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X3: Terran Conflict: Per ardua ad astra

X3: Terran Conflict: Transport

X3: Terran Conflict, a 2008 game from German developer Egosoft, is an anachronistic game. Whereas mainstream games are increasingly about shorter, tightly scripted experiences that straitjacket the player and confine him to predetermined paths, X3TC sets the player loose in a sprawling sandbox with little direction.

The player has a tiny ship at the start, few credits to his name and little in the way of prospects. How he proceeds next is left entirely up to him. There are scripted missions with storylines to be found but these can be freely ignored and there is otherwise little handholding or leading by the nose. This is a game tailor-made for the Explorer.

The game takes place in a universe comprised of vast spaces, sometimes with spectacular backdrops, usually with a few stations and frequently filled with transient ships crawling ant-like towards distant jump gates and more unexplored spaces. There are Easter eggs to be found — perhaps a crate with goods, perhaps an abandoned ship — and these are just rewards for the curious and the patient.

X3TC’s gameplay is like its game space, requiring vast amounts of time and patience for fleeting moments of thrills and wonder. It might take a hundred hours to fully appreciate all that’s possible in the game — extraordinary at a time when single-player campaigns can be over in six hours.

There are multiple game systems to discover, explore and master, and the game’s complexion changes as time passes, increasing in scope and scale. The action-oriented gamer might take delight in battles transitioning from X-Wing-ish dogfights to more strategic battles involving large fleets of capital ships. Those who prefer a slower, more thoughtful experience will find the economic aspect of X3TC to be equally scalable, going from a single merchant content making a few hundred credits in profit to managing an economic empire with turnover in the millions.

The player is free to choose how he’ll experience life in this sandbox. A dastardly pirate preying on merchants or a hotshot starfighter hunting pirates for kicks; a selfless paladin prepared to defend the universe from threats or a self-serving taipan scouring the universe for profitable deals. Or simply an explorer seeking whatever new sights and experiences X3TC’s vast universe might offer.

It is a living universe filled with entities with their own agendas and routines and a lot of the game’s appeal is in the incidental and the happenstance: the awe-inspiring sight of titans bludgeoning each other with thunderous blows, the joy in finding valuable salvage in the detritus of those battles, the glee in discovering a great deal, the delight in disposing of threats by luring them to local sector patrols.

“What is failing?”

If Egosoft is to be commended for building an incredible sandbox, the developer should be taken to task for not providing sufficient reason for the player to be emotionally invested in the proceedings.

X3TC is disappointing when explicit goals are given. The game features uninspired missions made all the worst by the fact there are so many minor variations of the same tiresome themes. One or two iterations of an escort mission during a storyline would have been tolerable; over a dozen is mindnumbing. The mission designs are so tedious even thrilling space combat is reduced to the level of a mundane chore.

X3: Terran Conflict: Legend's Home

There are multiple storylines but it’s all too easy to remain deeply apathetic about anything that occurs. The villains aren’t especially despicable — the two major antagonists of the X-Universe seem primarily motivated by upholding territorial integrity and survival rather than spite — and potential allies are so bland it’s difficult to sympathise with their predicaments.

While there are numerous races and corporations in the game, they’re mostly indistinguishable in personality. A few paragraphs of text lay out their different philosophies in the in-game encyclopedia but these aren’t evident when playing. Choosing to ally with a major faction involves few tradeoffs or penalties. The Split and the Paranid will be perfectly content to let an Argon Hero of the Federation dock his destroyer in their shipyards to casually purchase their military equipment. There is plenty of room in X3TC’s universe for drama yet these factions exist mainly as facilitators of additional grinding.

This is X3TC’s greatest failing: it is primarily a game about ranks, numbers and stats. It is about how many credits you’ve accumulated, how large your fleet is, how fast your current ship is, how hard your weapons hit, how many Xenon Qs you’ve destroyed. The X series may have found a loyal audience with this approach but it needs to be a game about meaningful stories and vivid characters if it’s to draw in others.

Once the initial joy of discovering X3TC’s scope has waned, it’s difficult to sustain motivation to continue grinding on the game’s endless treadmills. The Explorer may find plenty to do and plenty to see in this universe; others may not find much reason to stay long.

Posted in Games, Reviews, X3.

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