A good space shooter is one of the more enjoyable experiences a sci-fi fan can indulge in. The feeling of being all on your own, with only your ship protecting you from the empty vacuum of space and the weapons of your enemies is, when done properly, one of the most exciting experiences in gaming. Too bad the hopes I had for X3: Terran Conflict deflated when I plugged in my joystick and settled down to save the galaxy.
X3: Terran Conflict continues the story established by the other two games in the series (X2: The Threat and X3: The Reunion). The war has ended, and all appears to be settled with the rampaging artificial intelligences of the last game destroyed and outlawed. But now, a group of hostile cultures has ignored this decree, raising the robots to again terrorize the galaxy. It’s a standard plot for sci-fi games, but the story is only a foundation.
The majority of the single player experience consists of flying from area to area, searching for enemies that rarely make an appearance. There are things to do apart from the main mission, as the majority of stations and vessels have another NPCs in need of things, but they seem to be the point of these system hopping missions rather then a sideline, and are often few and far between. For a game that claims that a dangerous interstellar war is transpiring, it’s awfully peaceful. The developers of the game have thoughtfully included a system where you can speed up the movement from one spot to the other, but that’s only necessary because the game itself is slow-paced. It seems to be a confusing mishmash of play: a game that promises a devastating battle, but offers no real fighting, but also offers some occasional side missions.
The game itself also fails to be cohesive. Instead of one character, X3: Terran Conflict gives you four different character types that each correspond to a varying level of difficulty, and the contrast between the them is startling. While playing as the Terran pilot, the challenge is almost minimal; you can travel through four different star systems on patrol for enemies and end up fighting no more then five. With the mercenary character, you’re in the thick of things right from the beginning. There’s also another military pilot at level two and a commerce trader at rank three. It’s nice that X3 gives you a choice of play style, but in a sense there’s too much choice. Unlike the mercenary and the two pilots, the merchant is unarmed, and his presence detracts from the space war at hand. It gives the game a lack of cohesion that takes away from the overall enjoyability of the game.
It doesn’t help that the control scheme is rather unwieldy. The game can either be played with a joystick or, failing that, the mouse and keyboard, but even with a joystick, players still need to make use of the mouse and keyboard to control various functions such as activating the autopilot, docking and communicating with other vessels. In battle, most of these controls aren’t that much of an obstruction, as aiming and shooting are very simple, but beyond that there’s a lot of juggling that’s needed to use all the controls properly. For a lot of players, that can be a difficult arrangement.
On the bright side, X3: Terran Conflict is a high-caliber visual experience. The initial in-game trailer is a potent display of X3’s graphics engine, and the most of the game looks equally stellar. The detail of both the planetary systems — Saturn is particularly breathtaking — and the man-made objects found within them are very fine indeed. The details in ship design, such as the firing of retro rockets as you move your ship about, or the bright glow of ship engines and laser cannon fire show that X3: Terran Conflict has a grasp of both the big and the small when it comes to graphics. Still, the character animations are less impressive, using recycled body types between different NPCs, in both appearance and voice. The times you interact with NPCs are few and far between and, even when you do see them, the interactions are brief.
X3: Terran Conflict wouldn’t be such a bad game if it weren’t for its unnecessarily slow plot and awkward control scheme. That the game looks simply wonderful gives it that beautiful woman complex — nice to look at, but inflexible and difficult to deal with.