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X : Beyond The Frontier

Another futile attempt to recreate Elite falls flat on its face.

Dark blue icons of video game controllers on a light blue background
Image credit: Eurogamer
Woah, trippy

"It must be a software problem"

It's been almost twenty years now since Elite was released, and people are still trying (and largely failing) to clone the ancient masterpiece.

X is just the latest in a whole string of games, but with the exception of the literally unplayable "Elite : First Encounter" it is without doubt the worst Elite clone I've ever had the misfortune to install.

First impressions were not good, as the game wouldn't run on my RivaTNT graphics card, apparently due to a driver problem. There were severe clipping problems, massive texture corruption, and sections of the starry background would come unstuck and float around as you moved.

Eventually I managed to solve this by using the "Optimized for Direct X 6" version running in compatibility mode. Which is a shame, because if I hadn't worked this out I wouldn't have had to torture myself for the next two weeks by playing the damn game...

Ooh, lens flare

One Step Beyond

The first five minutes were actually quite good though. You play a test pilot flying an X-perimental craft (oh dear), and the game's intro runs you through a series of tests which set the scene and give you a chance to get to grips with the ship's controls and systems.

Of course, as with any scientific experiment in a computer game, it soon goes pear-shaped. The jump drive malfunctions as you activate it, and you find yourself in a distant star system with no way of getting home.

A passing alien destroyer kindly repairs your ship and gives you a 1Mw shield and 100 credits, on the understanding that you will repay them at a later date. Don't worry though - they'll never ask you for the money.

Unfortunately it's all downhill from here...

Trading inside a computer components factory

Luxury Goods

You see, that flimsy shield and 100 cr is all that you start with. You have to pay a fortune for such luxuries as guns, a time acceleration feature, and a decent scanner. You even have to pay 10 cr every time you want to save your game.

And X turns Elite's trading system on its head. Instead of trading goods between systems, each system has several facilities (a trading station, power plants, mines, factories, farms etc) and you must trade between them.

Each facility only sells one product, and usually only buys three or four types of resource at most. This makes trading difficult until you work out what each type of facility imports and exports, and whether there's any profit margin in it.

Of course, the manual won't help you because the game dumps you in at the deep end. After all, your character doesn't have a clue what's going on, so why should you?

You get absolutely no help, and are likely to end up wasting your first few hours just shuttling backwards and forwards between space stations trying to make a bit of money.

Miles from anywhere, as usual

Slow Boat To China

It doesn't help that your high tech spacecraft moves slower than most World War Two fighter planes and handles like the Exxon Valdez.

Just covering the few kilometres between adjacent space stations can take a couple of minutes, and getting to the jump gate to travel to the next system takes forever.

Make sure you have a magazine to read while you're waiting, or go and get a drink. You'll have plenty of time.

After a couple of hours you should be able to afford the Singularity Time Distortion Engine. This speeds up time by a factor of ten, allowing you to get from A to B without needing to leave the computer running overnight.

Other early purchases should include some cargo bay extensions, better shields, and a pair of guns. At this point the game is almost playable.

Unfortunately by this point you've probably already uninstalled the game, unless you're a sadist, a reviewer, or have the patience of a saint.

This is about as exciting as combat gets

"Abort! Abort!"

Even after you have upgraded your ship, it still handles like a pig. Rudder optimisation helps a little, but it costs a fortune and you can only buy it at pirate bases.

The obvious solution is to buy a new ship .. but you can't. You are stuck with the same second rate heap of junk throughout the game, and although you can tinker with its engine and controls and add new hardware, guns and shields to it, it is still a heap of junk underneath it all.

Because of this combat is very hit and miss. Mostly miss. The poor controls make dogfighting chaotic, and combined with the slow moving projectiles it makes it very hard to actually hit anything.

Shields are far too powerful at the start of the game, and you will only be able to take out the weakest enemy craft at first. Given that your ship is fairly slow and your afterburners take all the energy from your shields, you can't even run away from bigger ships.

Later on though the weapons become too powerful. Plasma throwers are expensive, but they rip through enemy shields effortlessly. You can comfortably take on four or five ships at once, and your biggest risk is colliding with one of them.

Spot the jump gate

Scanner Force

Navigation is also next to impossible thanks to the substandard scanners. You'll need to buy two or three expensive upgrades before you can find your away around a system easily.

You can't tell what anything is until you are within scanning range of it, which is generally just a few kilometres. Even worse, your radar readout zooms in and out uncontrollably depending on how close you are to the nearest ship.

Once you've been playing the game for a while you can usually identify a facility visually before your scanner can tell what it is. Which is rather silly.

This is especially true once you get the awesome zoom goggles, which look like a simple headset but are actually more powerful than the Hubble Space Telescope.

The biggest problem though is finding jump gates, as they are always located at the extreme edges of a system and are often pitch dark, making it almost impossible to see them against the blackness of space.

As you can see from the screenshot above... Yes, there is a jump gate right under the crosshairs. Can you see it?


"You do not understand the importance of profit"

It gets worse though. As the game goes on it becomes increasingly obvious that X's economic system is horribly broken, which for an Elite clone is obviously a serious problem.

Goods often cost more where they are produced than where they are consumed, and the laws of supply and demand fail to apply with prices staying constant for hours and then suddenly fluctuating wildly for no obvious reason.

After I had been playing the game for about a week the entire universe's economy had virtually collapsed, and it was almost impossible to make any profit by trading in some areas.

Nick Leeson eat your heart out.

"Old McDonald had a farm, and on that farm he grew some Delexian wheat..." Managing a wheat farm.

Teladi Company Director

Luckily you don't have to rely on the aliens for trade - once you have made a whole shitload of money you can start buying your own factories, power plants, and farms. I quickly built up a small business empire, and the profits started to flood in.

This was about as much fun as I've had with X, but as a business simulation it is pretty primitive. There's no way to monitor or control your business short of going round all your facilities one by one and docking with them, which makes management very frustrating.

Luckily you can buy other ships and get them to do the boring work of shuttling backwards and forwards between stations, buying whatever resources your facilities need to keep them running.

They don't always do quite what you expect though, for example travelling to another star system to get beef when there's a cheaper cattle ranch right next to them.

Generally it works, but it isn't particularly sophisticated and leaves no room for micromanagement.

Fast Forward!


In fact X manages to fail on almost every level.

It fails as a space game because the backgrounds have highly visible seams, which leaves you in no doubt that you're really just flying around inside a big box with stars painted on it.

It fails as a combat game because the controls are terrible, the shields and weapons are unbalanced, and the AI is appalling.

And it fails as a trading game because the economy is unstable and erratic, and somehow ignores both common sense and economics. Which is quite an achievement...

Even the "find a way home" plot drags on endlessly, not because it's hard but because every time you uncover a clue you have to travel to the far corner of the universe to find the next.

Overall this game is dull, tedious, repetitive, boring, and highly frustrating. Avoid at all costs. Release Date - available now

Eye Candy      

Download The Demo

If you don't believe me, download the demo (34Mb) and check it out for yourself! Who knows, maybe you'll like it...

3 / 10

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