughs. You’re not a small fish running scared when a hostile capital ship appears, you’re in your own destroyer, now, and you can start smashing through enemy sectors for fun, or turn to piracy, stealing ships left and right at the cost of your marginally expendable marines’ lives. You no longer have to just avoid those awful Xenon spawn points, you can invade Xenon space, and show them how it feels to be a tiny minnow before a hungry shark! Oh, it doesn’t feel good does it? Well how about you reload several times taking two minutes each reload while I let you run away for an hour only to come back and die again, making absolutely zero progress, chump! Oh yes, those bitter tears will be repaid in full, now, sucker!… [ahem]

Or, you know, you just get a different perspective on things once you get the big ships.

The Simulation

I’m adding this in a little late, but it’s probably worth mentioning that a big appeal to the game, especially early on, is the sheer scale of it all. Starting the game out, you’re a little minnow in a very big ocean with massive sharks fighting giant battles you just have to run from. (Again, the simulation will have the Xenon invade sectors from time to time, and there’s a constant trickle of Kha’ak spawning in from nowhere.) Oddly, considering the addition of a method to fly alongside a capital ship automatically (which makes truly huge ships more fun, especially to do things like dogfight with other small fighters inside the “relative gravity” of the capital ship), the capital ships don’t quite dwarf the small ships as much as they did in X3, although considering how absurdly huge the (sometimes over 2km long) capital ships were in that game in spite of their firepower not scaling with their size, it is understandable. (Perhaps a few DLCs down the road, we’ll start to get XXL ships that actually get called ‘cruisers’…)

One fun thing you can do is that you can request docking and land on neutral ships then stroll into their bridges and bother the captain in person. (I don’t know why they don’t get mad at you for bothering them…) I recommend doing this at least a few times (even if you might get taken on a ride to some strange place), as the view from a capital ship’s bridge, just sitting there watching it go can be breathtaking in its own right.

Crashing a Teladi L-size freighter’s bridge, the massive dome bridge and the barren planet below make for quite the spectacle.

In spite of the way that ship interiors are sadly not fleshed out, the exteriors have an absurd amount of detail. In fact, some of them had what I thought were transparent casings, but they seem to just be shields that keep the air in, and you can actually fly straight into some of the factories, only to find they have moving parts and meticulous details.

The interior of a hull part factory. The conveyor belts, machine arms, and scanners all move and have a level of detail high enough to be fine for the interiors of ships… THAT AREN’T THERE. Seriously, Egosoft, I’d trade the time spent on this for even slightly more cabins in the regular ships…

The simulation runs all the time, even in places you haven’t had a chance to visit yet, and each faction builds economic ships, stations, and warships they then launch into wars and smash everyone else’s stuff until they run out of ships and need to give their economic ships (that still survived) time to gather the ore to smelt into the refined metal that makes the hull parts that get built into new ships. It’s an ant farm, running all the time whether you stop to appreciate it or not, but because the economy is fully modeled, just by interacting with it (even just to have your miners sell ore to their stations or your freighters buy low and sell high), you help the economy of whoever you are trading with, and this gives that faction a little leg up in the next round of battle because they now have more materials to build more ships. (Wharfs halt production until they have enough things like hull parts or shield parts to make the ship. This makes shipyards and wharfs the ultimate destination of most of your top-tier products, and the AI has a bottomless hunger for things like hull parts in particular.)

Another fun pass-time is just standing on the dock and watching the ships pass you by… including attacking Kha’ak raiders getting shot down by station defenses.

One thing I should also mention about the universe simulation is that nobody recycles. That’s not some environmentalist screed or anything, it’s just how you’d survive in an actual space-borne future – the vacuum of space doesn’t have construction material like trees just lying around in your back yard, much less infinite air just in the sky like a planet does, so you have to conserve your resources and avoid leaks and losses. In X4, the entire economy is built around either building ship parts or food and medicine, with no consumer goods manufacture. Ships that are destroyed are resources deleted from the game, with no chance for scrapping for extra cash or resources. (And since Xenon ships no longer can be boarded, it means Xenon ships leave you basically no method of gaining profit unless you’re taking a mission that put a bounty on them.) Even the food factories require you to break up ice asteroids for ice to melt into water that farms constantly need resupplied. Apparently, colonists flush their bodily waste directly into black holes, because there’s no reuse of the water or nutrients, and you need to constantly consume more and more asteroids.

To combat this, there are infinitely respawning asteroids. (This makes a marked distinction from X3 and before, where you could build mines on asteroids that became part of your stations, and asteroids were finite but provided infinite resources if a mine was built on them, but once destroyed were gone forever in a limited galaxy.) This is what makes your mining ships the infinite cash fountains they are in this game, but it’s still strange, especially because they went out of their way to nerf mining in safe areas since it so trivializes the economy to be the supplier of goods everyone needs to survive and never conserves. Combat salvaging would make fighting Xenon (or really, any combat that isn’t boarding) more lucrative, and wouldn’t be something so easily left to auto-pilot, since you’d presumably need to send combat salvage freighters into territory that by definition sees combat, and it worked really well in Eve Online. Salvaging trade goods like hull parts out of wrecks instead of just a couple personal inventory items out of a whole star destroyer would help make mining not the be-all end-all of the economy.

I mentioned before that “hiring” crew is basically the same as “buying” crew. You don’t pay them salaries, you just buy them like they’re happily selling themselves into slavery. It’s really odd that Egosoft is worried about how “easy” mining or crystal farming can be, so they nerf that, at least in safe areas, to try to nudge you towards more dangerous areas, but they make mining an infinite money fountain, don’t include salvaging ships from dangerous areas, and don’t include any costs to operating your business. In X4, you only lose money when a ship is destroyed (and you can easily just run from combat until you have a doom fleet), you expend (fairly cheap) consumables, or you buy high and sell low. The “imbalance” of the economy comes from the fact that it’s all fountains and only the most irregular of sinks, so naturally, the world will be flooded eventually. Salaries don’t even need to be particularly high to at least start to impact the way that players look at the world. (Especially if employees draw more salary as they gain more skill. Players might think twice about having a capital ship full of 5-star marines sitting in their wharf doing nothing, at least, even if they can afford it.

