Not a whole lot of games come along that make you look at them and say "Woah. That's pretty impressive." Some do it with the graphics. Some do it with the scope of gameplay. Some do it with sectors that are so ridiculously huge that, even on your fastest speed with 1000% time compression, you still take a few minutes to cross the entire area, from north to south, and then make a few dozen of these areas for you to fly around in.
Take a guess at which one of these categories X3: Reunion falls into. Go ahead, I'll wait...
Okay, so, did you choose? Well, if you guessed 'all of the above,' then you might have just won a car.
X3 takes place in the curtly-named X Universe, one far removed from our own galaxy. In the main story of the game, you take the role of Julian Brennan, the son of a pilot from Earth, who must fight off the threat of the unfortunately-named Khaak while discovering that something else wants to destroy everything around you. Normally it wouldn't be a bad story, but in the immense sandbox that is this universe, it's easy to forget that there is a story going on. If you don't feel like following a plot as Julian, you don't have to, and instead can start up games of other characters, whether you're a bankrupt pirate hated by all, a respected trader, or an explorer.
What makes this game extremely different from most space shooters is that it is not, in essence, a space shooter. Yes, the action takes place behind the view of a cockpit, and you can fly around the universe and shoot things until they explode in a violent kaboom of debris and loot, but if you play this game believing that you and your ship is all it will take to defeat the penetrative force of the Khaak and whatever else threatens you, you will have a very difficult journey ahead of you.
In fact, the game is more of a business-building game, albeit approached from a very different angle than most. See, one man can not take on an entire race of destructive force without a load of credits at his back, and even if you take on a few flight jobs, it's going to be tough to progress far in the game. To put it in perspective: a good job that you can qualify for in the beginning of the game can net you two or three thousand credits. Finding jobs is mostly luck, since they appear on the bulletin board at each station you stop on. They don't appear often, and even if they do, you have to have the right ship, and a high enough rank to run them. Now, considering that payoff, know that repairing just one percent of damage afflicted to the hull of your ship costs, on the first ship you start the main game with, a little over three thousand credits. One percent. A single standard weapon can cost a little under thirty thousand credits itself. Suffice to say, bulletin board jobs soon stop being a main source of income.
What this game is mostly about is commerce. Capitalism, pure and simple. There are many space stations scattered throughout the various sectors that you'll travel between, selling everything from highly advanced circuitry to beef. The real way to make any sort of profit in this game is to get that circuitry, beef, or narcotic, from a place where you can buy it low to a place where you can sell it high. It's Economics 101, really, since it's all a matter of supply and demand, checking the stations that have a high supply, and finding those that don't. Eventually you can buy bigger, better ships, better equipped to take out the various pirates and Khaak that would like nothing better than to see you dead. Then, when you really get good and rich, all sorts of venues open up, such as creating and transporting your own stations. I'm talking setting up your own supply routes that other ships will run for their own profit, as you pocket the change. It is possible to make entire sectors become your own commercial playground, full of stations with supply ships flying between them, making products that sell for high product, while you galavant around the galaxy shooting stuff.
Unfortunately, economics does not an make an exciting game. The majority of your time, at least in the beginning, will be spent looking at the empty void of space while your autopilot takes you to the next gate or space station. To say that this is slow would be like saying water is a little wet. Early into the game you obtain a device known as a Singularity Engine Time Accelerator (SETA for short.) Essentially this is a black hole that warps time around you to make it time pass faster. What this means for the game is that you can reduce the time it takes for you to get from point A to point B, up to 10x. Unfortunately, it usually feels that this is not enough. Just getting to a space station in the middle of a sector takes uncomfortably long, but when you need to travel through multiple sectors to get to your destination, well, have something put aside to occupy your time while you wait. Keep in mind this is a device on your ship, and like all other devices, it can be destroyed. And if it is, well, you're in for a very long and very dull journey ahead of you.
When you start the game, profits are so low (due to your very limited cargo space) that it feels like you're going nowhere fast. This isn't necessarily a bad thing, though, just a warning. While it is excruciating to get anywhere, money-wise, when you do finally purchase your first cruiser, your first ship that has enough power to take out a small battalion, or your first space station, it feels so darn good to have reached such a point that the previous time spent to get there is completely validated. This, of course, is not the same for everyone, and so if you plan on going near this game, you have to remember that things come to those who wait.
