X4: Timelines is legitimately my type of game. X tries to do it all: space flight, multi-ship ownership, space combat, free-trading, missions, fleet management, mining and construction, and space-station building and management. If the series had multiplayer, Star Citizen would never have happened.

And it’s pretty easy on the eyes, too.

But my relationship with the X series is built on fits and starts. For some reason, I’ve always struggled with playing the game. I’ve never been able to reconcile the default input choices. While they do support all manner of gamepads and flight controllers, I’ve never been able to get my hardware to work correctly with any installment. Since these games really seem to want players to use mouse and keyboard — or more specifically keyboard — I’ve had to re-train myself to work with the unusual default key bindings (while I could rebind keys, there are a lot of options and I always find it more expeditious to adapt to the default than nickel-and-dime my settings at a time when I could be playing). I’ve played a lot of space sims over the years, and the X series has always colored a bit outside the lines when it comes to many of the “common” key bindings used across games like these. I’ve also had issues with the tutorials, or rather the incomplete and sometimes fuzzy explanations of how X does things. For example, many games start by placing me in a populated sector. I might get a few missions from passing NPCs, but often missions are had by turning on short-range scan mode and listening for signals. Once a signal has been located, and if I fly close enough, I’ll get a message with a job offer. On one hand this is a rather organic way to get work; on the other hand, until I knew to do this — which I don’t remember any tutorial telling me — my sessions were just me, flying around, wondering if anything was going to happen or if I was really left to my own devices.

With the release of the latest DLC, Timelines, I opted to try X4 again since I owned all of the previous DLC which meant I could get Timelines for $11 on Steam to complete my bundle. After installing I did the usual and went into some of the basic tutorials to re-learn how to take off and land, to fly around, use my scanners, and interact with things from the cockpit. Now, at the end of the basic tutorial track, the game wanted me to try Timelines, so I did and was almost immediately disappointed. This DLC starts off with nothing but a bunch of mini-games like racing (which I hate with a passion) and some combat scenarios which, for someone who had never actually gotten comfortable with any of the X games long enough to be competent in ship-based combat, was a massive turn off. Apparently the latter content can be experienced by starting a “sandbox mode”, but I was hoping for some guided narrative to help me by putting reachable objectives in front of me rather than force me to go out and find my own work and my own way.

So I opted to start a new game. This would make the seventh time I’ve restarted X4 but with every DLC, the starting point changes. This time, I choose the “Expeditions” start which came with the Kingdom End DLC. This dropped me right into the middle of an ongoing narrative which didn’t make a lot of sense to me, but wasn’t so terrible that I couldn’t roll with it. It started with a scientific organization’s attempts to reconnect with another allied species who had been disconnected from the alliance when key jump gates were severed, an act I believe was intentional. After reviving one dormant gate, our team jumped to a new system that I was tasked with exploring. The first part was to repair a damaged panel in a destroyed ship, but I couldn’t find the panel on account of the alien ship being too…alien, with crenelations and debris that blocked me every time I tried to reach the mission marker. To make matters worse, I had to do it while EVAing, and EVAing in X4 is one step above passing a kidney stone on the Pyramid of Things I Enjoy. I eventually had to find a YouTube video walk-through to find the panel but once I did, the game crashed.

At this point, though, I felt that I was on the right track. I knew where to go and what to do, so I loaded up my last save and had to jump through the gate again and listen to all of the NPC exposition again (voice-overs range from pretty decent to “please gawd just let me read the subtitles”). I got the clue and moved on to the next mission waypoint when the game bugged out on me and failed to progress. This would be the first of many of these kinds of troubles. Many triggers for mission progression seem to rely on being in the right place at the right time, but often times gameplay actually gets in the way of that. Another example was when I found myself blocked because the NPC I was supposed to follow decided to engage in combat with another ship, and despite following her around for about 30 minutes, I couldn’t get her to disengage, nor could I assist in destroying the enemy. Once again, I had to re-load a previous save at which point the NPC made it to the location which triggered the next step in the mission.

After that, though, things became remarkably smooth. I negotiated an agreement between two exasperated groups, and was then sent out to find three disabled jump gates, one of which I was warned to stay away from because it lead to a dangerous system polluted with hostile creatures and storms that would crush my ship like a tin can under pressure. Sure enough, the first gate I found was the one I was warned about, but a mission was a mission so I went through. I then had to find other gates in this sector while staying in the “safe” areas that were filled with asteroids, while also navigating away from pockets of hostile creatures. Unfortunately, though I did find one of my objectives, it was outside of the red zone and my ship was destroyed in mere seconds by the storms.

At this point I had been trying to play X4 all day. I had reloaded no less than seven times because of crashes, but mostly because of bugs. The X series has always had a reputation for being buggy as hell, and despite this being the fourth iteration, with five DLC, bugs still abound. While I ended the day on account of my stupidity, I was in no mood to continue at that point, considering I had saved more than 15 minutes prior to my demise. I have now played more continuous X on this one day than I have since I’ve been trying to play any game in the series, so that tells me that I’m on an upswing path, and that I will try again. If I get killed by stellar storms, then I’ll shift focus for a bit and see if I can’t complete some other objectives first. I know that X4 won’t ever be my “go-to” space sim game and I have made myself promise that there will not be an X5 in my future — unless EgoSoft completely revamps almost everything about their approach to making these games — but I hope that I’m finally finding a groove with X4 that will allow me to play through at least some of the content I own, assuming the game allows me to do so.

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