From the opening screen you can see that. Six silver space stations - majestic in their painstaking detail and even more impressive when you fly close enough to see their size - hover in an ink-black, star-strewn space that seems to fall behind the monitor, keep going into the hard-drive, never-ending. X3 is all about endless expanses; appropriate, since it is itself an expansion, following X3: Reunion and X2: The Threat. The amount of content newly added to a universe already formed and functioning is simply breathtaking - even if it is somewhat mind-boggling for somebody who has had the misfortune to have never before witnessed the "X-verse."
First, a breakdown of some of the shiny features. The game sports all traditional expansion-pack cookies (new missions, new gear, new stuff to collect and awards to be won). However, a better way to describe these cookies may be to present them as wedding cakes, cream-filled puff pastries, banquets of fully-catered sugar-coated goodness. For instance, one mission's reward the acquiring of "the Hub" a gigantic space-station spanning multiple sectors and Jump-gates (if you've ever played/watch/read a sci-fi anything, you can probably guess what they are). You can create trade shortcuts. You can collect a fleet. Anything in the game - with a couple exceptions - can be bought, sold, traded, captured, or just flat-out given away. One of the greatest benefits and pleasures of the game is the almost-freakish scale of its economics and the player's ability to participate in them completely. Within three hours of game-play, I came to the startling realization that I could, after months of hard labor, hoard myself an entire armada and take down the commander that keeps on yelling at me from the corner of the screen. I could take down his entire home planet.
And then I could buy it.
And then I could take it down again. Just because.
That said there were two problems that kept cropping up as I hacked my way through five hours of beta: battle and movement. The battle system is simultaneously needlessly complex and ridiculously simple. Several pages worth of commands can be pulled up using your handy-dandy left-side toolbar. Your first reaction (if you're like me) will be to freeze, a small furry animal trapped by the blaring headlights of 12-point text. While text itself is not a problem (you're talking to a tried-'n-true MUDer here), so much text in such a condensed window with commands that are technically detailed can be overwhelming for the first few hours of game play. And it doesn't seem to matter. Because - and this could just be me and some sort of freak coincidence in the space-time continuum - you cannot die. No matter how little you understand the controls, no matter how you do (or don't) control your ship or don't (or do?) lose health points and vital signs, there is evidently no way to get yourself offed besides running cockpit-first into a space station and exploding.
This happens. Much more than you'd think.
Maybe the enemy is firing at me, and I just haven't noticed. Maybe, as they zoom around my frigate like mosquitoes at a fourth of July picnic, maybe they're trying to kamikaze me, take me down via suicide-blow as opposed to the less-lethal (for them) tactic of actual missiles. Maybe I didn't ever get out the trial-by-fire tutorial mode. Whatever it may be, I'm a total noob in a game crammed with missiles to collect, ships to swap, HP and fuel points and fifty-line info pages per every last enemy frigate and yet I have completely failed to die despite having absolutely no idea what the hell I am doing. This, according to the game-verse, should not be.
My other issue falls with movement within the universe itself. Since you spend most of the game inside a cockpit looking out at the hull of your craft down screen and the vast reaches of space everywhere else, getting from point A to point B is a never-ending adventure. Despite this (or maybe because of it), flying anywhere quickly loses its charm and becomes a chore, even when you realize how to speed up and slow down and get on autopilot. It doesn't help that because you're in the middle of the unknown (and known?) universe the background is a perpetual empty vacuum, one which is inhabited by a few rocks and few stations and an endless multitude of stars. The backdrops don't move, which is fine, except you're in a moving spaceship and the stars nearest you do move as you zip on past. These creates a disturbing optical illusion where you don't feel like your moving even if you are, which in turn makes the slow game travel seem even slower.
Some of this? Personal preference. The goal of X3: Terran Conflict is to "give the player as much freedom as possible in deciding what to do and how to play". Also, the game is both an expansion and part three of an as-yet-ongoing series - it's made to give the player an abundance of options, features, choices. By God, if I want the Sabre to have a 3-pt wingspan instead of a 6, it shall have it! (Wing-span control not actually an option, but may potentially be found in X4.) To use the word "overwhelming" to describe a massive sandbox-style RPG such as X3 is basically a compliment - if it wasn't so jam-packed with content you clogged an artery just by playing it, it wouldn't be doing its job. Don't kid yourself: X3 describes itself in the information page as a "massive sandbox game" and that is exactly what it is.