When "X : Beyond The Frontier" was released just over a year ago, we had high hopes for it. As fans of the "Elite" series right back to the original BBC Micro version of the 1980s, the idea of an open-ended space sim in which you could be a pirate, trader or bounty hunter was enough to get us excited.
In The Beginning
But then the game arrived, and the disappointment set in. The controls were unresponsive, the pace glacially slow, the trading system bizarre, the AI poor, and the central storyline relied on repeatedly sending you backwards and forwards across the entire game universe to make it seem longer than it actually was. After a couple of weeks of playing it we described the game as "dull, tedious, repetitive, boring, and highly frustrating". And despite a backlash from the small but fiercely protective X fanbase, that's still our opinion.
Then word emerged that German developers EgoSoft were developing an ambitious new add-on for the game, which promised to correct many of the flaws which we had complained about in the original. In fact, it was less of an add-on and more of a sequel, turning X into a whole new game. And although it still isn't perfect, we're happy to say that it does mark a massive improvement.
X-Tension picks up where X ended, with the Xenon threat defeated, the Goners redeemed, and you still stuck in the X universe with the non-functioning X-perimental craft which stranded you there in the first place, after a test of its revolutionary new jump drive went horribly wrong and sent you careening out of control across the galaxy from Earth.
The good news is that the X craft, which was horribly unmaneuvrable at the best of times, has now been sent off to a lab for reverse engineering, in an attempt to discover the secrets of the frazzled jump drive and rebuild it to send you home. In the meantime you have been loaned a local ship known as an Argon Buster, which is rather more functional, and also comes preloaded with all those little luxuries that should really have been standard in the first game, like a decent navigation system, a time-acceleration mode, and .. um .. lasers so that you can actually defend yourself.
Even better, you aren't stuck with that Argon Buster. In X you were limited to your X-perimental craft, and couldn't trade it in for a better model. In X-Tension you can fly anything from nimble scout ships to giant cargo liners, with almost every craft in the game available to buy or to capture in combat, and each with its own unique cockpit and handling characteristics. This makes things much more interesting, as you can now specialise to a much greater extent, choosing whether you want to be a trader with an unarmed Argon Lifter and dozens of cargo bay extension modules, or a bounty-hunter with a heavily shielded fighter armed to the teeth with plasma throwers.
And although the Argon Buster is the standard starting point, X-Tension also comes with a few pre-loaded save games, which allow you to decide which ship and equipment you want to start with. My favourite is the trader kit, which starts you off with an Argon Lifter, a fighter escort, and a reasonable sum of cash to start buying goods with. This allowed me to get into the game much faster than normal, without having to waste the first few hours scrimping and saving just to earn a few measly credits.
The most obvious improvements when you load up the game for the first time though are to the graphics and the interface. Many of the ships and space stations which you encounter have been redesigned since the original game, with more detailed models and textures.
New effects have been added, and the space in which you are flying looks more colourful than ever, with gaudy nebulae and vast planets. The visible seams which blighted many of these backdrops in the original game are mostly gone as well. There are still a few distracting little glitches, such as problems with culling which make parts of some of the space stations vanish from sight when viewed from certain angles, but apart from these few teething problems X-Tension is now on a par with the very best space sims out there when it comes to graphics.
The new menu systems are also very well presented, and allow you to easily access information about any sectors which you have visited during the game, including a full map of the galaxy showing everywhere you have been. Drop off one of the new navigation relay satellites and not only will it instantly identify every object in the sector, you can also view that map when you are in an entirely different part of the galaxy. And if you have the new trade system installed you can even see the prices at which goods are being bought and sold in the various space stations in the sector, whether or not you are physically there. This is an incredibly useful new feature which makes trading far less hit and miss than it was in the original game.
It's not all about buying low and selling high though, and the rest of the game has also been improved. You can still buy entire space stations and so build up a business empire, complete with AI-controlled support ships, but the new relay satellites mean that you no longer have to physically dock with one of your factories to check its progress or to change its pricing policies - you can monitor and control everything from the new galaxy map.
You also have better control over your fleet than before, and can order ships to follow you, travel to another sector, transport goods between particular space stations, or simply to buy a particular commodity at the cheapest price they can find. Again, you can use the galaxy map to give orders wherever you happen to be at the time. You can even hop out of your ship in a space suit and float in through the airlock of any other vessel in your fleet to take personal control of it.
If you fancy taking a more violent approach to life, the ability to buy new ships more suited to your gung ho attitude is a giant leap forwards, and the AI has been improved somewhat as well. Pirates are more agressive now, and will often attack you if they think you have valuable cargo which they can hijack. And although the resulting fights are still not even in the same league as those seen in dedicated space combat games like "Starlancer" and the "Freespace" series, they are certainly much more satisfying than in the original X. You can even buy tiny fighter drones to help defend your ship, or massive defensive turrets which can be positioned around your factory.
The linear storyline has been thrown out the window as well, in favour of random missions. As you fly around, other ships will hail you to ask for help fighting off raiders, transporting goods to a nearby space station or rushing supplies to a crippled ship before its life support system packs in. You will be challenged to checkpoint races, asked to
And that's barely scratching the surface... X-Tension is a huge, truly open-ended game, which gives you far more freedom and far more fun than the deeply flawed X : Beyond The Frontier. It's not perfect. The pace is still a bit sedate for my tastes, but at least now you start the game with a time acceleration gizmo fitted as standard, so you won't have to go and make a cup of tea while you wait for your ship to make it to the next sector. Combat remains unremarkable, and the trading system is still a little haywire at times. Many solar power plants sell energy at below cost, making building your own rather pointless. Other times you will see factories trying to sell goods at a higher price than anybody else is willing to pay.
But if you already own X : Beyond The Frontier and loved it, then this is a no-brainer - buy X-Tension now! If you own X and, like me, you hated it, then X-Tension is enough of an improvement to be well worth buying. And if you're new to the game but want something more relaxed and free-form than your average space sim, then pick up "X : Gold", which includes both the original X and the X-Tension add-on.
So .. one small step for space sims, one giant leap for EgoSoft. Hopefully their next game will fix X-Tension's few remaining flaws, and perhaps even include multiplayer support. Mmm .. now there's a thought.