Remember Elite? It's funny that such an ancient game managed to both give birth to the space exploration genre and remain the benchmark interstellar adventure for so long.
That is, until X2 - The Threat powered up its engines and jumped through hyperspace onto PC hard drives. Developed by Germany-based Egosoft, X2 stunned everyone by combining awesome visuals with the kind of limitless freedom amongst the final frontier that we'd been dreaming about since David Braben launched the Cobra Mk III back in 1985.
In fact, it impressed so much that it picked up the prestigious second place in our recent Golden Joysticks PC Game of the Year 2004 category, beaten only by a little game called Doom 3.
Now Egosoft are preparing to launch X2 - The Return, an expansion pack that's shaping up to be more of a whole new game than a few half-arsed upgrades. For a start there's a whole new storyline beginning only weeks after The Threat ends, and Egosoft are determined to make it bigger, better and more involving than before.
Then there's the armada of new gameplay features, like the ability to create huge interlinked networks of factories, a fleet of new ships armed with new weapons, improved menu systems upgraded with visual cues, and even the ability to construct your own headquarters from which you can rule your interstellar empire.
We recently got the chance to chat with Bernd Lehahn, the managing director of Egosoft, and Andy Walsh, X2 - The Return's scriptwriter, about the new additions and how they hope to take X2 beyond the final frontier.
Bernd Lehahn, Managing Director, Egosoft
What aspects of X2 - The Threat did you want to expand on with The Return?
Bernd Lehahn: The biggest goal we ever had with X2 was to offer the player total freedom in the universe. The keywords we used were 'trade, fight, build, think'. These were our guiding principles as we were designing it, but we wanted to ensure that the player could do these things in whatever way they wanted. We think we did that very well, but there were aspects we wanted to expand.
We listened very closely to the community and they offered us wishlists that could have taken us hundreds of years to implement fully, but that's great. We look at our games as if they're never finished, and we always want to add more. So, basically, everything the fans wanted us to expand on, but in particular the storyline and the freedom we offered to players.
You've added some cool new features for players who want to build industrial empires. Could you tell us about them?
Bernd Lehahn: Building factories has always been an important part of the series. In other space games of this type the primary money-making process was always trading, but we let players build their own manufacturing plants. This in turn influences the economy, making it far more realistic in terms of supply and demand.
We've enhanced the whole building system by adding the ability to connect your factories together with tunnels. This makes transport ships obsolete because resources can be transferred between factories through the tunnels, thereby speeding up your whole chain of supply.
The great thing is that instead of having lots of small factories spread across the universe, you can know build huge installations and connect them to each other. The manufacturing networks you can develop are staggering, and it looks so cool having all these tunnels stretching across space.
There is a downside, though: tunnels are extremely expensive, and the more you have and the farther they run, the harder it is to protect them. Where before you had this one little factory to protect, now you've got to worry about miles of weak spots on your tunnel network too.
The storyline in X2 - The Threat attracted some of the only negative criticism the game received. How important was it to address this in The Return?
Bernd Lehahn: With X2 - The Threat our plan was to strengthen the storyline while still referring back to characters and events that happened in the original game. It was important to us that we satisfied loyal players with those references, but also made X2 accessible for newcomers. We're doing exactly the same thing with X2 - The Return.
The difference with The Return is that we really wanted to concentrate on creating a deep and interesting story. One of the biggest problems of X2 and the original that players told us about was that the story wasn't strong enough, the cutscenes perhaps weren't as good as they could be, and the whole plot was a little confusing. So we tried to take the storyline back to its roots and bring it all together so that loose ends were tied up for veterans of the series and newcomers will have a much more complete experience.
Given that a great deal of the appeal of X2 is the freedom offered to players to explore the universe as they see fit, how awkward is it to tie a storyline together?
Bernd Lehahn: Yeah, one of the most difficult things we've had to deal with is that we offer the player so many things to do that it's tough to take advantage of them all in the storyline. It's a difficult balance - we want to guide the player through the storyline without offering too much freedom, but we don't want to say to the player, "No, you can't do that now, you have to do this first."
