I have always thought about getting into the space sim genre ever since I first saw an ad for the 2003 game Freelancer. The universe was huge and the premise of becoming whatever you want has always been appealing. It wasn’t until the last 2 years that I finally attempted to break into the genre, but the biggest known games were either unfinished money holes (you all know what I am referring to here), or so complicated I couldn’t invest enough time into the venture to ever get anywhere. Then along comes X4: Foundations, the newest entry into the long running X franchise, and after covering it in a press release I knew I had to try it! The team over at Egosoft were generous enough to offer up a review code and now I have finally broken the barrier to entry for the space sim genre!
The X franchise has a long-running lore about all the different species and factions inhabiting the X Universe. Humans from Earth long ago discovered the ability to make jumpgates, which allowed them to discover the X Universe, a seemingly uninhabited area of space. In an attempt to colonize the new sectors, something went wrong and the terraformer A.I. began attacking and destroying colonized worlds. When the terraformers began to head to Earth, a last plan was made to lure them from the sector and the jumpgate from Earth to the X Universe was destroyed. X4: Foundations is set at some distant point after these events, where the remnants of the human fleet that saved Earth have formed a new society in the X Universe. You begin your journey by hopping in your ship to leave your mark on the X Universe. Will you become a trade mogul, interstellar smuggler, ace pilot, warmonger or production tycoon? The choice is yours!
The entirety of X4: Foundations plays out from a first person perspective, greatly adding to the sense that you are in this universe. X4 also caters to a wide variety of control setups for players to use to navigate the worlds. Want to use a controller? You’re all set. Flightstick, check, mouse and keyboard, check, voice commands, check. How about a combination of any of the above? Check! For my time with X4 I have been using a combination of my Logitech Extreme 3D Pro flightstick and mouse and keyboard. Getting controls setup was fairly painless and just like that I was ready to begin my journey!
There are three different starts in X4 but there doesn’t seem to be much difference to them besides which ship you start with. I found myself setting out from my home system of Black Hole Sun with my first ship. (Oh, by the way, I hope you are all singing the song now cuz it went through my head at least 80 times over the course of this review.) Just like the space sim games I have tried in the past, X4 doesn’t hold your hand on what to do or where to go. So I figured I would make sure I could get around before trying to figure anything else out. Travel is a breeze with throttle, boost and hard stops. Each ship also has the ability to strafe (up, down, left, right), roll, pitch and yaw, allowing for some pretty interesting maneuvers that can be performed.
One thing I wish I had known before setting out on my first mission is that there is also a dedicated travel mode that allows you to traverse the space between jumpgates (the warp between sectors) or the different superhighways (fast travel paths within a sector) much quicker than spamming boost whenever possible. I realize series veterans probably already know about such intricacies, but it was a cool discovery to me nonetheless. Thankfully it was only around 40 minutes into the game that I discovered it so I didn’t lose out on too much time. Along with my discovery of travel mode, came the knowledge of how to request to dock at stations. When a docking request is made, a handy trail of green lights appears to lead you to the docks. Once you enter the dock you have to line up your ships position correctly to initiate a dock. As you progress through the game you can upgrade your docking computer to the point it will do it all for you which is very handy.
Besides travel mode there is one other important tool to exploring the X Universe: long range scan mode. Equipping the long range scan mode allows you to shoot out a large pulse from your ship that can identify stations or objects that might be in the vicinity. Long range scan mode can also help you find hidden objects like loot hidden out in space and, best yet, unmanned ships that you can then claim. Long range scan mode can also help you find hidden rifts in space that act as a jumpgate to any random sector that also has a rift.
Missions are the best way to start off your X4 experience. They can be beneficial for both exploring and earning money in the early parts of the game. There are 2 ways to get missions; the first is to use the in-game menu and select any available mission in the sector from a list. The second is to use data breaches which are hidden transmissions at a station (decrypted using short range scan mode) that can lead to more lucrative missions or unlock new perks like black market trading. Guild missions, which are selectable from the menu, can also be unlocked by attaining a rank with each faction. Ranks can be earned by getting a high enough reputation within a faction by either completing missions, destroying enemy ships in a sector, or by completing trades. Guild missions serve to further a factions presence in the X Universe by either helping with trade or building defences against enemies like the Xenon.
Earning money in X4 actually gets easier as you progress further into the game. Earning enough credits will allow you to purchase your first trade or mining ship, or if you want to be more aggressive, you can always hijack one from another faction. Once acquired these ships can be used to earn a passive income and you can really snowball from there into bigger, more capable ships! Each ship you own can be commanded remotely by using the map, which gives the game an alternate real-time strategy feel which I greatly enjoyed. At first, you will be relying on this method to manually instruct your ships to carry out instructions, but as your crews get better they become more autonomous. If you prefer this style of gameplay you can later craft a device called SETA that lets you fast forward time to accomplish things at a greater speed.
