Elite is a name that has a long history of involvement with space flight sims, it was the first space trading game and some argue that it is still the best. David Braben and Ian Bell's seminal science fiction space fight/trade simulation changed the way games were played and ushered in a new era. It has never really been beaten, but it has been cloned several times.
X2: The threat was a big step forward and I absolutely loved that game, when I heard there was a sequel that really perked my ears - much was promised and some of it was delivered.
X3: Reunion requires patch 1.3 for you to get the best out of it, 1.3 has a lot of missing content and I decided to base the review on 1.3 to give the game a fair crack of the whip.
Around ten years has passed since the events in X2 and you're back in the hot seat once more, Julian Brennan, ace pilot and troublemaker. You start by babysitting a patrol and are thrown into the deep end against the relentless Khaak invaders. The story quickly spirals forwards from then on in and you're hardly given room to breathe as events drag you towards one encounter after another. Of course you can take time out to trade and upgrade your ship, even explore and you'll need to do just that if you want to survive.
X3 sports a newly designed interface and GUI. It does take some getting used to but is significantly quicker to access than the previous game. The gameplay styles prevalent in X2 are back in X3 and trading has been streamlined but its also been made a little harder, you can mine asteroids for money as well since patch 1.3 which is a welcome addition.
Combat has been improved in X3 but it still can be a twitchy affair. I noticed right away that capturing ships is a lot harder as the enemy pilots tend to prefer to go down in a blaze of glory compared to ejecting. For those of you new to the series the X3 game style can be broken down into a number of sub-styles.
Story: There's a story that rockets along in the background and you can deviate from this story at any time, spending as much time as you want exploring the Universe or just doing trade runs and so on.
Trade: The way you will want to try and increase your credits and the quickest and best method, trading in the X3 Universe is the best source of income until you can get a ship, weapons and equipment capable of taking on the stronger vessels and obstacles both in story and in the X3 Universe itself. If you don't like the idea of trading yourself, buy a ship and the right software; let it do it for you.
Fight: You can just wade in and blast away to your hearts content, you'll probably die a few times, your reputation with the various factions will alter depending on what you do for them, or to them. Help out the inhabitants of the X3 Universe and rewards could be yours for the taking, hinder them and you might end up chewing more than you can bite off.
Empire Building: In X3 you can build stations to support your trade empire, you can also amass a vast amount of money and when you do, the sky or space is the limit since you'll be able to buy a whole fleet/armada of ships and roam around space with them at your beck and call. X3 has fairly extensive options for the control of other craft that belong to you and the more you gain credits and notoriety you'll get access to bigger and better toys.
Exploration: There's a lot of space out there and you can just blast through the nearest jumpgate and go explore. If you have a satellite placed in a new system you'll get updated information from that sat, mapping out the massive 'Verse as you go. You could discover hidden secrets or something else.
All of this is set against an expansive and deep Universe, but the problem is that while the previous game's Universe felt alive - this one feels cold, empty and somewhat drab compared to it. There's a lack of audio chatter from the various other ships and stations (something which the much maligned Freelancer had in abundance) and a distinct lack of life in that respect.
You spend your time using the Mouse/Keyboard/Joystick to gallivant around the X3 Universe, trading, fighting and so on. But it doesn't seem to matter to anyone else, you might have your cargo scanned and so on once in a while - but there are no traders to escort and you don't really feel like the hero you're supposed to be.
It is like the gameplay took a step forward and about three back at the same time, while the enhanced controls and other features are very nice the rest of the game just seems hollow.
Graphics, Models and Animation
X3 has a beast of a graphics engine and is definitely much shinier than the previous game, there's a lot of detail here in the ship models, the stations, the whole X3 Universe and the planets. The real time lighting, shaders and shadow effects are gorgeous when you turn everything up full. There is no resolution lower than 1024*768 so unless you have a good rig and a good card you're going to be suffering with this one.
The thrusters on the smaller ships have that definite warm glow to them, and X3 utilises bloom effects that add an extra zing to the proceedings. The models are definitely redesigned from the their previous game counterparts and almost so radical are the changes, from a story point of view you wonder how all these ships could have changed along with the stations in only ten years.
