The Depth of Space
The limitless void of deep space and the unknown possibilities it contains make for some compelling opportunities to get behind the helm of a high-tech space fighter or a lumbering freighter and dive headlong into exploration, trade, and intense combat encounters. In the case of Egosoft’s X3 series, the cosmos is a dark frontier populated by a mixture of human and alien civilizations seeking refuge from a deadly technology they once unleashed upon the universe. It’s a surprisingly beautiful and dangerous realm that’s easy to get lost in…in a good way.
While some of the more recent attempts to bring needed updates to the space combat simulation genre on PCs have yielded wildly mixed results, X3: Terran Conflict succeeds where others have failed. As is typical of the genre, the latest entry in Egosoft’s ongoing X3 space saga is a staggeringly complex game that shifts frequently between deep economic trade systems, open-ended space exploration, mission-based story progression, resource management, and large-scale combat. It’s clearly a labor of love, and the attention to detail shines throughout the design.
For those new to the X3 series, steel your resolve ahead of time. You’re likely going to feel horribly overwhelmed by the sheer volume of information dumped on you at the onset of Terran Conflict. The massive game manual provides far more detail than anyone can absorb in a single sitting, and even attempting to navigate the on-ship data readouts is initially intimidating. The manual is a handy digital tome worth consulting in greater depth, once you’ve become acclimated to the basic gameplay. It provides an excellent level of extra info about advanced game mechanics and a full rundown of the different ships, races, and other important elements to be found in the universe. Though learning the ropes seems daunting, getting the basics isn’t as difficult as it appears. Novice space explorers can safely jump in with a brief flight tutorial and pick up the remainder as they go. Hardcore players will find there’s plenty of depth and interesting minutia to master.
The open-ended frontier found in Terran Conflict is simply huge. The game features a cool sci-fi plot following the return of a devastating artificial intelligence that once wiped out billions and the ensuing war that erupts between the different races and factions as some try to stop the machines from enacting their destruction once again. Setting out as the captain of your own vessel, you’ll essentially build your reputation and empire from the ground up. A large amount of freedom is given to progress through the story at your own leisure, and there are tons of other pursuits and side-missions to explore. Feel like roaming around blasting things to bits and causing trouble? Go right on ahead. Want to establish your own trade routes and become a successful goods merchant? Go to it. Interested in trying your luck at diplomacy and making a name for yourself? Make it so. In Terran Conflict, space is your plaything.
To provide a larger sense of purpose and structure to the sandbox element of the game, you’ll pick from a handful of different characters that each have their own interesting gameplay nuances. For example, the laid back, Humble Merchant class offers an easier experience geared toward folks who get their jollies from fetching a killer price on those illicit goods they just pawned off in the docking bay of the nearest star base. There are more middle-road classes that lean more towards a mixture of trade and combat. Then there’s the super tough Bankrupt Assassin class that’s fun to play but tough to survive in, since you’ll be blasting and looting your way through the galaxy and ticking off people with big laser cannons and lock-on missiles. Your character selection impacts your goals, the early ships and associations you’ll have access to, and the overall difficulty of the game. There’s lots of variety here to encourage repeat playthroughs.
Controlling your ship is done through an intuitive mixture of speed and pitch adjustments easily made with the WASD and surround keys and steering, selection, and combat controls with the mouse. The fluidity of the motion and general maneuverability afforded by the strong control setup makes dogfights highly enjoyable, but it also works well with less gripping tasks such as navigation, communication, and trade. A HUD sidebar lets you open up an assortment of menus to check maps, give orders to other ships in your command, hail nearby vessels, check mission objectives, and access tons of helpful information.
Thankfully, you can also manually target objects in the view and access context sensitive commands that can be routed to autopilot like following a vessel, docking at a station, and flying through a warp gate. This works great when you want to check maps or fiddle around with things while the computer handles the controls during long-distance travel. A helpful time-stretch feature also speeds up the process, when the action is slow. The auto pilot is mostly effective, but it will occasionally steer you at high speeds straight into an asteroid or other fast moving objects.
Terran Conflict dishes out a spectacular visual experience, providing you have the hardware to handle it. On high settings, the planetary backdrops, the technology-laden ships and bases, giant asteroids, and the nebulous star fields are simply brimming with glorious detail. Various star systems have different visual features too, so you won’t be staring at the same old backdrop over and over again. Unfortunately, even on a good rig, this can cause the game to grind to a halt in busier areas with large ships and lots of traffic. The game is still very enjoyable on reduced graphical settings, but a strong PC is the way to go to really experience the beauty of the design.
With such an expansive and ambitious space-faring adventure it would have been easy for the development team to bite off more than it can chew, but Egosoft has much to be proud of in its accomplishments here. Terran Conflict is an engrossing mixture of RTS, space combat, and economic simulation that gives players options aplenty. Overcoming the initially scary learning curve and tweaking your machine to get the game to run smoothly with the bells and whistles turned up are manageable barriers, when faced with the expansive options for fun to be had in the dark recesses of space.
RATING OUT OF 5 RATING DESCRIPTION 4.3 Graphics
Steep graphical requirements pay off when you can turn things up. With the right hardware, this game is seriously impressive in the visual department. 4.0 Control
While the game mechanics can be highly complicated, the controls are very functional and work better than you might expect for this kind of game. 3.7 Music / Sound FX / Voice Acting
The musical score changes from moody and spacious to intense and busy at key moments. The human voice-overs aren’t great, but there’s lots of solid dialogue and unusual folks to chat with. 4.1 Play Value
Seemingly limitless. There are tons of missions and lots of ways to approach the gameplay. A little patience and a love of space travel is required. 4.1 Overall Rating – Great
Not an average. See Rating legend above for a final score breakdown.