Capitalist Fantasyland

The other huge appeal to the game, although people don’t really call it out too often, is the sense of progress you get by playing. Even when I’m annoyed by some of the missions, and see a lot of it as busywork, that sense of progress you get claiming more and more stuff, or building your way up to bigger and bigger ships is a powerful sensation. (This is why small ships kitted out to the point they stand a chance in combat costing as much as getting a mid-range medium-sized ship that fights just as well is a serious let-down, as it ruins that part of the progression.)

I remember being passed a clip of a political YouTuber saying that “libertarians think that real life is like Minecraft”, in that in Minecraft, if you don’t like the job you have, you can just go out into the woods and start your own society from scratch with your bare hands, even if you have to chop down trees to get the lumber for your house with said bare hands. The notion that you can “pull yourself up by your own bootstraps” is a joke, meant to reference children who think they could fly if they just grab their own boots and tug hard enough. If they can’t do it, they just think “I’m not strong enough yet, but when I get bigger…“, not considering the whole Newtonian physics aspect of it – that you need something else to push off of to get higher, and you can’t just fly on your own. The term mocks the idea that anyone can make it all on their own, but it’s been re-appropriated by those who don’t understand that meaning and act like they really did just do it all on their own while ignoring all the people they stepped off of to reach the heights they did.

I described this before with the Patrician franchise, but games like the X franchise, where you start off as a dirty miner, then build your way up to trillionaire tycoon and then can go ahead and declare war on the universe and become Emperor of the Galaxy all within the span of a few hundred hours of game time. After you have your first few employee/slaves working tirelessly for your bottom line without any sleep or pee breaks or any salary, you can basically infinitely make money passively so long as they aren’t getting killed by random Kha’ak attacks. Even then, you’re still making money as long as all of them don’t get killed. You can live that capitalist dream: Just owning stuff and making more money than you can ever figure out how to spend by having the stuff you own make more money for you without you needing to lift a finger. You’re just letting the simulation run itself and accrue more profits to you while you sail around in your personal pleasure yacht at that point.

While long, grindy games that dole out occasional rewards tend to get called “Skinner Boxes” with perfectly valid reason, there’s a definite underlying appeal in this fantasy of winning at capitalism. All you needed to do was put in a couple hours of hard work at the beginning, and you pulled yourself up by your own bootstraps. Depending on your circumstances in life, getting the swank capital ships as your pleasure yacht or sitting back (well, OK, you can’t sit, you have to stand) in one of the office chairs with posh futuristic furniture is success come more easily than it could ever come in real life.

As a final cherry on top of it all, version 4.0 (which came with the release of Cradle of Humanity), allows for terraforming, which lets you literally put your mark on the world(s) as you express your wealth in remaking a whole world to suit your own needs. This basically amounts to a “send stupidly huge amounts of goods to a special storage site, and we’ll change the planet in the skybox to be more blue/green and additionally create trade stations that shuttle goods up and down to the surface that serves as a new market to dump trade goods upon”. (They also stress repeatedly that there is no going down to planets to prevent anyone from getting their hopes up. Egosoft can’t even make full ship interiors, they’re not going to make a planet, even a procedurally generated one, until they have stupid amounts of detail to fill it with, unlike some developers that are fine with releasing a game with planets that are just barren desert and 8 million random rocks plus a single skybox city that instantly kills you if you get close enough to see where the details weren’t drawn to satisfactorily obsessive degree.)

Combat

While it’s partially the fault of the problems with the interface/controls, I find that combat against capital ships has made major improvements over X3 with the introduction of targetable equipment, combat against small ships like scouts has nosedived in quality and enjoyment.

The good first for a change: In X3, you couldn’t damage ship components directly, although ships would lose speed as they took hull damage. Combined with the fact that nearly every capital ship would have flak turrets that are basically specifically designed to invalidate fighter craft by being shots too fast and accurate for any fancy maneuver to save you, and the only way to not die in a fighter craft the instant you went into the ship’s instant death radius (AKA flak turret max range) was to either send waves of sacrificial lambs to eat fire for you or stay in a blind spot in the turret coverage. (Turret coverage was moronic and most designs made no sense at all – flak turrets cover 1k range, but capital ships can be up to 2km long, so where do they put the flak turrets? At the very back, so that the front half is wide open, of course!)

So, X4 now has targetable components, meaning you can, for one, directly shoot the engines to kill all mobility to a ship. (You can even hypothetically do this to fighters, but for reasons I’ll discuss in a couple paragraphs, it’s impossible as a practical matter.) Going for the turrets strips the ship of its capacity to fight back, and if you’re in a small fighter, you better take those flak turrets out first. To add to this, there’s a new feature where flying near a capital ship with flight assist on will have you automatically match speed and your movements will then be relative to the ship, allowing you to fly around a moving capital ship like it were stationary, and use the ship itself as cover from its own turrets. You can pop out, take some shots, then duck behind cover to let your shields regenerate like an FPS if you use strafing. (Staying close enough to stay in the relative speed zone precludes high-speed maneuvers for dodging.) As an added neat feature, capital ships have L-size shield generators for the whole ship, but local M-size shield generators that specifically cover certain parts like engines or turrets. The engines are only shielded by these smaller M-size shields, which are an order of magnitude weaker than the L-size shield, so it’s possible for a small fighter to blast through them and take out engines even if they don’t have the guns to pound down a destroyer’s shields on their own. This adds up to making even small fighter-type ships piloted by the player able to actually meaningfully assist in taking down capital ships, which is a great addition to the game.

Taking out a ship’s engines, turrets, and shields will also open a ship up for boarding instead of just destroying a ship, for great profitsss. Boarding existed in earlier X games, but without the ability to target the turrets or engines and a need to keep shields down, it was a much more arduous process.

Targeting the shield generators on a Xenon capital ship. The other large shield generator, below, is already destroyed (glowy red and ragged), and the engines, to the left, are also destroyed.

