What's the game that made you into a gamer? What's the slice of digital entertainment that changed you from someone who was casually interested, perhaps even intrigued, by this emerging medium, into a believer - someone who spends far more money than you should on consoles, PC upgrades and games, someone who has sacrificed social life for nights in front of a videogame, someone who, frankly, reads videogame websites when they should be working? Looking back over the years, what caused your addiction?
For some people, it was Doom. For some, Sim City or Civilization; for some, Street Fighter II or Super Mario Bros. For some the addiction is more recent, and can be traced back to Final Fantasy VII, Tomb Raider or Gran Turismo. For many of us, however, the addiction - the hunger! - can be traced back to very late nights spent bathed in green light while delicate wireframe models performed an elegant dance across our screens and the strains of the Blue Danube were butchered by tinny speakers. Ahh, Elite - often copied, but somehow never quite equalled in any form.
You've come a long way, baby
It's not that there haven't been pretenders to the throne of Elite. There was the sequel, Frontier, for a start - and then a succession of space trading/combat sims in the intervening years, all of which have tried hard to recapture the addictive qualities of Elite, but all of which have failed to provide the incredible sense of freedom and of a solid universe which somehow Elite managed with wireframe 3D graphics and a decent random number generator. Most recently, Digital Anvil's Freelancer showed great promise, but was scuppered by the lack of variety in the missions and an annoying insistence on forcing you to return to the cut scene laden plot whenever the designers wanted to show you something new.
Stepping up to the plate this time is X2 - The Threat, and we have a confession to make - we're pretty excited. Even after over a decade of disappointments, this is a game which makes us think that the Elite magic might just be back, and that trading, battling and pirating our way through deep space might once again cost us valuable sleeping time in the near future. We shouldn't get our hopes up, we know - but after a lengthy demo session with X2, our hopes are a long, long way up. German developer Egosoft actually seems to understand the freedom that made Elite great in the first place - and rather than messing with that by tying you down to scripted missions and plotlines, they're opening up space with options we've never seen in a game like this before.
As you'd expect, you start off the game as a sole trader with a pretty rubbish ship and a few credits to your name. You're in a busy solar system full of orbital factories, space stations, military installations and other ships bustling about on their own business, and your first job is to get involved in that business - running cargo between factories, finding high value trade routes, or picking up freelance jobs at the stations. If you want, you can scuttle off to another system via a jumpgate, and even run a trans-system trade route if you like - the entire play area, some 130 massive star systems each brimming with stations, factories, planets and ships, is open to you right from the outset of the game should you wish to go exploring.
The Final Frontier
So far, so Elite - but rather than a random number generator, the economy underpinning everything in X2 is a complex beast indeed. Each factory or orbital installation takes in certain types of raw goods and outputs certain processed goods - which might be final manufactured goods, or might be simply a link in a long value chain from raw goods like iron ore or sand up through several factories to finished goods. At each point in the chain, the value of the goods is determined according to the basic rules of supply and demand, and you affect that equation with your own actions - so it's possible to start running a high value trade route, and then discover that you've been oversupplying and the price for your goods has dropped after a few runs.
More importantly, other traders in the universe affect the economy in the same way, so it's possible for some other hauler to ruin the profit margins on a route you've cultivated carefully by starting to run it more regularly or with a larger cargo hold. You could just back off and find a new route to run - or perhaps sir would prefer something more underhanded, violent or downright nasty? Blow him out of the sky and watch the profits on the route normalise; engage in an act of piracy, steal his cargo and his profit... Or undermine his business entirely by building a rival factory right next to the source of the raw goods, thus putting the original factory out of business and ruining your rival's trade route.
Yes, that's right - the economy of the game is flexible enough to allow you, given sufficient resources, to go into the manufacturing business yourself by building factories to fill niches in the market. Reckon there's an opening for a well-placed factory processing sand into silicon wafers to provide cheaply to a major manufacturer of computer parts? Set it up, run the trade route yourself - or simply wait for other traders to see the opportunity and set up their own trade routes around your factory, and watch the credits roll in. Rather than just becoming an elite trader or a pirate armed to the teeth and feared by merchants the galaxy over, X2 gives you the ability to become a captain of industry, with your fingers in manufacturing pies in multiple systems and much of the game's economy hinging on your actions.
