That X3 is a beautiful, beautiful game there can be no doubt. But what hasn't really been touched on very much is the more human (or alien) aspect of the game. Luckily, we were able to sit down with Andrew Walsh, the script writer and story director employed by Egosoft to fix the only real problem everyone had with X2 - the plot. So how is character and story being handled this time round? "When we create characters, there are several questions we need to ask," he explains. "The protagonist, Julian, is there to tell the story, so sometimes he's really interesting like Indy, and sometimes he's not quite as deep, like Luke Skywalker.
"When you watch Star Wars, although it's about Luke, you actually learn less and care less about him than you do about Han Solo, Chewbacca and so on. The other characters are more rounded because essentially, they're not telling the plot." So it's all about the interaction in X3. About filling the universe with characters that help carry Julian's story - to find his father and his home. And his love interest.
"Miria is a new character," says Walsh. "Saya is the established female lead who has helped Julian in X2. Miria appears here and creates a triangle of interest between the three characters. When writing a script, you need to throw in aspects of comedy, tragedy and romance, so there's a bit of sexual tension as the game progresses. Miria definitely knows what she wants out of life and she tells you straight away -she's not one to hide her thoughts." But how much say in this triangle of love does the player have? "Well, it's not a role-playing game. With X3. we had to decide what type of game it is: there are role-playing elements in there, but essentially it's a space game. You won't find a Hot Coffee scene in X3; you won't be able to zoom in on the spaceship and see Miria and Julian shagging."
You will be able to explore a universe that feels alive though. Walsh continues: "The background is massive. We've got a whole universe under attack and there are millions who've died. One of the challenges was trying to give you the idea there's a lot going on. How could we make people identify with our story?
"We've all seen a war film where a soldier takes out a photograph of his sweetheart and you know he's going to die. It's a cliche, but one that's necessary to convey the horror of war. If you just see people getting shot, well that could be horrific, but it's when you get to know that person before they die that it affects you. You've got to feel that there's more at stake in X3 than just numbers, and when you meet the people who are in danger, it adds emotional depth." We'll find out if he pulls it off in next issue's exclusive review.
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There Was a scene in the popular science fiction television series Babylon 5 in which the pilot of a small fighter craft flew his tiny spaceship along the hull of the fictional five-mile long space station, weaving in and out of the various turrets, towers and other spiky, sticky-outy bits, spinning around its z-axis while maintaining its forward momentum and generally having a hell of a time of it It was the coolest thing ever and since that moment, I have been waiting for a space-based game to come along and let me recreate it.
Many have stepped up to the plate, promising huge ships and epic interstellar objects and all have failed to realise the dream, leaving me shattered and disillusioned like a once bright-eyed young games journalist having finally been broken after one industry shindig too many. X2: The Threat hinted at greatness, but much like two children standing on each other's heads, hidden inside a large comedy overcoat, the reality proved to be less gigantic than one hoped. For a time, it seemed as though no game could save the day.
Live The Dream
Until now! Yes, leaving aside my clumsy multiple simile stacking, I have finally played out my Babylonian (5) fantasy within the realms of computer gamedom, thanks to the joyous beast that is X3: Reunion. The very moment I started my first game in my tiny little fighter I immediately spied to my left a gigantic, elongated, knobble-filled space station of somewhat epic proportions and, with the encouragement and goodwill of the onlookers who had gathered to witness the spectacle (indicating that my personal televisual-inspired dream was even more populist than I had imagined), I set attitude thrusters to maximum, pointed my nose towards the station's rear end and commenced my run.
Reader, I tell you, it was every bit as good as I could have hoped. In and out I weaved, a fancy loop around a rotating gravitational strut here, a sideways thrust around a protruding gantry there, and on and on and on it went for what felt like an absolute age - thrilling, delighting and amazing as it went. The dream made flesh. Then, with joy virtually unconfined. I targeted the station, hit the docking computer and discovered they've ruined it.