Boarding, for that matter, only works on capital ships. Smaller ships will have crew bail out as they take hull damage, so the best way to accomplish that is to have a rapid-fire low-hull-damage weapon (like the previously Boron, now Argon ion cannon, which is ridiculously expensive because it’s made explicitly for capturing ships) to give lots of “gentle encouragements” to get out of the ship before the hull buckles completely. I tried boarding before with my corvettes, only to find that the dozen or so crew they possessed just isn’t up to the task, even against a lone captain. There are no dedicated troop transports in this game, so the best boarding ships are oddly the large-size freighters or resupply ships that are explicitly not combat vessels.

At first I thought I could take a barely-defended ship with only a dozen marines. Silly me, I didn’t realize THIS ship was an option yet…

For both good and bad, boosting is now possible for the AI, plus strafing is now proportional to your ship’s size, taking away one of the cheese factors that gave players a major leg up in X3. Boosting isn’t used across the board, however, so I suspect it might be related to pilot rank, as that’s a thing, now. Boosting no longer takes energy cells in cargo, but instead drains your shield. Travel mode is better than boosting, so to make things fair and not let you just travel mode out of any combat as soon as things look bad, you can’t use travel mode for a few seconds after being hit. Boosting can be used, however, so long as you still have shield to drain, and if the normal combat speed of a ship is 300 m/s, its boosting speed will be 3,000 m/s, and it only works in straight lines and cripples turning speed, so if the enemy isn’t directly on your six and boosting at the exact same time, there’s no chance they’ll catch you. This heavily favors hit-and-run tactics, as you can’t run away with travel or boost if you’re taking heavy damage and have lost your shields, so you want to boost to open up distance before your shields are halfway down, then hit travel mode to keep distance open until your shields recharge once that ban on travel mode after getting hit expires. Again, however, some enemies can do this, too, and it’s just as annoying for you when they do it to you as it would be to them when you cheese them.

Fighting small, fast targets, however, is now a nightmare. Even in X3, maneuverable craft were major annoyances because you would need to either be as fast as the enemy and get behind them and match their maneuvers to get a good shot off, or you just left it to a ship with never-miss flak turrets. If the enemy ship is faster than you, all you can really do is let it do hit-and-run tactics (its default behavior), and just go head-to-head, hoping you could gun it down before it could gun you down. In X4, this not only still applies, but the two factions that are always your enemies, Xenon and Kha’ak, are always in the fastest, most maneuverable ships and their light scouts are the most common enemies in the game for maximum annoyance.

What X4 does to make this worse, however, is that your guns no longer just fire where you’re pointing the cursor like in X3. They fire where little turret traversal pips are aiming, and they have a traversal speed, just like World of Warships, now. (Another instance of Egosoft apparently stealing another game’s ideas without considering the context in which it is placed…) The thing is, World of Warship’s ships are giant tubs where even light destroyers take a minute to turn a full circle, while X4 scout craft are little more than a couple pixels in size at distances of more than 1 km away, and they’re zipping across your screen at supersonic speeds pulling evasive maneuvers while you’re also in a high-speed turn trying to keep your nose vaguely pointed in the target’s direction. (This is notably NOT helped by the failure of Egosoft to allow me to use analogue controls using my controller thumbstick while aiming with the mouse, and instead having to use clumsier WASD steering, which means having to tap keys for jerkier turning.)

To make this even harder, your pips don’t even align with one another if you’re aiming at a target and give the guns time to traverse to your cursor! They instead just fire at a given angle from their position on your ship, so if you have two guns to the right of your cockpit and two guns to the left, your aiming pips will line up left or right of your cursor instead of on it. You have to aim either right or left of where you’re leading the target to try to get at least half your guns to hit! (There is an “accessibility option” that allows for auto-aim, which not only makes the pips converge but also just flat-out aims for you, but that is basically cheating, so I refuse to use it.)

The shots will go where the three white dots are moving. The #-like symbol is a guide for where the target’s current momentum requires you to lead your target. Even though my cursor is close to the # (screenshots hide the cursor), the guns can’t traverse fast enough to keep up, and the combat is too fast-paced with small ships to even keep an eye on the gun pips while you also need to match speed, steer the ship, strafe the ship, AND keep your cursor on the lead, especially since they’re small white dots in a field of glowy flashy laserfire.

Add to this, many weapons are basically useless against the scoutcraft because scouts are now generally smart enough to just use their greater speed to run away when their shields are down until they come back up. Keep in mind, the most common enemies in this game are Xenon and Kha’ak scouts that are also the fastest ships in the game, now, so you can’t just hunt them down if you’re in a fast fighter like in X3. Some enemies are even smart enough to know how to boost like you do, giving them that time to recharge shields before coming back. What’s worse is that the pulse laser, the basic weapon that is the only thing you can buy besides missiles you can only carry in small quantities and have to purchase and now take up a weapon slot (when starter ships often have only one weapon slot), is one of those completely useless weapons.

I can’t stress enough how much this invalidates combat in the early game. Even supposed fighters are useless until you get better weapons, which requires having 10 faction reputation, and having faction reputation requires either performing combat you won’t be able to survive without better equipment (Catch 22…), or having a mining trader going. Basically, going out and doing easy taxi missions or going crystal hunting is practically the only valid way to start, and if you were someone who came to this “play however you want” sandbox wanting to do combat will be severely annoyed to find combat just isn’t a viable way to make money until after you already have money from doing other things.

What’s worse is that, for the price of just two or three of the single-seat small fighters with the equipment good enough to stand a chance (a price by which you should have already bought several auto-miners to keep you in the money), you can buy a corvette with mid-rank gear that will curb-stomp the battles you would struggle with in a small fighter. Even the scout craft, strangely enough, can be more expensive than the fighter craft, and ships like the Discoverer “scout” even have twice the weapon slots (2), the same shields, and more cargo space than the starter Elite “fighter” ship, and fully kitted out costs more than a medium-size mining ship on medium presets.

