In a spot of unfortunate timing I'm going to be out of the office from Thursday this week until the end of next week, which means we've had to move a few of our plans for V9 around to minimise the disruption caused by me only being able to work from a laptop (one that sadly cannot run the developer version of X2).
Beta V9 Pre-Test:
Beta Build V9 is a fairly large upgrade over V8 as it contains both the new realtime air combat model and also the first section of the strategic UI reskin (updating all the strategy management screens except the Geoscape), and a few smaller things like building aircraft in your workshop and wall hiding in the ground combat. The air combat is almost entirely functional with the only remaining updates being either visual polish or some UI improvements (e.g. there's currently no indicator for missile lock, etc), but the updated UI has taken longer than expected as is causing some issues.
The problem with the UI is that we've taken the opportunity to change the layout or functionality of some of the UI while we reskin it, or add UI elements for functionality that doesn't exist yet. However it takes longer to write the code for those UI elements than it does to do the skinning work, so we're in an awkward situation where various sections of the UI don't work properly / at all. It should be pretty obvious where this is happening to anyone who has played previous versions of X2 and it should be possible to work around it, but it makes things akward enough that I doubt anyone is going to be playing any long campaigns until we've fixed that stuff up.
However, I don't see it as necessary to delay the release of V9 until my return. Assuming V8.2 Hotfix fixes most of the remaining issues in V8, I'm planning to push that out to the Stable branches towards the end of the week and then release a "pre-test" version of V9 on the Experimental branches. As long as people are aware that parts of the UI are unfinished, I think this will be fine - there's still plenty to test and comment on. That way we can get a headstart on identifying and fixing any major crashes etc before the "proper" V9 release.
I'll also quickly mention some of the cool new things we've been doing over the past month or so. The first is the custom UI skinning system we've written as part of the UI skinning work, which should make managing the UI more manageable in the future. We've probably got about 200 different UI screens / panels / pop-ups that are each seperate entities within Unity, and there was previously no way to link them - which meant that even if I wanted to change something small like the font size or font colour of the basic text in the game, I'd have to open every single one of those entities and update every text string within it (a task that that could literally take days).
We've now implemented something like a bit like a CSS stylesheet where I can specify a style for each text string, and if I update that style to use font size 16 instead of font 14 then all of that text will update everywhere in the game. This is cool because it not only makes my life much easier when working on the UI but also gives us a way to support something like an optional "large font" mode for those people with small screens or bad eyesight. We can also easily switch text from being ALL CAPS to normal text, which is nice because we've switched to a new font that is similar to the X1 font but also supports lowercase letters and special characters. Gives us a bit more flexibility in terms of making sure the UI is as readable as possible.
The first draft of the wall-hiding system in the ground combat has also been added to the game now. This is the system that hides walls that are blocking the view of the selected soldier or around the cursor, which makes it much easier to navigate within buildings or in underground maps like the Alien Base or Xenonaut Base. It's especially important in X2 as walls are now taller relative to soldiers than they were in X1 and thus get in the way more (they are now 3m tall instead of 2m tall). Anyway, this system needs a little more visual polish but it's already working and will be included in V9. It's definitely a good quality of life feature.
There's a few bits of new art, too - the Gauss (formerly MAG) weapons have some new art, there's some updated Sebillian autopsy and corpse art, the base structure tiles have updated (although not yet finished) graphics, a new UFO has been painted up, etc. We're also currently doing some concepts for some additional soldier armour designs, as I feel the current armour designs are too similar to one another. Depending on how much more time the UI work takes up I may also be able to get on with some gameplay balancing and writing work, too.
Finally, we're also planning in some work over the next couple of weeks to get all the Kickstarter soldiers added to the game and to start moving more of the game data into JSON files that can be accessed by modders. The immediate targets are things like aircraft, UFOs and base structures, but with a bit of work we should also be able to put all of the other associated data (alien missions, UFO crews, alien equipment loadouts, etc) into JSON files too. These are less readable than the XML files we used in X1 so all but the most intrepid modders will still need to wait for our mod editor in order to make changes, but it's still an important step along the way.
So yeah, there's quite a bit going on right now. If you want to help out the most useful thing you could do would be to give V8.2 a bit of a test to ensure it doesn't have too many massive bugs in it, which will hopefully allow us to put out the V9 Pre-Test build later this week!