Shiver me Timbers
Not that piracy isn't a valid way forward, of course - and there's no reason not to dabble in the joys of excessive firepower at the same time as building your commercial empire. As in Elite, you'll face the wrath of the security forces if you become too bold in your exploits - but unlike Elite, where no matter how good your ship was, you were one man against the world, X2 gives you a chance to build up to a stage where you can take on the security forces on an even footing, because it's possible to have more than one ship under your command at once - building up to the level of a veritable fleet, complete with battle cruisers, fighters and what have you.
Acquiring new ships can happen in a two different ways - you can buy them, or you can knock the crud out of someone's ship to the point where they abandon it, leaving you with a severely battered but functional ship that you can bring to a dock and have repaired, resulting in a nice shiny new craft to try out. Every ship in the game is open to this kind of action - from the most basic merchant craft right up to the two kilometre long capital ships that crawl around the perimeter of the systems and carry a complement of 150 fighter craft. When you're not piloting a ship yourself, you can give its pilot orders, such as going out to work specific trade routes, or you can simply order it to follow you around - effectively giving yourself a few wingmen in combat, or even a full strength battle group with which to assault an enemy station, a pirate base or a business rival's factories.
This is Elite taken to its logical conclusion; this is the player being given the chance not just to shine as a lone pilot, but to become the Mr Big of the galaxy, building up from your puny merchant vessel to being the commander of a business empire and the security force needed to protect that business empire - with ruthless force, if needs be. Of course, you could choose to focus purely on business, and stay white as snow, or to become a mercenary leader, focusing entirely on the military aspects of the game - the choice is entirely yours, which is one of the most impressive ideas behind X2.
Above and Beyond
Another choice which the game offers you is the ability to follow a plot which gradually unfolds as you play - but unlike Freelancer and other games of its ilk, the plot is merely something which unfolds in the background as you play and provides texture to the universe, rather than being something which you're forced to become deeply involved in. You can choose your own level of involvement in the plotline, right up to ignoring it entirely - although it will have repercussions later in the game which you may find hard to ignore, as it involves an invasion of the galaxy by hostile aliens who will eventually take over many of the star systems, thus restricting your ability to trade there, at which point you'll want to get involved in taking them out in order to protect your business interests.
Graphically, X2 looks absolutely stunning and is the best-looking space game we've ever seen by a country mile, with gigantic ships and stations surrounded by buzzing fighters and merchant haulers, all ensconced in a rich space terrain which includes nebulas (complete with nebula-like effects, allowing you to hide in them at the expense of shields and scanners), dust clouds, planets and stars. Everything is superbly detailed, with bump mapping and beautiful lighting being thrown around like confetti at a wedding - the only downside being that the game will require a bit of a beast of a machine to run it. Then again, you were going to upgrade for Half-Life 2 anyway, weren't you?
The best idea of the game's graphical potential can be found by downloading the rolling demo from egosoft.com, as that gives you a variety of pretty in-game vistas to look at - it's really all very impressive, although it may make those of you with older machines cry. The mod community will inevitably enjoy getting to grips with the game engine as well, since the original X - Beyond the Frontier enjoyed strong support from a large fan community, and X2 offers a hugely powerful scripting language built into the game for enthusiasts to get to grips with.
We've been excited about space trading games before, and we've been disappointed many, many times - but it's impossible to take a jaded, cynical view of X2 - The Threat. It's a beautiful looking game with a stunning amount of content and some really great ideas in the game design, and if it's even half as expansive and open-ended as it looked to us in the demonstration, it's a sure contender for being the best space trading game of all time. There's a question mark over the combat model in the game, although we were assured that this is being overhauled extensively before the game launches at the end of October (rumour has it that the magnificent Conflict: Freespace is being used as a model for the space combat, which works just fine for us); equally, we're a little worried that after a while playing, you may end up spending more time micro-managing a business empire than flying around blasting things.
Only time, and an extended playing period with the final game, will tell - so watch out for our full review in about a month's time. For now, whistle the Blue Danube softly to yourself - it might, just might, be time to start down the path to the ranks of the Elite once more.