Not Going In
Well, perhaps 'ruined' is a bit strong. You see, other than the fly along the hull' dream, the X series (in the previous chapter) was responsible for fulfilling one of my other space-game desires - that of flying inside the space stations. You'd fly alongside, request to land, guide your ship along the navigational lights towards the opening hanger door, then while most games would leave it there and bring up the station menus, X2 went that one step further and had you fly through the docking corridors and slowly nudge your ship into its parking bay. Then you'd get the menus (although you could also pop out of the cockpit in your spacesuit and fly around inspecting the other visitors if you liked, or even find the odd piece of stray cargo - a nice touch in a game chock full of them).
In X3. Egosoft has - for reasons that I understand, but cannot allow myself to support - done away with such internal activities. Instead, almost all docking (barring one or two basic stations) is external, via extending docking clamps. Which makes sense from a practical programming point of view given the horrendous size and complexity of these new stations (they really are astoundingly impressive), modelling all the interiors as well would have been asking a bit much. Plus, external docking removes any spatial problems when flying in with the larger ships on offer, I guess.
In fact there's nothing actually wrong with the new docking other than my own personal predilections for recreating that Star Trek III moment of flying in and out of great big space doors at half impulse, when the Starfleet manual clearly states that all docking manoeuvres should be done atquarter impulse or less only.
Just Let It Co...
So, personal predilections about docking aside, has Egosoft managed to pull off the unthinkable and produce a game that's actually better than X2: The Threat? Simple answer? In spades. Everything that has made the X series so superb has been recreated, then added to, then given the kind of extreme makeover that the likes of UK Living can only dream about.
For newcomers to our happy band of galactic wanderers, this means flying spaceships of all sizes through a massive universe, trading your way to fun and profit in a manner befitting the age-old classic Elite. Or shooting pirates for fun and profit. Or being a pirate for fun and profit. Or starting an intergalactic conglomerate for fun and profit - although that one will take a while as space stations are expensive beasts and require a vast investment of time, money and resources. But you can do it that's the thing. You've got this universe here, you see, and just about nothing is off limits.
Pigs In Space
And then there's the story. The much hyped, much profiled story. Written by a proper writer and that The original X told of an Earth pilot being zapped across the universe due to a faulty 'jumpdrive', only to discover aliens, high adventure and no real way home again. A bit like Farscape, for TV sci-fi fans. The sequel told of the pilot's son discovering his roots, searching for his now missing father while fending off a growing alien menace to the universe and the discovery that Earth colonists provided the seed for the major alien race's history in the first place.
X3 continues the son's tale, picking up at the end of the alien war and with a new threat to contend with. Plus, with X3 having the word 'reunion' in the title, you can possibly guess where the tale will go, although I will say it works as a name on many levels.
Is it any good, though? Actually, yes, it is. X?s biggest problem was its story - Egosoft handled the job itself and, frankly, made a pig's ear of it By admitting this and drafting in help (from an ex-Emmerdale writer, believe it or not - wonder if Sefton knows him), X3 has been made a richer place. As before, you'll find enough freedom to dip in and out of the story at will, meaning you can spend as much time exploring, trading, fighting and upgrading your status as you want without disrupting the flow of the backstory. Then, when you do dip in, there's enough structure and pacing to it to give all your other actions meaning. I should also declare an interest - I've provided one or two of the voiceovers for the game and while it hasn't influenced my opinion one whit, I will say that X3 has some of the best vocal acting ever heard in a game. Ahem.
The other side of X2 that most people thought was lacking was combat. As much as the game wanted to give you freedom to do what you wanted, combat was cumbersome, hard to get to grips with and in the main, best avoided (or left to the autopilots). Like a precocious child genius ransacking your box of messed-up Rubik's Cubes and half-finished Sudoku, Egosoft has solved that problem before your very eyes without you ever quite being able to put your finger on how.
Fighting feels quicker, more accessible, more dvnamic and more controllable than ever before. Death feels more like a result of your own carelessness rather than the game mechanics' inability to cope with the demands placed on it. It feels significantly different when controlling nippy little fighters to piloting huge destroyers, bristling with turrets, missiles and drones, all automated, all able to be issued with individual commands, all able to be manually controlled if you wish.
It still isn't quite up to Freelancer's levels of speedy, action space combat, but it isn't really trying to be. X3 is all about creating as realistic an experience as possible within the limitations of its internal logic and as such, combat still requires a lot of skill to master fully. But it is much improved without drifting into stupid arcade territory, and the game is all the better for it.
