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Unberthing For Rebirth

The faithful hour of X Rebirth's release looms less than 24 hours before me, and my gamer sense tells me that it could potentially have about as much impact on my free time as Skyrim did.  After all, this game represents a gloriously-rendered space sandbox with a genuine economy model driving everything.  With the ability to actually get out of your ship and walk around, it's closer to the space grail than a game I may see in half a decade.
I suppose I can't blame myself for wasting so much time right now; I'm really too excited for X Rebirth's release to be all that be productive.  (Although, as fate would have it, its release falls precisely on the thickest part of my work week.  Well, no matter, I'm not so very far gone to my habit that I will forsake my societal responsibilities... just my creative ones.)

It's looking like Rebirth will be somewhat streamlined from previous X games, but I believe it will escape the fate of being overly-dumbed-down.  You see, there does exist situations in which streamlining is a good thing for a game's design, such as when there's a number of systems grandfathered in that ultimately detract from the gameplay by being needlessly obfuscated.  X3 was lousy with such systems and it's looking like X Rebirth has been redesigned accordingly.

Speaking of needlessly obfuscated systems in previous X games...

Playing X3: Albion Prelude

Having tucked away quite a few credits, I upgraded my Split Panther frigate to a Split Pteranodon super heavy destroyer.  It seemed like a great choice for me because, despite being a super heavy destroyer, it still carried enough fighters to be a decent carrier, has unusually good steering, and its 75 m/s speed is blisteringly fast by M2 standards.
The Pteranodon is actually not all that much larger than my Split Python, which is a good thing when it comes to avoiding collisions and enemy weapons fire.  The forward gun array (on the right) is fun because you can charge up gigantic bolts of death and release them.
Now, cruising around in the biggest and baddest ship class of the game, you'd think I reached the top of the heap, wouldn't you?  Well, actually, the Pteranodon sort of sucks.  The main reason is because it is saddled with a ridiculously restrictive selection of weaponry.  The 8 Photon Pulse Cannons up front are fine, but all the turret mounts are unusually narrow for a Commonwealth ship, limited to just these three weapons:
  • Particle Accelerator Cannons that serve mostly as placeholders until you can get the far-harder-to-obtain capital ship weaponry.  PACs readily available weapons but, being fighter-sized, only do a small fraction of the damage of a proper capital ship-sized weapon.
  • Ion Shard Railguns, which are capital-ship sized, but weak, sacrificing firepower for the ability to drain the power from enemy weapons on impact.   The description of the weapon claims it is for "fighter defense," but the projectiles are about 14-times slower than the Flak Artillery Arrays that trivialize taking down fighters, so all the target has to do is slightly turn to avoid being hit.
  • Phased Array Laser Cannons, which are beam weapons and consequently their projectiles are pretty much instant-hit.  Theoretically, it should be quite effective against fighters, while the damage potential is equal to a Photon Pulse Cannon.  Having a full set of these would be awesome!  However, the gun is reserved as a very elusive reward and is so rare it's not even worth mentioning.
I did not realize just how bad off I was until I watched a single Terran M5 fighter avoid being destroyed for a solid minute before I did the job myself in another fighter.   At this point, if I wanted to keep the Pteranodon, I either would need to get some PALCs (which would take an extremely long time without modding) or shell out for a fully capable escort to handle enemy fighters and make up for the lackluster anti-capital-ship potential of the ship.

Forget it; even though I would miss the other cool perks of having a Pteranodon, I think I would be better off reloading an earlier saved game and getting another capital ship.  Most likely possibilities are the Megalodon super heavy destroyer, the Zeus carrier, the Condor carrier, or (if I wanted to forget about having fighter carrying capacity at all), the Boreas "light" destroyer (which is actually about as deadly as the Megalodon).   Just about any other M2 or M1 would be more capable of defending itself than the Pteranodon simply because they can mount flak weapons and PPCs on the broadsides.

