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The X Factor: Elite To The Extreme!

I was surprised to discover that this is the first time I wrote a blog entry on any game from Egosoft's X Series.  After all, I was playing them since the original X: Beyond The Frontier, released in 1999, and have over 100 hours logged in Steam for X3: Terran Conflict alone (and I had already put quite a few hours into before I purchased it there).

In truth, the original X games were not all that great.  They were, of course, games in the vein of Elite, the 3D space trading game that popularized the whole "space trading and combat simulator" genre.  But I had already played better games than X: Beyond The Frontier, which had dodgy physics, terrible projectile simulation, and graphics a few generations behind even 1999 games.  (Despite 1998's Descent Freespace not being an open-ended sandbox, it was a tough act to follow when it came to the quality of space combat, and it remains so to this day.)
X: Beyond  The Frontier was a very cleanly-executed game, but graphically
it looked and played like something that would have run comfortably
on a Nintendo 64, complete with crude, floaty projectiles.
But I have to hand it to Egosoft: each game in the X series that they release has improved by leaps and bounds over its predecessor.  X2: The Threat, released late 2003, had slicker graphics and a scripted plot line, and finally allowed players to pilot ships other than just their starting one.  (Incidentally, the number after the X is supposed to be written as an exponent, e.g. X2, but I'm not going to bother.)  Yet, despite the advances in X2, I still felt the game was lacking, the projectiles were still pretty lackluster, and overall the game was not quite as refined as something like Darkstar One (released in 2004 in Europe and a couple years later in other countries).

At some point, Egosoft added the ability for players to purchase and assemble their own space stations, directly impacting the supply-and-demand-simulated economy the X series always had.  You could also obtain other ships and order them to perform simple tasks for you, such as escorting or trading remotely.  To both build stations and have an active fleet of external ships was something found in extremely few games of the genre; Egosoft had found a niche.
In X3, several player-owned space stations could be attached with conveyor tubes to make
a complex.  They're not very pretty, but certain player mods can help with that.
The third major iteration of the series, X3, got off to a rocky start with X3: Reunion, released in 2005.  Graphically, it was gorgeous, but the engine was buggy.  Egosoft's ambition to implement an elaborate story with lots of scripted action segments just annoyed players because it took away from the open-ended freedom of movement they had in previous X games.  Also, there were special action segments that were crudely controlled and otherwise felt poorly executed.  Even now, after several patches, X3: Reunion remains a hard game to recommend.

Enter X3: Terran Conflict, released in 2008, and all was well again.  The physics and projectiles were now truly worthy of what I would call a space combat simulator, the campaigns did not remove the player from the open-ended nature of the universe much, the tacked-on campaign action segments were gone, and the space economy that was the X series' primary niche was now more polished than ever.  It was now a joy to grow your own space empire, potentially of hundreds of ships under your control, and support for player-made mods was better than ever.  As is the case of many PC games, once the community was so deeply entrenched in the game to contribute to its well-being, it flourished.

Even X3: Terran Conflict's unmodified form is a marvel, and I highly recommend the game.  About the only bad things I can say about it are:
  • Strafing is unbalanced; the player is the only pilot in the universe whose ship is capable of moving in directions other than it is pointing, and this gives you an unnatural advantage when it comes to avoiding enemy fire.  Oddly enough, you can often strafe faster than your ship can move at maximum velocity, and this is my primary means of longer-distance conveyance when I'm in my space suit.
  • Repairing at stations is expensive, but a repair laser only found on your space suit is free.  This turns out to be too much of an economic incentive because the process of manually repairing is boring and takes a very long time.  Players should never be incentivized to bore themselves, as this reflects poorly on the game.  There's quite a few ways they could have fixed this:
    • Remove the repair laser entirely.
    • Make the repair laser carry less economic incentive to use (for example requiring it burn teladianium as ammunition).
    • Simply make repairing less boring.  The game includes "repair drones" and also the ability to slot repair lasers on ships, but neither repair drones nor repair lasers are for sale anywhere in the galaxy so presumably these were features that were decided against or simply never finished.
  • There are other crude, unpolished aspects to the finer details of this huge game.  For example, a few of the weapons never quite worked right, like the fragmentation bomb launcher, which looks pretty enough but does virtually no damage.  Weapon-use in general has a problem in that most projectiles are too slow to hit nimble targets.  In the big picture, there's no point in having so many tiers of ships, as the smaller ships are simply swatted like flies by the flak guns on larger ships, and taking down larger ships is too easily facilitated by high-potency missiles and torpedoes.
  • The game ends on a lackluster note of never truly ending.  You can build a ridiculously-powerful space empire and flatten everything with dozens of capital ships, but to what end?  There's no point; it's just because you can.
All things considered, these are only minor nitpicks; these are things most players may only notice are problematic after about 200 hours into the game.

An expansion to Terran Conflict, X3: Albion Prelude, was released in 2011, and was essentially Egosoft giving the fans something to do until the next game.  Albion Prelude had a rocky start because it was released with a nasty bug in the soft-coded scripts that was causing severe lag after several hours of play, but this was eventually fixed.   Albion Prelude lacks the many interesting campaigns in Terran Conflict, but has a few campaigns of its own, a larger map, an improved game engine, more ships, a stock market, and other new features.  It's debatable as to whether Albion Prelude or Terran Conflict offer the best X3 experience; Albion Prelude may have more features, but Terran Conflict is a little more refined and gives the player more campaigns to do.

What's next?  X4?

Actually, they're dropping the number and colon from the title, and on November 15th 2013 (less than two weeks from now) a new game in the series will be released: X Rebirth....

...speaking as a massively jaded, hard-to-please gamer, the X Rebirth trailer looks absolutely amazing.

I understand we will be busted down to piloting a single ship in Rebirth, and this bothers some fans of the series because it's something they have not had to do since the original X: Beyond The Frontier.  However, one look at that trailer reveals that this single ship is extremely well-wrought; there's nowhere near that level of interior cockpit detail in the previous X games.  Also, not since Reunion was there really the idea you had a crew working for you inside of the ship (unless you count the marines you can train up in Terran Conflict).  (Not to mention that, prior to Rebirth, you never got out of your ship and walked around a station before.)

There are a couple more interesting games in the space trader genre that have been successfully kickstarted with massive amounts of money and are still in development.  At over 1 million pounds of backing is Elite: Dangerous, designed by David Braben, who incidentally was the person who created the Elite series to begin with.   At over twenty five million dollars of backing is Star Citizen, directed by Chris Roberts, who was behind the Wing Commander series and the rather-excellent (if rather linear for a game of the space-trader genre) Freelancer.

I mention those two games because I want to say that they'd better look out.  It seems likely to me that X Rebirth is about to set the bar very high (...unless maybe it's as buggy as X3: Reunion was).

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