Friday, March 19, 2010

X³: Gold Edition Review

X³: Gold Edition, developed by EGOSOFT and published by IGS-INTERACTIVE.
The Good: Detailed universe with a robust trade economy, non-linear progression with the ability to build large fleets and factories, extensive selection of items to purchase, mouse-driven interface, varied starting conditions, excellent graphics
The Not So Good: No integration of Reunion content into Terran Conflict requires two full installs, terrible tutorial, restrictions on saving games, immense distances requires liberal time acceleration usage, no multiplayer
What say you? Despite being completely unnecessary, the gold edition of X³ still provides satisfying space trading and combat: 6/8

Despite my affinity for space exploration games, I had avoided the X series of games, mainly because the publisher ignored my requests for a free copy of the game (the nerve!). Until now! The gold edition of X³, appropriately titled X³: Gold Edition, contains both of the games published under the banner: the original Reunion from 2007 and the standalone expansion Terran Conflict, released a year later. Gold Editions are popular among publishers because they can squeeze out some more money from a three-year-old franchise, and those people who missed the series the first couple of times around and see what all the hubbub is about. Let’s explore the hubbub!

The graphics of X³: Gold Edition hold up very well (at least the Terran Conflict side of things), despite being a couple of years old. Increased capabilities of computers have enabled users to crank up all of the detail that X³: Gold Edition can offer, and the result is a fantastic looking space game. Everything in the X-Universe is quite detailed, from the space stations with extraordinary textures and models to the planets and asteroids. The game also does not rely on cheap nebulae to color the backgrounds, although you do fly through dust clouds while navigating through the extensive game universe. The weapon effects and explosions also look good; X³: Gold Edition is certainly one of the best-looking space games out there. The sound design isn’t too shabby either, with a computerized voice dictating all of the surrounding points of interest. The voice acting could be better (you can hear the game’s German development roots), but the music is effective at creating an out-of-the-world atmosphere (or lack thereof, I guess). I was not disappointed at what X³: Gold Edition brings to the table in terms of the presentation.

X³: Gold Edition comes with both X³ games: Reunion and Terran Conflict. Unfortunately, they are separate installs and not linked in any way because Terran Conflict was a standalone expansion and the developers are lazy. I don’t see the need to install everything twice to enjoy all of the content: why couldn’t have the missions from Reunion been imported into Terran Conflict with its improved interface and graphics? As it stands, you’ll have to switch back and forth the different executables. I found that prospect to be quite annoying, so I ended up playing Terran Conflict exclusively after a while. In essence, I was playing the standalone expansion, so the Gold Edition was superfluous, except for the soundtrack CD that was included (oooo!). Clearly, there is no reason to get X³: Gold Edition if you own Terran Conflict.

X³: Gold Edition is open-ended: there is a linear sequence of missions you can undertake, but you can ignore them and just focus on trade and/or combat if you wish. You start out by choosing a career: basic options are available at first (defender, patriot, merchant, assassin), but more are unlocked with increased play time (commander, adventurer, insurgent). Each career gives you varied ships and initial funds, so your initial hours are slightly different. On the features front, X³: Gold Edition falls short in a couple of areas. While you can sink a tremendous amount of time into the game, there is no multiplayer (not that you would notice anyway, as the universe is liberally populated) and you can only save progress when you are docked, unless you buy salvage insurance, and even then you can only use it once. I dislike arbitrary saving restrictions, even if it’s “realistic.” The tutorial is also boring and long, and it uses the same instructions for all ship types: try firing weapons from a merchant ship (it doesn’t have any) and see how far you progress.

The interface of X³: Gold Edition is probably one of the best I have seen in a space simulation, a genre notorious for overwrought controls. The game uses a combination of the joystick (pretty much required, as the keyboard or mouse isn’t as satisfying) and the mouse to an effective result. You can actually point and click on things to target them, something missing from more archaic space simulations. The game also places most of the important information along the screen edges, allowing you to easily access your missions, maps, ships, targets, and stations, along with pertinent trading information. Icons for all of the objects in your current sector are also placed along the screen edges, and can be clicked on. The sector map also lists nearby stations and ships, making navigation in X³: Gold Edition fairly straightforward.

