Some space combat games offer plenty of white-knuckled dogfighting action that's just as intense as any first-person shooter could ever claim to be. X - Beyond the Frontier is not one of those games. In fact, if you aren't the sort of gamer who likes the idea of spending countless hours exploring the far reaches of virtual space, fighting occasionally but spending most of your time tinkering with finances, then X - Beyond the Frontier is not for you. On the other hand, if you're a grizzled veteran of Elite and Privateer, then X - Beyond the Frontier will definitely bring back fond memories of those classic, open-ended games of space exploration and financial exploitation.
Developed by German software house EgoSoft, X puts you in control of Earth's first light-speed-capable spacecraft, the X Prototype. But something goes wrong during the first test flight, and you suddenly find yourself transported to a distant, alien galaxy. Unarmed and unprotected, you encounter the Teladi, an alien race fixated on trade and profit. They outfit your ship with some basic shields, sensor software that lets you maneuver between systems, and a few credits with which to buy goods for trade - but they also leave you with a sizeable debt that they expect you to pay back soon.
And so your adventure begins as you set out in search of some way to earn enough money to pay back the Teladi. Gameplay in X is very open-ended, though there is a plot lurking about somewhere in the background. You aren't forced to follow the plot, however. In fact, the game almost encourages you not to follow it, since you are free to explore space at your leisure, buy and sell goods, fight pirates and evil aliens, and even purchase and manage your own space-born factories and mines. Given enough time, you can establish a massive, interstellar financial empire if you play your cards right.
X comes with only a skimpy manual that explains few of the game's most important intricacies, which was apparently an intentional design decision. How to purchase a factory or mine - one of the key features of the game - is left for you to discover on your own. You must also learn how to hire freighters and fighters to service and protect your possessions. Other matters, such as the best places to find better shields, powerful weapons, and various trading commodities, are also left unexplained. Where to find good deals and better equipment might not seem like the sort of information that should be in the manual, but when every commodity in the game is sold by a different space station - and not every kind of station can be found in every system - you can end up spending an awful lot of time looking for what you need. It also doesn't help that you must manually identify each installation in a new system, rather than simply download a sector map on entry.
However, exploring is the name of the game, and if you don't get frustrated by X 's snail's pace in the first 10-20 minutes, chances are you'll love the experience of flying from system to system. Six different alien races occupy the game's 50-plus systems, each with its own sphere of influence and array of commodities and space-station designs. There is some crossover between the races, such as the identical-looking inner doors on virtually all space stations, but for the most part each race has a distinctive appearance.
Fortunately, you don't necessarily have to travel from system to system to make a buck, as you would in Elite or Privateer. For example, you can buy energy units at a system's power plant and sell them at a factory or mine in the same system. Doing so can save you a lot of time, since you begin the game without a time-acceleration feature (which must be purchased as an add-on from an equipment supplier), and travel in X is a time-consuming process.
After as little as an hour of gameplay, with some shrewd trading on your part, you should be able to outfit your X ship with a pair of lasers, a larger cargo bay, a navigational computer and the time-accelerating "singularity time distortion engine." After that, continued trading can quickly yield enough cash to purchase your own power plant or other installation. You even get to display your own logo on each installation you own (with a picture of your favorite Simpsons character, for example). Keep your installation protected from Xenon ships and supply them with the resources they require, and you'll soon have a fortune on your hands. You can even buy some freighters for your larger installations, and as long as they have access to money, they will go out and bring back all the resources necessary to keep the installation running. Then all you have to do is set your selling price for the installation's end product and watch the profits roll in. Unfortunately, you cannot sell your ship and buy a new one as you could in Elite and Privateer. However, you can outfit it with tons of cool hardware, and eventually you can build up a vessel that is capable of taking on most warships in the galaxy.
Combat in X isn't terrible, but it's not great either. It's abundantly clear that trade and exploration were the main focus of the development team, because some elements of combat seem half-baked or flawed. Pirate ships, which appear frequently in almost every system, are primarily there for target practice, despite your sensor's warnings about their massive shields and powerful lasers. These lumbering transport ships shoot back rarely, if ever, but they do possess one very annoying tactic: They like to run into you. Their kamikaze habits seem more like a consequence of bad artificial-intelligence programming than anything else; most pirate ships will just try to ram you instead of maneuvering for a clear shot. And because X's laser and damage effects block most of your view, the kamikaze runs are often successful.
The obstructive combat graphics are the game's most glaring graphic flaws. Its other visual problems include a tiled nebula background in some systems where the tile seams are clearly visible. Furthermore, each alien race has a distinctive color to its engine flare, so you can always tell whose ship is passing by when you see the bright corona around the tail; but the same goes for pirates, who apparently haven't noticed that their telltail purple engine glow gives them away. Also, destroyed ships simply disappear behind a wall of animated flame, which is really a minor problem, though it does look sloppy on closer inspection.
Some of the 3D spacecraft and installation models are well detailed, and nicely animated whenever appropriate. However, with only a few exceptions, the spacecraft models are mostly simplistic low-polygon shapes. Considering the game's overall visual beauty - thanks to the gorgeous colored lighting effects and the highly detailed rotating planets - some of the less spectacular ships really stand out because of their blandness, such as the Teladi transport ships and the capital ships in most systems. On the other hand, the serpentine Boron space stations look quite good, as do the Argon trading stations and the mines found in most systems.
X - Beyond the Frontier has some other problems. You cannot save your game in an installation, not even your own, unless the station offers "salvage insurance." There also seem to be some very strange problems with the market values in some of the systems. You'll often find that it actually costs less money to purchase materials at their logical sale points rather than from their source; for example, silicon might be cheaper at a computer-chip plant than at a silicon mine. This simply doesn't make sense, and it can be very frustrating to would-be traders, especially when the mine has tons of stock and the plant has very little.
In addition, the profit margin on most items is too consistent, regardless of the items' value. For example, you might make 15 credits profit for each 20-credit energy unit you sell, but when you unload a shipment of 300-credit silicon wafers, you'll often end up making the same 15-credit profit per unit. There should really be more variation between high- and low-ticket items. And of course, although the game is intended to be learned and explored without a lot of handholding from the documentation, EgoSoft really could have given you a little more information to go on. Even an in-game encyclopedia or journal feature it would've been a marked improvement.
Even so, few such issues actually detract from the overall experience that X - Beyond the Frontier offers. If you miss the days of Elite and Privateer, then chances are you'll love X - Beyond the Frontier. It's the sort of game that will carve out a space on your hard drive and stay there while other, newer games come and go. X is not for everyone, but it'll almost certainly become a classic for fans of more slowly paced, economics-intensive space simulations.