However, I guess it doesn't really matter, I'm largely done with Albion Prelude.  I've done everything of value there really is to do, all that's left is to embark upon the last part of the main campaign.  As it turns out, the game has not called me back to part 3 of the campaign in the last few hours of play, so I suspect the main campaign broke on me!  If so, it does not really matter if I have a good fighting ship or not: I'm done here.

These kinds of issues really aren't great design:
  • Quests that terminate for no reason without notifying the player if they're really broken or not.  This is a regular fixture in many Terran Conflict missions, too: the quest goes away without telling you why or what to do next.
  • Unobtainable weapons for ships that have no alternative than to need them.  The Pteranodon's ridiculous inadequacies without PALCs is just a particularly overt example of this.
  • No consideration towards the realities of slow projectile mounts on capital ships as being pointless for taking down fighters.  Egosoft actually has the in-game encyclopedia refer to the mere 498 m/s Ion Shard Railguns as "fighter defense" weapons, but it's highly unlikely they'll be able to hit anything smaller than a freighter unless it blunders into the projectiles.  This probably happened because these weapons were grandfathered in from earlier X games, and newly-introduced weapons with faster projectiles such as Pulsed Beam Emitters and Phased Repeater Guns have shown us the difference.
  • On the other hand, Flak Artillery Arrays and like weapons might be too effective at taking down fighters.  Once you have a frigate capable of mounting these, you might as well forget about fighters: they're just going to pop a few seconds after getting into range.  I guess the reality of this bullet point and the last one is that the overall weapon balance in X3 is very scattershot.
  • Those other issues I had, and others I forgot to mention.
In short, Egosoft's X series has often been as kludgy as they are ambitious, but that ambition is why we love them.

It's just as well Albion Prelude has these issues because, once X Rebirth comes out, it's entirely probable I'll just play that and never look back... and that's literally just tomorrow.

Playing XCOM: Enemy Within

Desperate to burn away the hours before X Rebirth arrives, I shelled out for the XCOM: Enemy Unknown expansion, Enemy Within.  It's a proper-sized expansion in that it adds a batch of new foes, new scenarios, and a slew of awesome alien-busting toys to play with, not the least of which being the badass "mechs"...
...when you look as awesome as a "mech" does, maybe having your limbs amputated would be completely worth it.   Indeed, they're really fun units in that they actually have the durability to walk right up to enemies and slug them with a pneumatic fist of some kind... well, it's not like they can use cover, anyway.

Unfortunately, trying to play through the campaign for the second time on Enemy Within is proving problematic for the same reason I could not replay Enemy Unknown: "normal" difficulty is too easy but the next difficulty up, "classic," is too hard: 
  • Having beat normal mode once, I now find defending the Earth from the alien horde in this mode to be a downright relaxing experience, and not the tense experience it should be.  I tried replaying this on "Ironman" mode (which prevents save scumming) but it hardly mattered because nothing ever went wrong.  It's a decent difficulty level to introduce a player to the game, but afterward the lack of challenge makes it boring.
  • You may have heard it somewhere else before, but I'll say it again: classic is the way this game is meant to be played, it's just a whole lot more dramatic and interesting.  However, I find the odds to be a little too stacked against you here, few are the players that can beat the game without blatant save scumming, and all that retread introduces another source of boredom (particularly if you've forgotten to save recently).
I really need a difficulty somewhere in the middle, more challenging than "normal," but not as blatantly stacked against the player as in "classic."  I tried fudging things with the "second wave" settings, but there's just not enough flexibility there.

Ideally, this "hard" difficulty setting would have the average off the number of enemies per map between "normal," and "classic," the same overall stats to the various units and weapons as in "normal" (I think that's a better balance than "classic") and an "unshackled" AI that uses its full bag of tricks.  That would probably do it; I wonder if there's a way I can mod that in?

Failing that, neither "normal" nor "classic" offer a satisfactory enough of a solution for me to likely want to play much of this game.  But maybe I could up my skill a bit and classic would become playable?  Honestly, I doubt it... the difficulty is downright unfair and punishing by design, as this harkens back to a classic original X-COM experience.

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