The compromise that we hit was that we let the player do whatever they want from the beginning of The Return and they can jump in and out of the story missions whenever they want. That throws up its own problems - we can never be sure what ship a player is going to use for a storyline mission, so we've got around that by making the player part of a fleet of ships, the pilot of a special ship exclusive to that mission, or giving the player a specific job on a ship such as a gunner.
Did concentrating on the storyline give you the opportunity to try new things or expand features already in the game?
Bernd Lehahn: Well, one offshoot of concentrating more on the storyline was that we had the opportunity to create lots of new weapons. We've always had a wide range of weapons, but they were all quite similar: you could always see bullets or bolts flying through space, and they didn't feel very fast.
In The Return we have things like demobilising weapons called Fleshers, which are basically EMP blasts that let you take over ships and steal them or sell them on. We've added wide-effect lasers that can take out whole fleets of smaller ships in an instant, and weapons that launch an army of small drones at an enemy like a swarm of bees. The idea is to give players even more freedom of choice when they decide how to defend themselves - or attack others!
Another new thing we've added is planetside flight and combat. In X2 there were cutscenes and images of ships landing on planets, but in The Return we have missions where ships fly through cities. In one particular mission you're in control of the gun turrets with a priest flying the ship - he's just thrown up on the control panels so he's having some problems. Your job is to shoot down the Pirate ship you're chasing while he scrapes through the city blocks. This is the kind of really different additional content we're working so hard to create, and we're sure players will appreciate it.
Andy Walsh, Scriptwriter, X2 - The Return
Andy, you are obviously responsible for ensuring the storyline in The Return is up to scratch. How have you gone about this?
Andy Walsh: As Bernd has already mentioned, one of the main things we really wanted to push in X2 - The Return was the storyline. In the new game - and we're looking at it as more of a complete new game rather than an expansion - the storyline is around 6 or 7 times longer than in X2 and it's setup much more like an ongoing movie plot.
While X2's plot was based on huge chunks of storyline, in The Return things are shorter, snappier and faster. This really helps us get the balance between satisfying guys who have been playing the game for ages and total newcomers, because we can keep things moving along quickly but if you know about the game's backstory you get a lot of bonuses. We've tried to expose some of the plot points that haven't been addressed before, like why are the Khaak even attacking us and who some of these characters actually are.
A lot of games make the mistake of trying to reward the fans and therefore alienating newcomers, or vice versa. We want everyone to enjoy it equally.
Where does the storyline pick up from X2 - The Threat?
Andy Walsh: It starts shortly after X2 and you play the same character that you did in X2. The Argon forces have won a major battle, but at a very high price. They're spread really thinly, so the remaining Khaak forces are running riot and Yaki pirates are able to take advantage of the situation. You'll begin to discover why this is all happening... but we're not going to spoil that now.
Are there any important new additions to the universe?
Andy Walsh: Well, the Yaki pirates are interesting. These guys have always been around in past games but this time they're a real, organised force to be reckoned with. We've even managed to get in a lot of Godfather jokes with these guys.
Come on... any other surprises you can let us in on?
Andy Walsh: There's a mystery ship that keeps showing up, and of course you begin to really want to find out what's going on with that. And we let you meet more of the races that have shown up briefly through the games, so there are plenty of cool surprises for fans.
X2 offers a very open, free, and huge universe. How did you go about taking advantage of this in terms of the storyline?
Andy Walsh: I was playing Vice City a lot before I started work on this, so one of the things I was really keen to concentrate on was adding in lots of side missions and minigames that you can have fun with. There's loads of things you can go off and do outside of the storyline, like, my favourite, spaceship racing with super-fast race ships.
There's a much more involving political atmosphere too, and by that I don't mean dull House of Commons stuff, but stuff that really affects the gameworld and the player's agenda.
What do you think is the most important thing to achieve with X2 - The Threat?
Andy Walsh: The main thing is to show off. With X2 we showed off about 5% of what the game engine was capable of, and with The Return we want to really flaunt the game, shove how beautiful it is in your face, dazzle you with a fantastic storyline, and stun you with how many things you can do. That means we've tried to make every mission something you haven't done before, in the same way that the Grand Theft Auto games mix it up on you. You never know what's coming next.
Find out what's coming next when X2 - The Return emerges from the European retail wormhole in February next year.