First Star On The Left
X3 has fixed what few problems X2 had, and by fixed I mean rewritten from scratch rather than patched up. Then it's had its fundamental mechanics recrafted without betraying the very core values that made it the success it was. Then it's been plastered in fancy make-up and dolled up in such finery as to make your eyes boggle. ("It looks better than most sci-fi films," said an editor of these parts, looking over my shoulder.)
X3: Reunion - one of the few games that has the power to engage your imagination with pretty pictures, then actually live up to your imaginings when you get your hands on it Bring back the bloody internal docking next time and it'll probably be the first game in ZONE history to get 100 per cent.
X3: Reunion picks up where X2 left off, with the insectoid Kha'ak determined to sod up the universe for anything without a carapace. Lehahn talks to us about the series, the difficulties of forcing a storyline into a freeform universe, the pursuit of realism and the dedication of some of their players...
"X2 \Nas a good step ahead from X: Beyond the Frontier and X-Tension, but in retrospect we made a couple of bad decisions. In particular, the way we presented the plot in X2 could have been better. The cut-scenes were a problem, the dialogue was sometimes too long and the plot in general didn't come across as good as it should have for these reasons. This is a constant dilemma that we fight with through all episodes of the X games: how can we encourage the player into a linear story in an otherwise freeform game?"
Raising Your Game:
'The X series has become our only project and source of income. It's almost a child, and we all love working on it So the moment it became successful, we knew we were going to continue working on this. There are so many ideas and things to improve that we knew, even in 1996 when the series was started, that we could work on this game for a very long time.
"In 2004 we started working on an expansion for X2 - new missions, stations and ships, but inside the same 'hull' (gameplay, interface etc). At the same time, we started work on a new graphics engine and a modified user interface which we internally named X3. In March 2005, we decided to concentrate all our work on a single project and scrapped the idea of an expansion for X2"
"We looked at what failed in X2 and simply did that better. So, the top priority was a well-told storyline and good missions. We wanted to make the game more appealing to what we call the Wing Commander audience'. That is, those people who don't know Style-type games and play our game because of the freedom and economy, but also expect a story and cool fighting missions. So we added content that we thought would help make the game more appealing to these type of players. I'm sure that an audience like this would then also begin to love the freeform gameplay and the advantages that a realistic economy adds to such a game, but we had to catch them first.."
Guiding The Player:
"Our attitude to guiding the player within our freeform universe changes over time. If you'd asked me during the making of X3: Reunion, I would have said it's very important to guide the player, as we wanted to make the game more accessible to the Wing Commander types. But right now, my answer would be different again. As X3 has been out for a while, we've had a chance to rethink entirely how to put a story into our otherwise completely non-linear game, and also where these priorities are. The game is designed entirely for the freeform aspect, but a linear story exists inside of it."
"We've seen some incredible things from our players. We've Loir seen save-games and read reports on our forums from people who pushed our game to its limits: building gigantic fleets, taking over sectors, building several thousand stations, 6,000 in-game hours for a single player, 50-billion credits... Everything. All of these extreme and unpredictable scenarios are probably a reason why our forums are so popular, with well over a million posted articles in less than three years: When you invest that much time and effort into a game, you want to show it to the world.
"Although the story was far better than that of X2: The Threat, and certainly didn't have the problems with cut-scenes and dialogue, I feel that we still haven't found the best method of integrating a story into this otherwise freeform game. I'm not saying it's bad, as 1 certainly don't intend to make our own game look ixid, but for the type of game X3 is, it's not as good as it could be. For example, the mini-games that we intended as teasers to lead into the game didn't work quite as well as we'd hoped. Fortunately, the atmosphere develops out of the game world as much as the plot. After X3 was done, we all sat down and thought a lot about how we'll tell a story in a game like this in the future."
Andrew Walsh, Writer
"I first got in contact with Andy in 2004 through a friend at our English publisher. At that time, we were in discussions with several professional scriptwriters, but Andy had the large benefit of not just being very talented but also knowing and liking the X fiction. He did give X3 a pretty complex story with better dialogue than any of the older X games. The main elements of the plot were decided upfront already, but Andy was pretty free in how to tell that story. However, we wanted to have a certain mission structure and this lead to the events of the main story step by step."