Because of this weird pricing, it winds up being the case that flying small ships is just putting a handicap upon yourself in most cases. Even the top speeds of medium-size ships are similar to those of small ships, so only the acceleration rate and turning are typically better.

As you get rich, however, medium-sized ships (corvettes) may have nowhere near the turn rate of the small-sized fighter ships, but their weapon and shield classes are large enough to shrug off attacks from small fighters except under extreme bombardment. Additionally, medium-sized ships have turrets that can track small fighters without also needing to steer the ship independently, so a skilled crew with a flak turret will shred fighters, while plasma turrets allow a medium-sized ship to take on larger vessels with shots going broadside while the medium-sized ship can focus upon evasive maneuvers. If all this was not enough, some medium-sized ships trade away some of their turrets for a small-sized hanger that can carry a small-sized fighter (your personal shuttlecraft/fighter for when you want to tangle with the enemy directly), plus can disgorge combat drones to take the fight to small-sized fighters directly.

Large-sized and XL-sized ships are more distinguished by role than other size differences. Large-size combat ships are main direct-combat capital ships like destroyers (no cruisers or battleships exist in the Egosoft world) which are the heavy direct hitters, while XL ships are the carriers that can hold a hundred small-sized fighters and a dozen medium-sized corvettes, but have less guns for direct combat, themselves. (Also note that this is different from previous X-games, where destroyers and carriers were often very similar in size. The carriers are now over double the size of destroyers in every dimension, making them over 10 times the volume/mass overall.) These ships are also, like actual blue-water destroyers and carriers, sluggish tubs where you have to plan out every move quite a while in advance, because it’ll take 30 seconds just to turn one around. You rely upon the turrets to do the fighting for you, while just trying to roll or use maneuvering thrusters to try to keep as many turrets on your enemy as possible. They can still be fun as you smash everything before you like bugs, but they’re a much more hands-off experience, and I’m a bit of a speed demon, anyway, so I prefer my old under-gunned rocket sled to a behemoth, myself.

And of course, this is all talking about in-person combat. As you get to the FPS combat, things become more of a matter of having decent builds and trained crews with enough money to throw a large enough force at the enemy. Especially in Out-of-Sector combat, concentration of firepower trumps most other matters, but skilled crews have accuracy bonuses that up damage output and different weapons are focused upon hitting different targets (flak targets small, fast fighters more easily, while plasma is too slow to hit fast targets, but more powerful to take on large, slow targets).

Ship Building

Ships could always be “customized” in the X series, but besides weapons, most of those settings weren’t real choices. For example, you could use a base-model ship or you could buy the upgrades that give it more speed, better turning, and more cargo capacity for absolutely no downside other than that it costs money. There was no reason not to get all the upgrades as soon as you could afford them, which was often fairly early-game.

To that end, Egosoft has tried to add in more choices to the game by having different types of every piece of equipment.

For a start, weapons already were the most unique thing, but while there are fewer weapons overall, they do feel much more distinct from one another. There are powerful plasma cannons with long range but slow reload times and slow projectiles that are effective against large, slow targets like capital ships but useless against nimble fighters that will evade them, while beam weapons allow for a continuous stream of laser fire that deals slow-burn damage for as long as you can keep the target under the reticule, and the shard battery is a laser shotgun that trades in being accurate to where the pip is aimed for at least a chance for a wild shot to strike, and can therefore be useful against the especially nimble small fighters in getting at least one shot to land, while larger targets can easily eat the whole spread. Projectile speed is of particular importance, as the lower the speed of a projectile, the more time it takes to reach its target, the more time a ship has to maneuver to dodge it. Because of this, only very high-speed projectiles can hit maneuverable scout craft that are constantly changing their velocity, and even then, you need to get close.

Thrusters offer an interesting choice, as combat thrusters allow for much higher pitch (up-down) turning rate and roll rate, but dramatically cut yaw (turning left-right) turn rate. In spite of being in space, to make things presentable on the map, most of the game is basically still on a plane, so you turn left and right most often, but combat thrusters can make your default steering rolling and then pulling up (like an airplane), rather than just turning left or right (like a helicopter). Combat thrusters also dramatically increase your strafing speed, which is great for more turret-based ships where you will want to be more evasion-focused.

Ship customization screen, engine section.

The engine “choice”, however, I find to be a bit of a false one. Hypothetically, this is a decent choice, where combat engines have higher base speed (which you typically are at in combat or when maneuvering near stations or asteroids), higher boost speed, and better acceleration, while travel engines are weaker in all those areas, but have a much faster travel speed, the “cruising speed” as you go between major points of interest, and in which you will spend the bulk of your time. It’s hypothetically an interesting choice – pitting your patience for waiting through travel times against combat performance. The thing is, even putting aside that you’ll have designated combat ships and “just flying about visiting places” ships, the travel engine’s slower acceleration applies to how long it takes to both accelerate to its much higher travel speed, how long it takes to slow down from its much higher travel speed (during which time you have no maneuverability…), and also comes with a significantly longer “warm up” period of about three seconds before travel mode can even start accelerating you. Few maps are so large that any ship can even get up to the speeds a travel engine offers, and you often don’t want to because you’re an out-of-control locomotive once you build up steam, as well! The “All-round” engine that is a middle ground completely eliminates the delay on travel mode warm-up while balancing the benefits of combat engines and travel engines, making them just better at being a travel engine than the travel engine.

Another thing to point out is that, while upgrades were exponential in price in X3 as well, they still never felt like a significant cost for the benefit they provided. If you look at the engines in the image above, however, you’ll see that X4 has different grades of engine cost an order of magnitude more money for performance that is only about 30% higher – in many cases, the top-tier engines can cost more than the ship’s hull, and top-tier thrusters will cost just as much! This still isn’t so much a “choice”, as any craft the player will be risking their life/game over screen flying will be worth putting top-tier equipment in, but it does mean you don’t reflexively max out the stuff you let your NPC employees fly and die in until you’re swimming in more money than you can throw away, and even the potential to just buy two ships with mid-rank gear for the price of one with gear only 30% better no longer applies as you’re bringing more ships than you can control.

