This third chapter in EgoSoft's space combat simulation series casts players as ace pilots who continue through the story arc of an overwhelmed defensive fleet under constant attack from an invading force. As the presence of a mysterious third, threatening race becomes known, the plot thickens. New features in X3: Reunion include graphical enhancements and improved artificial intelligence, which allows NPCs to behave as more realistic traders and causes computer-controlled colonies to develop factories, bringing more realistic sophistication to the game's virtual economy.
For those unfamiliar with the series, X3: Reunion, is the latest in a long line of games that aims to finally become the true sequel to Elite, which is still considered the gold standard in space trading games. The basic premise is that players start out in a small, underpowered spaceship in a vast, hostile universe and through a variety of smart trading, combat, and knowing which races to suck up to and which to shoot at, eventually parlay that ship into a vast, mercantile empire. The ideal of this sort of game is to create a vast, open-ended universe that seems "alive." Economies will rise and fall in a realistic fashion and races will love or hate you depending on your actions with them. There's no "goal," and no "end," beyond what you as the player set for yourself.
Unfortunately, X3 presents a dilemma. How much slack can you give a game that in many ways manages to achieve that lofty goal, but buries it under a painfully incomplete implementation? X3 may have had the potential to be exactly what it advertises -- a vast, living universe that is built around the player -- but unfortunately, very few players will ever get that far. Even if they manage to push their way past a manufacturing defect and massive, game-killing bugs, they still face a nearly vertical learning curve to master one of the worst, most obscure user interfaces I've ever had the misfortune to wrestle with.
The game's first hurdle is getting it to install. It seems a manufacturing defect in the North American production run caused a flaw on the game's second install CD. It is to Egosoft's credit that they quickly acknowledged the problem and posted a convoluted workaround that will at least get the game loaded up.
Once the game is loaded, however, the nightmares have only begun. X3 is infested with enough bugs to warrant a co-marketing agreement with Orkin. In my first eight hours, rarely did the game run for more than 30 minutes without crashing, with frame rates frequently slowing down to slide-show level, and scratchy sound effects. Bugs can make it impossible to complete the game's plot, and there's a nasty memory leak that can slow down other applications even after X3 has been shut down.
The upshot of all this was that the game was simply unplayable out of the box, and so we were forced to install a patch just to make it playable -- something we rarely have to do here at GameSpy.com. At this writing, the game had been patched to version 1.3, which clears up a lot (but by no means all) of the worst bugs. Under this patch, I was at least able to appreciate the lofty goals of the game -- and the major failings that will keep most players from ever appreciating its finer qualities.
X3: Reunion is mind-bogglingly beautiful. I'm usually fairly difficult to impress when it comes to graphics because developers very often use technical gimmicks to hide flaws in gameplay or a distinct lack of artistic and design sense. There's no such lack in X3. Space in X3 is filled with gorgeous nebulas, clouds of glowing glass, and enormous planets that fill the player's viewport with images so convincing it's easy to believe that if one just hits the engine and lets the game run for a while, their starship will eventually land on a fully simulated planet. Space stations, other spacecraft, asteroids, space debris, and other objects in space are also simulated with the same level of loving detail. One of the game's most magical moments for me came from just flying along the hull of an enormous trading post and enjoying the reflections of the planet in the metallic surface.
The game also lives up to its "open-ended universe" billing. There is a plot and a series of scripted missions involving Julian Brenner, the son of the unfortunate astronaut from the first game in the series. Julian and the rest of the X universe are still struggling to overcome the Khaak invasion from the previous game as X3 begins. The player as Julian is assigned to an easy milk run shepherding some newbie pilots when he gets a call from an old friend asking for help. It seems that a strange crystalline weapon has been uncovered that could drastically alter the balance of power in the universe. It's a fairly standard sci-fi plot told through some mediocre voice-acting and uninspired cut-scenes that, for some reason, look really grainy and poor in playback. Like the rest of the game, it's also plagued with bugs that can easily prevent the player from being able to get to the end of it.
That actually isn't as big a criticism as it sounds, though, because the plot in X3, like all the X games, is basically incidental window dressing. It's quite possible, indeed, recommended, to fly away from the plot at the first opportunity and never return. In fact, it isn't until the player gets off the plot track that the truly staggering scope of X3's universe can be appreciated. X3 comes as close as I've ever come to experiencing a true "virtual reality" on my PC screen.