One thing you always need to be wary of in X4 is that your ships may be attacked by pirates or raiders. There is nothing worse than losing your brand new shiny trade ship you spent over a million credits on just to have it blasted to pieces while you are on the opposite side of the galaxy. Like most other encounters in X4, pirates and raiders are all determined by the underlying simulation that governs the game world. If a faction decides not to fortify one of its sectors as much as another, you can see an uprise in enemy activity which can be harmful to your ventures in that area. One of my sectors got so annoying to send ships to I actually abandoned the area until I could afford a few escort ships for my traders.
If you really want to kick your economy into high gear you can try out the station building mode. Building a station allows you to begin producing trade goods that others will come buy or your traders can sell to other stations. To build a station you will need to buy plots in space or just claim them if the sector is unclaimed or you are in enemy territory. At first your options for stations are fairly limited, but by gaining more ranks in factions you can purchase additional station modules. Stations also require a good crew to keep running at peak efficiency, so if you have a ship whose crew has leveled up particularly high it might be worth assigning them to a station.
The last major gameplay point of X4 comes from combat. Like most flight games, combat comes down to locking onto your target and lining up a shot. For beginners there is a heavy aim assist at work to really ease new players into the feel of the space combat, which I was happy to utilise. The use of throttle and strafing to outmaneuver your target really comes into play so you don’t end up being taken out by a better equipped foe. If you find that you are dominating a target, you can also open up a comm channel to them and demand a surrender. This allows you to take over their craft if you have a spare marine that can pilot it. One of my most memorable combat experiences yet was when a Xenon carrier came through a jumpgate into a heavily defended allied territory, and I got to watch as the 20 or so ships, myself included, began to engage!
X4 is a gorgeous game and really captures the vastness of its universe. Stations start out as small specks off in the distance as you travel towards them. Planets make up large portions of the screen in certain sectors with huge, breathtaking rings. There is awesome attention to detail, with advertisements lining the superhighways, and even at far distances you can see combat between ships. The smoke coming from your own damaged vessel letting you know it is time to seek out repairs also helps flesh out the experience. Each race also has its own unique and varied ship designs. Best yet, performance has been flawless on my I7 7700k paired with my older 980 Ti. No drops in sight, even when tons of ships or asteroids have loaded into view.
A great, mellow, ambient soundtrack that kicks into a more intense beat once an enemy is in range helps give great feel to the universe of X4. Like its visuals, the audio work in X4 helps give feeling to the little things happening around you. From your cockpit you can hear the faint noise of your engines ramping up or down depending on your throttle. The sound of your ship straining against a high speed turn also adds another level of depth you don’t find in most flight games. The sounds of weaponry hitting shield and hulls sound great, and, best yet, there is enough background radio chatter that the world never feels empty.
If you haven’t gleaned by the length of this review up till this point, X4 is a huge game with lots to do! Between building a trade network, mining base, production station, and basic combat fleet, I have already put in 70+ hours and I haven’t even scratched the surface of the more advanced things X4 has to offer, like crafting or taking over territories. Egosoft also has a great history of post-launch content that will keep the experience going even longer. If that wasn’t enough, the community is also at work making mods, many of which are already available.
What Could It Have Done Better?
Despite the amount of fun I have had playing X4, it is far from a perfect game. Numerous bugs in the A.I. has led to some shipyards and wharfs being completely unable to build because they have maxed out their available storage and can’t get in the right parts to finish ships in production. Enemy combat A.I. also doesn’t work correctly all the time, as enemies will sometimes fly in circles around you while never shooting. In my playtime I also encountered a few collision glitches that had me trapped inside stations, asteroids and once even an enemy ship. Tutorials have also been nearly useless, leaving me to decide to figure things out rather than rely upon them. My biggest issue though, comes from the complete lack of story and way to gain knowledge about things in the universe. After reading online about the lore of the X Universe I wish that more of it was easily accessible in the game itself.
Despite some shortcomings, I find X4: Foundations to be a vastly enjoyable game, well worth the asking price of entry. X4 has been more approachable than any space sim game I have previously attempted and I enjoy the variety of things to do. I have already spent an insane amount of time playing X4 and I don’t see myself stopping anytime soon. With the history Egosoft has for post-launch support of their games, there could still be quite a lot added and adjusted to further enhance the experience. If you have long been attempting to break into the space sim genre like I have, go grab X4: Foundations!