While there aren’t choices in shields besides grade when you go to any one wharf or shipyard, each race has their own shield type, with differences in max capacity, time before recharge begins, and rate of recharge. That said, some races have better shields all-around (teladi and terrans), while other races (split and paranid) have better engines. This isn’t much of a choice on its face, but since it means you have to play nice with at least one faction of that race to benefit, there is some long-term strategy there.

When talking about choices, however, it has to be pointed out that X4 needs its DLC to even bring the number of ships up to around the level that X3: Reunion had in its base game, and X3: AP had exploded out into hundreds of ships. The older choices between Vanguard, Raider, Sentinel, and Hauler types of ships now only has Vanguard and Sentinels existing, and only a tiny handful of (mostly Argon) ships even have the choice, making most ships just “Sentinel variants” with nothing it’s a variation from. Variants were ways to offer customization choice, with Raiders having higher speed in exchange for less shields, while sentinels have more shields but lower speed. Vanguards just cost more money for slightly more speed and less cargo. Haulers, of course, were for more cargo space at the cost of speed. (Keep in mind, consumables like missiles and ammo for ammo-fed weapons took up cargo space instead of a special consumables-only cargo space in X4, so haulers could actually have utility as missile spam or expendable ammo ships.)

Tutorializing

All the X3 games came with a .pdf manual that you could download in its Steam version. They explained most of what you needed to know, and by the time X3: AP was out, there were enough 3rd party resources out there for players to understand the rest of what they needed to know with a little Googling.

X4 comes with no manual, and while there are some tutorial missions in the game itself with some of the new starts from the DLC, they only cover small parts of the game, and each game start covers different parts of the game’s mechanics, so you’d have to restart the game several times in a row as different characters in a sandbox game that encourages playing the same save for hundreds of hours to see them all. (I didn’t even know how to use the long-range scanner, which severely counter-intuitively relies upon holding down the “fire secondary weapon” button that only does something besides whatever your secondary weapons (usually missiles) do in this one mode. Without this tutorial, which again, only happens in SOME game starts, you’d have NO IDEA how to use this… and it’s mandatory for some game side-quests.) There are a few third party resources online, but they’re either incomplete, or are dreadfully edited YouTube videos that take longer to get through than learning through trial-and-error.

There are some in-game tools for learning. The “flight academy” is a fine start, and a guided tour of the most basic features for flying your own ship, and where I spent quite a few hours rebinding keys to find something I could be comfortable with. Then there’s a “combat tutorial” that’s basically just a shooting gallery to give you a chance to learn in a consequence-free environment. Finally, there’s an “advanced tutorial” start which is just a grab-bag of other minor features that is much less useful at explaining how to play the game. It simply tosses you out and has you teleport between different activity zones to be told things. The crystals tutorial, however, isn’t a fantastic tutorial, because while it does tell you to shoot and collect crystals for money, it doesn’t give you the guidance on how to look for crystals you actually need (like how close to asteroids you should get to start looking for the glimmers, when being too far away – to get a view of more asteroids at once – seemed to be a big problem for me). The “base-building tutorial,” meanwhile, literally just told me to sit back and watch as the base that was already under construction was being built, not telling me a damn thing about how to do it.

There’s a whole tutorial section apparently dedicated simply to telling you construction just makes buildings materialize from thin air because having distinct construction stages would take more animation budget they likely would have spent on the janky human animations first, anyway.

I should mention these “game start” tutorials were apparently added over a year after the game launched, presumably after many player complaints. (Although it’s probable the flight school one existed, and the other two were the add-ons.) Again, these “game start” tutorials are fine at covering what they actually do cover (besides base-building), but they just don’t cover enough.

There is an entire tab in your menu dedicated to “tutorials”, though. These are also hands-on tutorials, which is better for teaching players than just text, or worse, just a video, but the problem is that you have to use these in-game during play and they can only be used when certain conditions are met, such as being in specific types of ships or near a station. This is highly problematic because you typically reach for those tutorials when you encounter something you forgot how to do in the moment, and just need a quick reminder, or because you never bothered to read the tutorial to something you figured you wouldn’t be doing until much later in the game, like boarding. The problem is, in the moment when a player wants to look at these tutorials is when they’re about to do that thing, and it’s usually not any time that’s convenient to keep the game simulation running. I’d recommend just saving, loading an earlier save in a safer location, doing the tutorial then, then reloading your save in the thick of things, but again, that’s 4 minutes and 30 seconds of just the saving and loading, and just freakin’ alt-tabbing out and Goolging the solution from a third party is going to be faster.

These in-game tutorials are also deficient in explaining many things. They typically just tell you what button to push to do a thing, but don’t give you the context for how or why to do these things, and there’s no ability to skip ahead of steps you already know (especially if you had to cancel out of a tutorial or were blown up because some xenons came to shoot you dead in the middle of one of them because, again, the tutorials play out in the middle of the full game simulation), which helped add onto my general sense that I never, ever wanted to use these things. This is probably the only game I’ve reviewed I ever quit doing the tutorials out of frustration.

Even this, however, doesn’t cover a wide range of obscure and unintuitive things the game throws at you, with perhaps badly-translated terminology throwing even further confusion into the mix, because of how similar very different things can sound.

There are many mission types that very badly telegraph what they actually want you to do until you’re up to doing them. There are many missions that have you hack station panels, for example. Hacking is a not-mini-game that exists to justify the station walking portions of the game, but because there is no stealth or human-level FPS combat, the stations just leave their terminals open for anyone to walk up and hack. Don’t even worry if some NPC is using the terminal you need to hack, just elbow in there, there’s no mechanics for guards or calling them on you. Instead, the gameplay around them is just in being able to find the parts to make a single-use hacking item on a crafting bench, which generally amounts to having to do more time-wasting walking around in samey station sections. These missions are presented as “disable station security” or something of the sort, and ask you to disable a shield or station weapons terminal. Then there’s a “sabotage station turrets” mission. Sounds like the same thing, right? Nope! This requires you get out in your space suit and plant bombs on the turrets, directly, and makes the station hostile to you while in your 1 HP space suit, being a vastly more dangerous mission that looks seemingly identical, and also requires a different item (spacesuit bombs) that the mission description doesn’t warn you to stock.