There are three basic "tracks" to follow in X3. There's the "exploration" track in which the player attempts to map the known universe, not an easy task considering that there are over 100 sectors in the game, each with their own quirks, combinations of resources and races, and local events to contend with. There's the "trader" path in which the player plies a freighter along the space lanes attempting to buy one of the hundreds of commodities available at fire sale prices and sell them at prices that would make a war profiteer blush. As their bank accounts increase, players will eventually be able to buy factories, factory complexes, and build fleets of cargo and escort ships to set up a universal trading concern. Finally, there's the "combat" path in which the player, depending on his or her actions, can choose to become a police auxiliary under a license and fight against a particular race's enemies and pirates, or become a pirate themselves.
In practice, of course, most players will do a little bit of each. The beauty of X3 is that it can accommodate almost any variation a player can come up with. The game's economy is incredibly dynamic, reacting to and generating actual events in the universe in response to economic conditions. If a race purchases a load of wheat, for example, and needs to ship it to a cattle ranch that's short on it, not only will prices fluctuate based on supply and demand, but an actual ship will be generated in game to take the trip. That means that everything the player sees has an actual meaning. If pirates destroy all the wheat shipments in a particular sector, that will drive up the prices, allowing the canny player to undercut rivals by delivering wheat and perhaps getting a little gratitude from the locals taking to the sky at the head of a combat fleet to wipe the pirates out. It also means less scrupulous players can manipulate the market with a little piracy of their own. Once the player gets his or her bearings, there's no limit to X3's depth.
Getting those bearings, on the other hand, offers the most significant hurdle to getting enjoyment out of the game. Even if all the game's bugs were to magically disappear tomorrow, X3 would still be cursed with the most maddening, annoying, and frustrating user interface I have ever had the misfortune to use. Its also got a learning curve so steep it goes past merely climbing Mount Everest to climbing Mount Everest in bare feet wearing a rucksack full of rocks on your back with a broken leg and one arm tied to a diseased Sherpa dragging a dead yak.
The first challenge of the game's interface is merely finding it. Most of the time, the player is merely presented with a window out into the universe. The border of the window is filled with moving target indicators letting the player know what ships, space stations, and cosmic objects are in the near vicinity. It's supposed to, anyway, since these displays to the uninitiated are just a riot of obscure symbols, undecipherable acronyms, and seemingly random strings of numbers. When the player finally finds the interface (available by clicking the right mouse button) it gets even worse. The games' user interface is a ridiculous group of nested commands buried under layers of windows, tabs, and buttons organized in... well... no coherent fashion I can figure out.
Even using the keyboard doesn't help, since the same key may have one of several different functions depending on which window happens to be opened. Most of the time, this isn't a huge gameplay problem, since X3's pace is deliberately unhurried. Trying to figure out which combination of keys to press to get to the proper turret in the middle of a firefight, on the other hand, can easily make you head for the nearest airlock without a space suit. Even if pressing the right button isn't a life or death proposition, though, this is easily the game's biggest weakness. Spending more time wrestling with the user interface than the complexities of intergalactic trade made me long for the comparative user-friendliness of doing my income taxes in Excel.
What's worse, none of this complexity comes with any sort of instruction. The game has no tutorial, no mouse-over tips, and a help system that's as unorganized as the interface itself. There's also an 85-page manual full of incorrect information that reads as if it was translated from German to Japanese to English, back to German, and back to English, then the pages were stuck together at random by a group of chimpanzees. Fortunately, there's a dedicated group of X fanatics out there on the Internet who have taken it upon themselves to write up FAQs, walkthroughs, and quickstart guides, many of them excellent. The company itself also offers a corrected and reorganized manual available as a .PDF. Here's the thing, though. If your game is so badly mangled that you really need to check out fan sites and download and print a corrected manual before getting started, maybe your game wasn't ready to ship.
In the end, the experience of playing this game can be roughly compared to swimming through a pile of sewage to get to a diamond ring. There's a great game buried in the coded-up wreckage that comes out of the X3: Reunion box; it's probably not worth the effort to dig for it, though.
People who downloaded X³: Reunion have also downloaded:
X2: The Threat, X-Gold (X: Beyond the Frontier & X-Tension), Starlancer, X-COM: Interceptor, Freelancer, Xtreme Air Racing, Wing Commander: Privateer - Gemini Gold, Whirlwind over Vietnam
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