One of my most beloved games of all time is Freelancer. It was relatively light on story, but I loved trading, upgrading my ship, and exploring. The X series did a lot to capture that same feeling but ended up being a bit too complicated in execution. X Rebirth, the predecessor to the latest game in the series, X4 Foundations, went too far in the other direction, taking a lot of the freedom of the series away in favor of accessibility.
X4 Foundations combines the best aspects of X Rebirth and X3 to provide an excellent, and approachable space sandbox. It’s not for everyone. It’s still a mess of menus, and the story is pretty much on you to make. However, for the first time the series can be picked up relatively quickly, even by newcomers, and even though most will have a rocky start learning the ropes, it won’t take long before you’re starting your ascension to mogul of a trading empire, rogue warlord, or whatever other path you plan to seek among the stars.
X4 Foundations Review – Space, The Final Frontier
When you begin X4 Foundations, you’ll have no clue what’s going on. There are three starting points you can choose from, the differences between them being what ship you start with, how many credits you have, and what your relationships with factions are. I preferred the explorer option because the beginning ship is moderately better than the default starter, but there’s no huge difference I discovered between the three.
Once you’ve begun, it’s time to figure out the game. Unlike X1–X3, X4 isn’t utterly unapproachable at first glance. Figuring out how to move your ship around, fire your weapons, perform short and long-range scans, dock with stations, and travel efficiently through space isn’t too hard. There are quick tutorials for these things that get you up to speed pretty quick, and they’re worth doing.
Don’t make the mistake of getting too far ahead, though. From the beginning of the game, you have access to tutorials that you really don’t need to get into until you’ve gotten a few hours under your belt. The best way I’ve found to play X4 is to build your character in baby steps. Set short-term goals for yourself, like getting a new gun for your ship, early on in the game.
There’s not much story to be had in X4, at least not an overarching one. The most substantial quest has you helping a scientist study rifts in space which leads to you getting the Player HQ station. Other than that you’ll find questlines tend to be of the short and sweet variety. At least for now, X4 is about making your own story, and if you’re not a self-starter, this game might leave you a bit flustered. There is very little in the way of a guiding hand in this game, and especially early on if you’re not down to grind for your own sake, then you won’t make it far.
X4 Foundations Review – Starbucks
The primary motivator in X4 is to amass more credits. The more money you have, the more things you can do. While your first big money item should be a new ship (the starting one is just not good at all), it’s up to you to figure out what path will give you the best bang for your buck.
There are a few different paths you can go down when playing X4, and although you can eventually diversify into all of them, choosing one and sticking with it early on is more efficient. You can be a trader, miner, or bounty hunter. In practice, it’s more complicated than those three descriptors might suggest, but that’s the gist of your options.
If you choose trading, you’ll want to upgrade from the Class S ship you start with (“S” meaning Small) to a medium-sized freighter. Then you’ll want to start seeking out lucrative trade routes. Each sector of space contains a myriad of stations which serve as factories, shipyards, refineries and so on.
Each type of station has its own supply and demand. An ore refinery, for example, needs ore from ore mining ships. The refinery then refines the ore into Refined Metals, which then are exported to another station and turned into Advanced Composites. These Advanced Composites can then be transported to another station which uses them to manufacture Missile Components and Antimatter Converters, which are then used to make missiles and starship propulsion products respectively.
When you first start trading in X4, you’ll only fill one part of the massive supply chain that moves these materials from one station to the next. However, as time goes on, you can amass your own fleets of traders. If you diversify into mining, you might find yourself responsible for a product on every step of its journey. From raw materials all the way to finished product. In fact, once you amass enough credits, you might just choose to cut out the middleman entirely.
X4 Foundations Review – Stationary
Eventually, much of the gameplay in X4 moves to the map screen. While you’ll use the map intensively during your whole playthrough, it really becomes front and center when you amass a fleet of ships.
While you can pilot any ship you own, and you can own pretty much any vessel in the game, it’s incredibly inefficient to try and fly the vast capital ships that will make up your late game fleet yourself. Instead, you’ll need to use the map to tell your fleet what to do.
At this point, you’ll spend more of your time standing around on stations or chilling on the bridge of one of your big ships than actually flying. This is where the experience may break down for some. To get the most out of the game, you’re going to have to enjoy issuing commands to your AI-controlled ships and watching their icons flit too and fro on the sector map.
The ultimate goal of X4‘s endgame (even though the game never really ends) is to build your own stations. Almost every computer-controlled station you see can be replicated using the station builder. Each station is built up of modules, some of which you begin the game with the knowledge to build, and some which require you to obtain blueprints by scanning and other means.
Building stations in X4 is a massive undertaking, and incredibly time-consuming. You have to buy a plot of space, hire or buy a large building ship and then either haul all the material needed to construct a station yourself or purchase it through a third-party. Once you have your builder and all the materials delivered to your construction staging area, you then have to wait for the lengthy build process.
I liked that all this happened in real-time, and even though it takes a while, it gives a real feeling of immersion to see that each step in the station building process is represented by actual actions in the game world. Though you spend a lot of time in menus, it feels more meaningful to see that moving ships and goods around isn’t just an invisible process, but is instead represented entirely in-game.
X4 Foundations Review – Not Without a Hitch
Unfortunately, the X series’ reputation for a convoluted interface and bugs isn’t completely evaded by X4. While on the whole, the game is a lot more polished and easy to understand than its predecessors, learning the ins-and-outs can still be very confusing.
Even with tutorials, you’ll find yourself scratching your head sometimes. When building stations it can be hard to understand just how to go about hiring a builder, for example. The AI can be finicky as well, sometimes pausing for a while before executing your orders, or taking weird, unnatural flight paths when performing complex actions like docking, which sometimes end with them getting stuck on things.
Oddly, the AI seems to do much better when you’re not looking at it. When issuing orders from the map outside of the visual range of my fleet, I noticed they were a lot more apt to do what I told them successfully than if I was watching them. This takes a bit of the fun out of the experience because I love watching my fleet fight, build, and mine.
Fortunately, Egosoft has been quick with hotfixes and updates, and several bugs I experienced when the game first released have already been eliminated entirely. It’s expected that such an ambitious game from an indie studio might have a few kinks to work out.
However, if you’re going into X4 expecting a bug-free experience, you’re going to be in for a disappointment. Egosoft has an excellent record of supporting their games so you can bet that any issues you have will be rectified eventually, but it’s still a tad rough around the edges.
X4 Foundations Review – A Solid Foundation
X4 Foundations is a niche title. If you dream of a single-player Star Citizen, or loved games like Freelancer, then this space sandbox will be a breath of fresh air in a much too sparsely populated genre. However, even though X4 is more accessible than X1–X3, it’s not a casual game. You have to work to figure out the mechanics behind Foundations, and if you put in the time, you’ll be rewarded with an experience that can last 100 hours or more.
I loved the feeling I got from starting from nothing flying a lowly single-man craft and working until I was standing on the docking pad of my own station watching my fleet of transports loading and unloading. X4 Foundations is a game where you choose your fate, and if you’re willing to self-motivate and put in the time, you’ll find an incredible experience waiting for you.