I mentioned this in the interface section, but the way that you give your ships their most important orders is ludicrously unintuitive, and there is absolutely no help at all from the game itself in trying to figure out how you are supposed to perform certain tasks. Assigning a miner to automine is one of the most important stages of this game’s progress from the early to mid-game, so it’s important to let players understand how to do this, and they’ll be doing it a lot before never touching that ship again, so it should be fairly intuitive, right? So, how do you do it? Well, of course, you open the map, select the unit, then ignore all the options about giving it orders, because those are all wrong. No, you go to “information”, then hit an easy-to-miss tab at the top that looks like a generic list button.

Obviously, the option you want to hit to give orders is nothing under the “orders” header, but “information”.

Orders are given from this innocuous list-looking icon labeled “behavior”.

Be absolutely certain to hit all the bottom three options in order, and then confirm or nothing gets changed. Also, don’t confuse “commander” for “captain”, which is another thing that’s easy to confuse in this game.

After this, you then can select sector auto-mine, then you can pick a mineral or gas, then click on the sector selector button first before clicking on the sector. (If you click on the sector first, you deselect the ship and have to start this whole process over again. Then make sure you hit “confirm” hiding down at the bottom, or you once again lose all your progress if you click somewhere else.

I have to once again stress this whole process in the “new and improved interface” that took making a whole new game engine to give us takes about three times as much effort as the “clunky tacked-on” interface of X3, while also being vastly less intuitive and drowning you in far more ambiguously-worded wrong options.

Add to this, you can’t even auto-trade with your trading ships until they hit 3 stars in piloting. There is a “Revisit previously explored stations in sector” order, which you’d think would, you know, do something related to trading, being as it’s listed in the trading section, but no, it’s just literally telling the ship to keep flying by every station without trading. It took me over a dozen hours to finally realize those trade ships had never completed a single trade. Why does this order even exist if it does nothing useful?! It’s all but strictly inferior to just dropping satellites to get infinite information forever, since the enemy no longer even target your satellites in this game, anyway.

In fact, while the game has an Encyclopedia with “new” markers to encourage you to read, it turns out that well over half the encyclopedia’s entries just read “No data available.” Egosoft just couldn’t be bothered to finish, and still isn’t finished with base-game content two years down the road. (Granted, this was something of a problem in X3, as well, but there was much more written in the encyclopedia in X3.)

No caption available.

Graphics

I still think X3 is a great looking game, and that engine is from the PS2 era. If you crank the settings up to max on X4 you’ll… well, probably have a stuttering mess unless you have a bleeding-edge machine. Still, this game sure screenshots well… so long as you don’t mind that you’re mostly screenshotting interiors or a VERY few interior locations that get copy-pasted 800 times.

Some exteriors are quite amazing, however. This trading station has a mini ringworld. Even if the trees are 2d “cardboard cutouts”, it’s seriously impressive and helps reinforce the sense of scale.

One issue, however, is that the game boasts of its “no load times, ever!“… but then, it doesn’t pre-load new sectors when you’re getting close to jump gates, so you’ll get tossed into a new sector with absolutely nothing loaded in as stuff starts gradually doing pop-ins… including asteroids dead-ahead. In fact, I think they made it so collisions can’t do hull damage specifically because they make it so asteroids can pop in several feet directly in front of you when you have too much momentum to dodge.

Just after going through a jump gate, even the planet texture isn’t loaded yet.

A couple seconds later, you’ll notice not just the planet, but a new ship appearing, plus some of the asteroids are starting to pop in…

Additionally, if you get messages, the window showing who is talking to you pops up before the character models load, causing body parts to start appearing in load order, often starting with just a pair of disembodied eyeballs and some teeth before a head loads in like it’s Assassin’s Creed Unity, with the clothing coming last.

Help, my ship is haunted! Captains come to sit in the pilot seat when you get up, even before they load the character bodies in, causing body part pop-in.

Given the way that there are very few interiors to this game, I would honestly have preferred worse graphics if that meant the artists could have designed more interiors. As it stands, it feels like the “walking around” sections are a feature in desperate search of a purpose that the game fails to meaningfully provide, and they tend to just be boring bits you have to do in order to perform more interesting tasks, like finding traders to make spacesuit EMP mines.

Closely related to graphics would be animations… they’re… not good. Character animations are a new thing to X4, since we now have the ability to walk around stations, but the lower budget of Egosoft self-publishing really shows here, and the characters look stiffer than even Oblivion from back in 2006…

Deck crew just wave one arm from a basic T-pose. They’re motions so basic, they can do it with their eyes closed! (Thanks to a small bug, this guy keeps his eyes closed, but then “extra-blinks” while closed…)

Better hold on tight to that handlebar, don’t want to slip.

I’m pretty sure looking that far down can cause eye strain.

The game also has limited VR support, but apparently, isn’t going to go for a full VR version, at least in the foreseeable future thanks to X4’s massive CPU-hogging universe simulation making performance issues a problem. I don’t have a VR set, but considering the way this game looks, and that it’s a primarily cockpit-driven game, having point of view based upon head movement would be fantastic, especially in one of the glowy purple Paranid or Star Trek:TNG-style luxury liner Terran ships.

Looking right from the bridge of larger ships (by numpad, not VR goggles), you can see your bridge crew as you fly.

