If you’ll forgive the cliché here: space is really big. It’s definitely bigger than, say, a potato. Even a really huge sack of potatoes. In fact, a potato-based scale of any kind will not be adequate for measuring the size of the universe. Capturing the majesty, volume and isolation of space is not an easy task. Since 1999, however, that’s exactly what the X series has been attempting to do. Though not with potatoes. Obviously.
Channelling Elite, the classic forefather of the genre, each successive X title has attempted to perfect a delicious mixture of space combat and trading. 2005’s X3: Reunion came close, but suffered from a clunky user interface and various bugs; re-emerging in a much more playable form after patching and modding. Ingeniously, developers Egosoft hired members of the team responsible for the excellent ‘X-Tended Mod’ to work on X3: Terran Conflict. Which means there’s no chance of X3:TC suffering from a similar bug-afflicted release, right?
Let’s start with good news. There is the base of a splendid game here. For those who’ve waited for an updated version of Elite, greatly expanded in scope and depth, your wishes have almost come to fruition. X3:TC is absolutely vast, featuring a universe divided into hundreds of sectors (themselves pretty sizeable) linked by jump gates. Within this gigantic playpen, it’s possible to do… pretty much anything that seems feasible. Fancy being a space-NARC, busting intergalactic smugglers of space weed? Improve your reputation, pick up a freelance police license and you’re good to go. Maybe you’d prefer to be supplying the dope? No problem, earn enough money to buy a couple of AI transport ships and you can live the narcotics dealing dream too.
That barely scratches the surface. Trade, piracy, asteroid mining, assassinations; even the construction of your own floating factory complex is possible. Every sector has shipyards, mines, farms and other structures, keen to offer tasks (denoted by handy icons) to any eager, passing pilots. The economy is also alive and dynamic, altering according to the principles of supply and demand (though there are suspicions that this is not functioning entirely as it should at present, perhaps due to a crisis of sub-prime space mortgages.) Other ships populate the game (almost any of which you can purchase, from fighter to battleship), running taxi services and shipping goods, all adding to the sense of a universe going about its business. You may stumble across pirates attacking a freighter, or all-out sector warfare against Xenon invaders.
All of this is graphically gorgeous. Iridescent dust and space nebula, looming planets and mighty military outposts all contribute to the atmosphere, to the extent that simply travelling around and listening to the Vangelis-like score is an ambient experience. A fairly powerful system is required to run all this, though anything from the past couple of years should be sufficient.
Such depth also carries a steep learning curve. It’s worth keeping the manual on hand to read and refer back to (no, seriously) and browsing discussion forums for additional help. Beginning with the Terran pilot campaign (one of various starts, with others unlockable) is also recommended, as this offers something of a tutorial. It features a set of missions which ease the player in to several aspects of the game, such as control familiarisation, capturing ships and commanding fighters. Part of the joy, of course, is you can leave this plot at any time and toddle off to do your own thing.
Although the user interface has reportedly improved since X3:R, it still possesses quirks. Wingman control is baffling and there are other minor, but annoying issues. While docked, your on-board computer can read out details of the hundreds of weapons/missiles/upgrades/goods available for purchase; but this gets quite tiresome, so most will switch it off. An option to read these details for yourself exists, by bringing up information with the ‘i’ key (which I discovered almost by accident), but doesn’t seem to work in all situations. Happily, the important matters of flying and combat are far more fluid, with the latter rewarding a certain amount of tactical awareness. Notice that a ship is only armed with a rear-mounted turret? Dart past on staffing runs and keep out of its firing arc.
Fans of the X series’ amusing voice acting may be pleased to learn this has returned, with NPCs regularly sounding like bad text-to-speech programs with stilted accents. And, yes, the innuendo-tastic Kha’ak race are still trying to thrust and penetrate their way through the stars. Other alien races have rather one-dimensional characteristics (the profit-obsessed ones, the spiritual pacifists and so on) and tend to be rendered rather like Jim Henson puppets. Although that’s not necessarily a bad thing.
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The aforementioned bugs are rather more serious. Several campaign missions are broken in their current form, with the worst example being the swiftly-becoming-infamous ‘deliver 200 units of teladianium’ fiasco. A restricted sector should allow the player access, but instead turns hostile, hampering the delivery until bizarre workarounds are employed. Certain AI pathfinding issues also persist, mission difficulties are often labelled incorrectly and there are reports from players that performance can slow to a crawl in games which are 40 or 50 hours old. Lines of audio are sometimes cut off or missing altogether. The Egosoft forums have sightings of so many different bugs, they’re beginning to resemble a butterfly house.
Permanent judgement is difficult to apply in these circumstances. If Egosoft and community modders (as they did with X3:R), iron out mission bugs, settle the economy and solve any performance issues, it would certainly boost the score by two or three point. It is likely that they will do this; indeed, version 1.2 has already been released with some small fixes. However, it’s impossible to strongly recommend X3:TC in its current state. At present it is a beautiful, flawed title: a success-in-waiting.