The universe of X³: Gold Edition is extensive, consisting of eight races and eight corporations competing for cold, hard cash. The AI does a nice job placing you in a vibrant setting, as neutral ships buzz around, taking care of their own needs. The universe is so extensive that things are really far apart, even in the same sector. Jump gates are placed for travel between the far reaches of the universe, but traveling between points of interest in the same area can take minutes. You will learn to love the “J” key, used to accelerate time so you aren’t sitting there forever and ever. While it might be more realistic to place things further apart, it doesn’t make for efficient movement.

X³: Gold Edition is about trade, and making money from said trade. Basic trade is very traditional, although there is a clear resource relationship between what a factory produces and what raw materials it needs to make for some interesting production trees. Once you learn this flow, it becomes almost trivially easy to make tons of money. In fact, it borders on tedious: the long transit times don’t help matters, and if you don’t enjoy trafficking goods around the universe, X³: Gold Edition will not appeal. Things get better when you can afford transport ships that automate the process, though. The “best buys” takes a lot of the guesswork (and writing down prices) out of trade, but it’s still boring and tedious if you don’t enjoy that sort of thing. Factories make things interesting, especially when you consider that you can build your own and enter the game’s economy as a private corporation: that’s neat. That’s the one innovative trading feature X³: Gold Edition brings to the table.

Not everyone is going to be friendly, happy traders, so you’ll probably have to engage in some laser-to-laser combat (especially if you chose one of the more combat-intensive initial occupations). Weapons come in two flavors: pew-pew (lasers) and boom-pow (missiles). There are lots of specific types of weapons, from chainguns to anti-matter launchers to torpedoes, each with their own strengths and weaknesses. You can also indulge in various upgrades, from freight scanners to rudder optimizations to a suite of exotic artifacts. All of these things require money (or blowing somebody up), which requires you to do at least some trade or complete missions in order to earn enough cash to purchase them. There are also a lot of ships to destroy: fighter transports, destroyers, frigates, bombers, and the like. If you like an enemy’s ship, you can board it if you have marines at your disposal. You don’t have to limit your upgrades to your own ship, as X³: Gold Edition allows you to control a flight wing and issue orders to all of your subordinates. This means you can become a formidable entity in the galaxy, either economically through resource production or combatively through force. This amount of freedom makes the game interesting, and the AI holds its own in combat situations. If you can stand the tedious nature of trade and the long, boring travel times, X³: Gold Edition offers a lot to like with the economic and military options at your disposal in a non-linear career.

As a gold edition, X³: Gold Edition takes the easy way out: just two DVDs, one for each game, installed separately to maximize the proportion of your hard drive that is wasted. It would have been much better to incorporate the missions from the first game into the second, but none of the improvements to the interface and graphics have been back-ported into Reunion. It’s lazy. Apart from that, though, X³: Gold Edition provides some engrossing open-ended space trading, exploration, and combat. You can start out in a number of different careers of varying difficulties, offering up starting conditions from “easy” to “hard” setups. In any case, the open nature of the X-Universe works quite well, providing a vibrant environment in which to conduct your business. The emphasis is clearly on trade here: although you will enter spats of combat on occasion, you will need to make money in order to upgrade your ship and make it competitive. There are a lot of upgrades, weapons, and items to choose from, letting you customize the role of your ship and find an arrangement that makes you comfortable. The interface is good for a space game, fully integrating the mouse so that you can point and click on things, instead of having to rely on a long list of keyboard commands. There are still some lingering issues that should have been solved by now, like allowing everyone to save anywhere and actually having a decent tutorial, but these are small issues that fans of space games will overlook. If you’ve never taken a gander at X³ before, the Gold Edition is a good place to start, assuming the price isn’t too much higher than the standalone Terran Conflict expansion.