Sound and Voice

This is a middle-tier German developer self-publishing and then dubbing it into English. The voice acting is ranges from acceptable to bad without getting into the super cheesy range that X3 did that made it endearing. (“LOOOOSSSE PROFITSSSS!”) The split voices in particular sounds like they’re just bored, which is a poor match-up for characters that look and act like Mad Max extras who painted their skin green. Generic characters of a given race have the same voice, but some major characters have distinct voiced lines… which makes it odd they’re often some of the worst. The head of the Hatikva faction has really stilted line delivery possibly because of her extremely odd attempt at an accent. (In fact most of the worst actors are women, which makes me wonder if there was some sort of bad hiring policy at the company they got to do dubbing where they only have professional male voice actors and drag people in off the street to do women’s lines.) The lines are also much less cheesy than X3, but they aren’t more believable because of it. I mentioned disappointment that nobody shouts out “go eat a Kha’ak” during battles earlier, but what you get instead is banter between combatants during a dogfight where one guy says “There will be no profit in that action” and the response is “You’re just silly.” Instead of making the game feel more realistic and gritty to be a better immersive sim, which is what I think they were going for, it instead keeps things feeling too lightweight to take seriously while also seriously stripping away the character of the cartoony aliens.

The music, meanwhile, is generally good, with the music changing to “combat music” being your best indicator of when it’s time to get out of dodge if you’re not in a combat ship. It’s that kind of synth-y orchestral music basically all space games adopt, but because of that, it instantly tells you you’re in space. The only issue is that music is often tied to location (except combat music, which is tied to which faction you’re fighting with, so Xenon have Xenon fight music, etc.), so if you’re staying in one place, you hear the same couple songs on repeat a lot. Did I mention this is a “thousand hour playtime” game recently? Basically, the soundtrack does its job, but there could never be enough variety for a game like this.

Sound effects are a notable highlight of the sound direction, with combat sounds having distinct pitches that help you distinguish when you’re taking damage from when you’re landing hits, and each weapon type having a distinct sound. When I fire off a set of (shotgun-like) shard batteries, they have a nice weighty “whump” sound to their blast, and when you land a hit on a target’s hull, the tearing metal makes a high-pitched squeal. Other weapons like (gatling gun) bolt repeaters make loud “dakka dakka” thumps, while the distinctive buzz of the Kha’aks kyon beams let you know exactly when a Kha’ak has entered the fight.

Modding

Much like Bethesda’s Elder Scrolls, that other endless sandbox addiction-feeder, the modding community is heavily embraced by Egosoft to make their games the way they should have been in vanilla. Sadly, unlike Bethesda, and like Paradox, achievements are disabled in modified games, which leads to why achievements have such extremely low percentages for everything past “complete the tutorial”.

Also, because I didn’t even get to the late game after playing for 70 hours trying to review this game, I was sticking to just the vanilla game, myself (it’s only fair to write the review about the vanilla game), so I can’t say how much mods actually improve the game, but a quick glance at the Steam Workshop says “quite a lot”.

For example, remember how I was saying earlier on that the idea of walking around on your own stations and ships is let down by the fact that Egosoft didn’t spend the money/time/effort to actually create anything but cockpits/bridges/docking platforms? Well, some industrious modders are making them for Egosoft.

A screenshot taken directly from the “More Ship Rooms” mod page by WWJD. This appears to be a barroom added to a ship interior.

Another mod adds subsystem targeting orders to your subordinates, making boarding operations much more manageable.

The Steam Workshop, however, seems a little sparse compared to the much more active Egosoft modding forums, and there is a Nexus mods hub, as well. On there, I can find mods that add whole new factions and sectors, as well as new ship designs (made mostly by rearranging existing “pieces” of ships into new configurations, but hey, Egosoft recycles parts plenty, anyway), and many quality of life improvements to simplify or enlarge the game.

Bugs and Performance

I already discussed the issue of pop-in in the graphics section, so another issue with performance is that the game is constantly simulating the whole galaxy in the background, even in areas you haven’t explored, yet. The X series has always relied upon a clever system of “Out of Sector” (“OoS”) abstraction, which means that things that are far away enough that you can’t see them, or indeed in another sector, are not modeled in real-time to save on performance. (Additionally, they turn off collisions and let ships fly through objects so they can take direct routes without needing to spend processor power on pathfinding.) Instead, each OoS sector is only updated at about 2 FPS if you’re looking at that part of the map on the galaxy map, and even less when you’re not looking. (It was once every 30 seconds in X3, probably less now, but I don’t know exactly what it is in X4.) The problem is, this is still very CPU and memory clockspeed-intensive, and you can have the game stutter for seemingly no reason when something like a war is going on in another section of the galaxy. (Note: CPU and memory clockspeed, not GPU speed.)

One truly annoying bug is related to the “taxi missions” (which give you an achievement for performing 20 and is actually called “space taxi”), because these missions only highlight and let you take the elevator to the person you need to talk to once you have landed at the proper dock. Emphasis on “proper dock”. These missions will occasionally demand that you land upon XL docks or M-sized only docks when you only have an S-size ship in the area, and if you don’t land at the exact dock they order you to, the mission refuses to go forwards. Even if you do get the right dock, the passenger can get lost and never arrive at your ship… or just never tell you when they did arrive, which still leaves you waiting forever for a notification that never comes. If you take off too early, though, the mission can glitch up and be unsolvable. I had to abort half the taxi missions because they bugged out. Little wonder that even when taxi missions are such a nominally easy mission, only 1.3% of players (as of this writing) have this cheevo. (It probably helps that taxi missions pay out far too little to be worth your time more than half an hour into the game, for the same reason Travis Kalanick doesn’t drive uber cars, himself. You can be making millions in the same time you can make tens of thousands taxi driving.)

Picking up a “taxi passenger”.

Another bug is related to sitting in your chair. Occasionally, when you accidentally talk to the captain that fills the chair any time you get out of your chair, it will block you off from selecting anything but that captain ever again, basically soft-locking you out of the game and forcing you to reload.

This, in turn, is really annoying because save and load times are seriously awful. I can’t remember what the save and load times were in X3, so they probably weren’t all that bad, probably in the couple seconds range. It takes about 30 seconds to save in X4, and 2 minutes to load. Yes, I’m using an SSD. I suggest having a book or your phone handy to play puzzles on while waiting, or just taking a nice stretch because you can really spend hours in one position playing this game. That said, the save times are long enough that I actively avoid saving when I otherwise would, which can lead to serious loss of progress if I ever get into a fight I can’t run from, leading to even more frustration.