If one feels lucky, you can buy a police license and hunt down pirates for some cash. I emphasize the 'lucky' part, because at the beginning, if you take on anything larger than a spacefly, you will be in trouble. You can also become a pirate, if you want, preying on ships, forcing them to abandon their cargo or fish it from space after you've destroyed them. If you can get them to eject from their ship, you can even pick them up and sell them as slaves! If anything, that's what I liked about this game. Despite the fact that it's very challenging at the beginning, there's a lot of choice. You just have to remember that the risk always goes up with the reward, so it's an interesting choice that you're allowed to make.
One of the greatest problems with the game, however, is its interface, and how you interact with the game. X3 comes with an 83-page instruction manual that, despite its size, manages to explain little in how to play the game, especially for someone who isn't experienced with the series. There's also a slightly-larger online manual, if you sign up on the developer's website, which is a little bigger but still not quite as useful as I feel it should be. In-game, there are a few 'simulations' (ie: tutorials) that will give you a slight inkling on how to play, but you mostly have to teach yourself as you go along. The problem is, the interface feels clumsy and hard to get to what you want, especially when you're in the middle of combat. Keyboard shortcut memorization is a must if you want to get to any menu without going through three others, unless you feel like navigating through displays while you're being shot at. Even with this, there will be times when the interface will cause enough problems that you'll just want to scrap it altogether, such as when you're trying to give orders to your wingmen without crashing into an asteroid because your attention is focused on a display.
Likewise, little information is given on things such as weapons. I have yet to discover if there's a way to know which weapon is better than which. Energy consumption and damage for each particular armament are not specified, and this is valuable information to know when you can only afford one at a time. Also, knowing things like max speed for ships, turning radius, little things like this, would've helped immensely.
Combat is made interesting by taking on almost a strategic feeling. Once you install your weapons, you can assign them to four different configurations that you can switch through during battle. This means you can use ion weapons to quickly drain an enemy's shields, and then switch to another configuration to tear apart the hull quickly. Or you could use a different configuration to do slow damage to the hull, scaring the enemy pilot into ejecting from their ship. Then you've got a slave to sell on the black market, some cargo, and a free ship to do with as you please. When you've got multiple ships following you (controlled by simple commands given by you,) who they attack is just as important as how they attack them. A fast scout ship could do some serious damage to a ship whose guns fire too slowly to hit it, and likewise, a larger, more equipped ship could decimate something that is smaller than it, if it can connect with the weapons it has. Knowing who to attack, and how, is often what determines whether or not you've got some extra credits in your account or if you've just been reduced to dust.
Let's go on to what will probably be seen first: the graphics. They're good. They're really good. Now, this isn't too noticeable at first, because, quite frankly, we're mostly talking about the airless void of space here. But when you take your first fly-around of one of the many space stations that litter the galaxy, you'll know what I'm talking about. The textures are crisp and shine with polish. The bolts and blasts from various weaponry shine against the blackness of the void. Sunlight reflects off of metallic surfaces. You can even look down on a planet and see the clouds moving over its surface. All in all, the game looks great, which is something of shame because most of the time what you're looking at will be some distance away. Still though, when you get up close, the ships and stations look superb.
That is, except for the people. When you talk to people via your communicator, they show up in a little square in the corner of your screen, and inexplicably, they look like they were torn from some game from the late 90s. They look ridiculously cheesy and dated, and when they speak, there's such a lack of attempt to sync the mouths with what the dialogue that it's very jolting, taking you out of this striking galaxy that you are staring out at, so you can instead look at an old talking head.
With those poorly-made talking heads comes poorly-done voice acting that permeates most of the game. There are times when it's decent, don't get me wrong, but if I have to listen to the scratchy voice of those aliens any more than I do now, then I'll be gunning them down good and fast.
Which isn't to say all the audio is bad. The music has a very 'epic space' feeling to it, capturing the enormity of the cosmos you're in very well, and when enemies draw close the tempo quickens and the tune switches to something more fitting. It's good the music is enjoyable, you'll be listening to it a lot as you travel between sectors.
Trade. Fight. Build. Think. This is what the game tells you to do, and you'll be doing a fair amount of all of those. The open-ended feeling of X3 will appeal to many who like to be able to do their own thing, while the lack of direction might turn off others. With so much to do in the game, whether it's hunt down pirates, do a bit of piracy yourself, mine for minerals, trade around the galaxy, build a corporate empire, or just fly around exploring unknown regions, you're essentially in charge of your path. All you need to do is get over the large learning curve and tough start, and you'll find there's an enjoyable game to be played.