"We took out spacestation docking for the sake of realism. Our internal sceneries were never designed to truly fit into the stations they were used for (X2's spacestations had a strange Tardis-like feel). Our aim was to create as realistic a universe as possible within the limitations set with the best possible gameplay. So, we'll never consider using more Newtonian flight physics, for example. Once we realised that there was a problem with the docking, we were in a position to react very quickly and release improved versions of the game. So a large part of our customers never experienced any problems with docking."
In A Show packed with glitz, glamour, glitter and girls in various states of undress, it was reassuringly gratifying to witness the sight of the industry's various boozers, cruisers and Jacuzzi users having their attentions captivated by a rolling demo of space stations, alien ships and colourful space battles as they walked past the X3 booth. Our own presentation of the game that was once set to be little more than an expansion pack for X2 (but thanks to an ever-burgeoning design document and a completely new graphics engine has been promoted to a fully-fledged sequel) was equally as captivating, but for other reasons. Namely, we were allowed to sit down and actually play the thing for ourselves. Yes, we got to actually try out the new flight controls, explore the new menu systems and marvel at the new bump-mapping and pixel-shading malarkey. We almost missed several subsequent meetings as a result.
So, what did we learn (other than to carry better diaries, and keep them properly up to date)? First of all, the movement system gives a huge amount of control back to the player that was missing before. In X2 there were strafe controls, certainly, but they were hidden away and were nowhere near as versatile as this. For X3 they've been made far more integral to the experience. Now ships have that much sought-after Babylon 5 realistic feel, able to spin, strafe and travel on the z-axis with ease while still accelerating along their forward path. Inertia I think they call it, but then I'm not a physicist with a degree in astroscience, so I'll just rechristen it whizzy twirl-o-matic motion and hope the name sticks.
On The Menu
The new menu system was also evident, although still in need of some polishing. Far prettier and friendlier than the clunky style of X2. information is now far easier to access. You can view your options easily without a glut of stuff cluttering up the whole screen (for the most part anyway), and there's much more in the way of functionality, with tons of tactical roads for you to explore. We would have taken the time to examine just how, when combined with the deeper auto-trading controls, it makes running a huge spice mining enterprise function more effectively than ever, but the show only lasted three days and there was a French gaming TV crew tapping their fingers against their watches and muttenng something about roast beef.
Here's To Agincourt
If there is still an area that needs further work, then perhaps we could point fingers at the combat. Obviously Egosoft is still coding away like there's no tomorrow, and reassures us that this is one of many areas still under development, but at this stage there are still some of the quirky handling issues displayed in X2 prevalent here. Twirl-o-matic helps a little, but unless things change dramatically, fans of fast-paced twitch fighting may still be left a little cold.
No such complaints about the meat of the game, though. All the promises about tighter plotting, more varied missions and added side content are all present and correct. The much-talked-about racing leagues weren't on display (but having recently attended a voice recording session for the game in Wimbledon and taken a featured role myself - cough - we've learnt that everything is bang on course in that respect), but menu options for Jobs and Bartering alongside the bulletin boards, and regular trading channels hint at interesting diversions from the main plot.
All in all then, a successful first public outing for a game that many have overlooked, but has always garnered a faithful crowd. Anything that can draw fanboy attention away from scantily-clad pretty ladies deserves all the success it can muster.
Always Been a little starstruck? Well this could be the game for you. With unmistakable beauty, X3: Reunion's gorgeous nebulae-filled starscapes are filled with all manner of spacecraft, and the relatively open-ended nature of the game means you can choose to eke out your existence among the stars in many different ways, from mining rocks to selling goods.
Although the combat isn't quite at freelancers speedy levels of action, X3: Reunion is possibly the closest any game's yet come to emulating the ultimate space classic Elite. So for all prospective Kirks, wannabe space pirates and intergalactic mini-cab drivers, there's no excuse in this world (or out of it) for not owning this slab of space for this meagre price.