There does seem to be a bit of a lack of animation on the starships compared to the previous game, the cockpits have been removed as well as the jumpgate sequence when you leap into a new system - it leaves a black screen and you get some sound. This is somewhat of a drop in the immersion of the game and I felt it threw the player back into the real world somewhat harshly.
While we are on the subject of graphical problems, a certain weapon in the game can cause it to turn into a slideshow when fired by a Capital ship. This resulted in a script being formulated by the scripters at the official forums to remove all instances of the weapon until this problem is fixed; the problem is still prevalent in patch 1.3.
I will make one tiny gripe, in X3 the explosions and subsequent weapon effects seem a bit dull. I remember Freespace 2 where a Capship bit the dust you knew about it, it caused a massive star shattering explosion that lit up the screen. But in X3 you get a bit of a flash and a bang, then magically the ship vanishes and you're left once again dragged out of the game's Universe and back into your own wondering - what the heck happened?
There still seem to be a few AI bugs for the developers to sort out, again the scripters are coming to the rescue (they shouldn't have to) to fix several problems with the automated Universe Trader in the Mk 3 script. There is the odd glitch with the computer/AI docking procedure that can cause the pathfinding to go a bit awry and result in a crash or two.
The Combat AI also often suffers from a distinct 'ramming' problem that can result in both ships expiring in a ball of fire. It has been improved over the previous game however and that is a bonus, but it still has a long way to go.
There isn't much of the Artificial Universe life that was prevalent in the previous game either, nothing really stands out and it feels as if the Universe is very quiet apart from the story elements, they could have had a chattering 'verse out there in the black but instead it's a lonely and an often laggy place.
The game's story is told either through the in-game engine rendering up exterior ship views, and cuts in at the most annoying times or between scenes with some of the most diabolical cut-scene CGI I have ever seen. Instead of having a good quality animated scene, you're treated to a very low resolution rendered nightmare, with poor direction and very poor models. These things look like plastic and to be honest the Thunderbird puppets acted a hundred times better than the models in these cut scenes.
X3 has a decent score with some superb sweeping pieces and harmonious near lyrical tracks, its worth visiting the various sectors of space so you can hear the themes as key places have their own unique soundtrack. It suits the game much better than a heavy rock soundtrack would.
About on par with the previous game in most places and then we slip into some fairly decent voice acting to some downright horrible and grating performances. The audio feedback from your various AI story counterparts especially in combat can get repetitious and they just don't have enough to say, so it repeats a few many times. The same as the opponent taunts, they can say the same thing over and over again.
None, even Freelancer with its cruise-drive and so on, can get a decent MP so it is about high time that Egosoft went for this direction, but I think they'd rather develop a MMORPG space sim, and since I have only one pay-2-play game I play at a time I doubt they'd be able to offer anything to drag me away from that. Especially since Eve is also around.
This feels like an addon pack compared to a full priced game and not even the nice new shiny engine can save it. Even with patch 1.3 the game still lacks in some fundamental areas and only a true blue fan of the X-Series is going to find scoring this out of the box (without the patches) any higher than a 5 out of 10 and some people feel that this is too generous.
You have the mix of story and BBS missions to keep you going, space trade and flight/fighting with the option of owning an impressive fleet of ships and trade stations in your Empire. The X-Community are to be commended for flying the game's flag and providing some high quality scripts (and soon mods) that are already doing some great things with the game and through them and Egosoft it should eventually become the game that it deserves to be, but without the patches and extra scripts it should have spent another six months to a year in development prior to release.
I'll hit up a plug here for a very promising mod, Deadly and Red Spot, a modder and scripter team have been doing this kind of thing for quite a while, on the offical forums their handiwork is paying off with a ship mod and a script mod that will give the player their own HQ and add brand new ships into X3 - ships from popular media as well as scratch built vessels.
So I have hummed and harred, given the game longer for review because I wanted to be fair and to be honest this is as fair as I can be. So there you have it.
Egosoft have recently released patch 1.31 beta to the public for testing prior to the review going live today. I was able to get some time in with this new patch. It adds a few new features, tractor beams for towing stations and the like as well as rectifying the horrible lag with the Capship weapons. It also fixes some of the autopilot issues especially regarding Asteroid fields and so on.