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X | Beyond the Frontier | review | game | Lollipop
X: Beyond the Frontier
(Southpeak for the PC)
by Eric Johnson
Occasionally beautiful, oddly compelling, excruciatingly boring, and tantalizingly full of promise, X: Beyond the Frontier is a unique experience few will appreciate. The X-Prototype was supposed to be humanity's first faster-than-light vehicle, but a colossal mishap during the maiden voyage has left you and your crippled vessel far beyond the reaches of known space.
Luckily, assistance comes along in the form of Intergalactic venture capitalists who repair your ship and give you a hundred bucks to make your fortune and pay off your modest debt. So X: Beyond the Frontier starts you off with a C-note and a slap on the ass and the only way home is to use the most advanced space flight vehicle your species has ever produced as an interstellar 18-wheeler. From there you don't have to "do" anything. Yes, there is a storyline, sure you can get home, but space is vast and financial gains overshadow childish nostalgia for your little blue home. Trade goods, smuggle contraband, become a pirate, bounty hunter, or the CEO of a vast corporation... It doesn't matter because this game is completely open-ended. It's fascinating and novel and pregnant with potential, but ultimately an acquired taste I'm almost ashamed to say I didn't get the fever for.
The first few hours of X unravel with pacing reminiscent of docking sequences from 2001: A Space Odyssey; crawling from one slowly-rotating space station to the other dominates your introduction to the game and certainly does a good job of weeding out all but the most stubborn players. Picking the right commodity to build your nest egg with is vital (I recommend running energy cells from the power plant to the missile production facility), but with luck, you can buy a faster engine and larger cargo bay in three hours. Eventually you can purchase a weapons system and see if more money is to be made on the other side of that jump gate. X puts you in the cockpit of your ship. From the driver's seat you explore dozens of solar systems from a first-person perspective. The controls are standard-issue space dogfight material (flight stick recommended), and a simple help menu can be accessed if confusion should strike. Deciphering the specifics of interspecies commerce is up to the player -- no one will help you, and don't be surprised if you blow all your cash on cargo you can't unload. Managing your finances is not so bad at all, and your targeting system allows you to see the supply and demand of items on a specific station so you won't waste time landing on a station that doesn't have what you need or want what you've got.
No matter how rich you become, don't expect to snag a better ride, the X is in it for the long haul -- not such a bad thing considering the fact that she's a handsome ship and can be upgraded to nigh-omnipotence. The graphics are a mixed bag, external views include beautiful bruise-hued nebula and ornate light-covered space stations, while the interior shots of trading posts are featureless and boring. The alien races are just plain goofy-looking, the clunky interaction system conspires with their indecipherable voices to destroy all hope of cultural exchange. The music is very nice, an ethereal soundtrack reminiscent of that from the classic film Blade Runner. Combat leaves something to be desired: fighting pirates is an unexceptional experience, lacking challenge, variety, and spontaneity. How much you fight is your deal, but a tough reputation can go a long way, opening doors otherwise tightly shut.
Making a profit may be fun, exploration can be cool, and upgrading the ship is always a blast, but X: Beyond the Frontier lacks the visceral payoff necessary to keep me interested. After a while, I just felt like I was flushing my time away and lost interest. Do understand, more games like this need to be made. An overabundance of linear experiences really made me excited to give it a shot, but this one just doesn't do it for me. Piracy, Bounty Hunting, Tycooning, and Smuggling must be a blast once you get there, but that's where things go awry -- you have to get there, through hours of mind-numbing space trucking and finance juggling. I would happily slap down my money for a game designed along the same basic idea but endowed with a superior combat system and a better balance between dogfights and commerce. Let's face it, capitalism makes a great deal of sense as far as economic systems go, but managing money is a big fat pain in the ass, and I'm not really interested in spending my leisure time playing interstellar monopoly.