There are dozens of other minor bugs that don’t massively hurt the experience beyond killing the immersion that happen as a dull background noise to this game, including the likes of absolutely awful pathfinding AI for minor characters like walking station characters that walk into obstacles or small shuttles near stations just to create some background traffic that similarly love to slam nose-first into the side of the stations they are meant to fly around for minutes at a time.

A small station shuttle rams the station repeatedly, trying to burrow its way through the station hull to get to its destination.

Another “fun” one that required saving and reloading to fix was one where an out-of-sector ship somehow started getting flung backwards at hypervelocities with no way to stop it. Sectors look like finite hexegons in the game map, but they actually stretch out infinitely as you go to the edge (readjusting the scale of the sector in the map as you move), so this ship managed to get flung apparently thousands of kilometers off-course backwards, and took several minutes of travel mode to get back to known space…

A player-owned ship flung several sector’s sizes of distance past anything else in the sector.

I also was playing around once, docking on a NPC capital ship, then taking off when it was in Travel Mode, causing my ship to fail to keep up and instantly slam into the NPC capital ship at such high speed it clipped into the NPC ship and got stuck! I couldn’t find a way out, and had to reload a save.

Did I mention that the interiors of most ships are just blank space?

One that’s more amusing than game-breaking is that if you teleport into a ship that is about to take off, the game forgets to seal the cockpit/close the doors before taking off. There’s no in-game impact, although in retrospect, I definitely should have tried jumping out in the middle of space just to see how the game handled having no floor while I was in “station mode”.

Watch that first step, it’s a doozy…

Another minor issue is that data leaks and rogue transmissions (searching for which on station exteriors is another mini-game and leads to rogue missions) can appear inside the station itself, requiring you to burrow your ship into the station to get in range to decode the signal…

Only the base of the “broken cables” model is sticking out, leaving the spark you’re supposed to find inside the hull of the station. (They also can spawn entirely inside, but entirely invisible models make for poor screenshots.)

With that said, the game as a whole is fairly stable, being plagued mostly by annoyances and no game-wrecking bugs (although the taxi missions are notable for mission-wrecking bugs, they can be aborted with no cost but the time you already invested in them) and I only once encountered a serious game freeze (seemingly GPU-related).

There was a major bug for the GeForce 30xx cards as I was writing this, but just after finishing writing (and before this article was published, fortunately), there was a hotfix and NVidia patch that fixed the problem, allowing players with the latest NVidia cards to play the game without issue again.

Dlc

Egosoft seems to have gone the Paradox route for DLC.

On the one hand, I do think that releasing DLC once a year and just keeping a game’s development going for years after release is going to ultimately result in the best game possible, and is possibly going to be what finally pushes X4 into being a better game than X3:AP eventually. For this, I have some guarded hopes that this will ultimately be a great thing for the series.

On the other hand, Paradox has long had complaints that their games are not worth buying because they release DLC that make the game feel incomplete without buying them, and after 6 or so years of 2 DLC per year, even released at between $5-$15 and going on sale for half-off regularly still gets people swearing they’ll never play one of the best sims out there because it’s “a $200 game!” Paradox, for its part, has a few expansions like Common Sense that you really can’t play without, but they do at least try to make things related to specific factions so you don’t feel a need to buy The Republic DLC until you feel like playing a merchant republic. X4’s DLC, however, add whole factions/races from previous games that were missing in this game. They add significant amounts of new real estate to the game, and each DLC adds basically as many new plotlines as was in the original game.

Now, if you’re already bought into the game, that’s all great news, for a fraction of the price you put down for the base game, you get tons more content, hooray! If you’re looking to buy in late, however, this is even worse than the problem with Paradox DLC, because you’re absolutely getting half the game if you’re not shelling out $15 each for the DLC, and only went on sale for 15% off so far compared to the 50% off of Paradox games. (In fact, Split Vendetta used to be a $30 DLC…)

I’m afraid that by the time Egosoft has its house in order a few years and DLC down the line and it can start really attracting people who were waiting and seeing, it’s going to be putting up enough DLC that people are going to be passing it by as “not worth the $110 price tag”.

That said, there’s no clear indication of how many DLC are going to be released for X4: Foundations, and they might do what they did with X3: Terran War being a full sequel game reusing the engine and assets of X3: Reunion, releasing, I dunno, X4: Walls to build off of Foundations. That said, they’re rebuilding the brand after losing players with Rebirth, and clearly trying to be the franchise people liked before, so building off of Foundations with more DLC seems like the route they’ll go in the immediate future if they make money with this route, at least until they can make a game that’s more robust. Considering the ten years they’ve spent making this engine not garbage, I doubt they’re ready to pitch it out when it’s finally almost working right and still at least looks really good (although the save time issue is definitely a huge problem, and all over the Egosoft forums).

On the other hand, after writing this but before it published, I also got a notification that X3: AP was getting a new officially endorsed mod content update named Farnham’s Legacy (and maybe I’ll do a review of that one, as well). I don’t know what Egosoft’s plans are for adding more DLC, but the modding community is still active and solving problems or adding new content long after Egosoft stops doing so, meaning that in at least modded games, you will likely be able to see some perfect space sim become reality at some point down the line.

Verdict

X4 is a game that tears me in two extremes like few other games. It’s extremely close to greatness, which makes it all the more infuriating that bad control design decisions and bug and performance issues bring it down, while at the same time, I lost serious sleep because I can’t stop playing. If you’re the sort of person that loves that sensation of exploration in a sandbox, and just doing everything that comes to you as you find them all, this will be a game you can sink hundreds or even thousands of hours into. You just… need to take a few deep breaths and overlook some real ugly parts. The Elder Scrolls comparison rings true – if you’re the sort that loves putzing around in a sandbox, this is your new addiction, and it’s even marginally more likely to get its bugs fixed by the company that sells it rather than just the modders!

Egosoft devs, if you read this, for the love of gaming, fix those controller and interface problems and add some tutorials for using things like miners, and I’ll happily edit this review to a much fuller endorsement.

Written by
Wraith_Magus
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