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Somewhere metadimensional lies a dreamland where critter-ridden, pointy-headed software travels after critics like us call it out and forum-patrolling purists raise the white hankie. Call it hardcore-software heaven: a quixotic design where all’s forgiven and developer noblesse gets its just deserts. (Derek Smart has advance tickets for everything he will release between now and the end of time.) Occasionally, one of these tragic tin gods turns away from the light and slips back to...let’s call it a “purgatorial” existence, a chance to make amends by patching itself up to par.

Case in point: You can’t really accuse X3: Reunion developer Egosoft of gunning for the easy sale, even with publisher Enlight’s pushy 2005 holiday release. While publishers are lowballing simpler and shorter games (the better to lure us in for alternate seconds and thirds), space-sim X3 harks back to a time when decoding the interface was considered part of the fun. So here’s a bit of insider info: To paraphrase film critic Roger Ebert, I hated, hated, hated having to slam X3 in my original look at the prepatch retail version (see CGW #259 for the gory details). Did it deserve the flak? Unquestionably. The retail release was prone to crash, dog-slow, buggier than an episode of Fear Factor, and topped off with a cryptologist-buffaloing interface.

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Still, I desperately wanted to love X3 the way Mindy wants to love Mork. It’s the sort of gargantuan, give-em-hell game that often gets relegated to low-budget indie houses or fluke developers like Bethesda. It’s also wildly popular as far as message boards go, with nearly 600,000 posts on Egosoft’s forums and roughly 180,000 registered users at last count. You have to hand it to the German developer for paying more than lip service to that kind of fan base. Three patches on, something nigh-miraculous occurred: With doubled performance and many of the mission-busting bugs nixed, X3 evolved from a Byzantine hodgepodge to an actually accessible, massively multiform space sim. The bottom line: It’s back on my hard drive, this time to stay.

Better Late Than Never

What changed? Frankly, a bit of everything. Let’s start with the biggie: performance. For all our bluster about gameplay trumping graphics and framerate, it’s asking a lot for gamers to enjoy something that jerks like a slide-show projector. And even at low detail, retail X3 ran like molasses through an hourglass. Version 1.3 still wants a powerful rig, but my framerate nearly doubled in the notoriously traffic-crazy Argon Prime kickoff sector (climbing out of the teens and into the high 20s—pretty much the consensus on the message boards). According to Egosoft’s patch readme, the bump came from reducing CPU load, tweaking shader performance, and fixing a HUD issue that caused the already minimalist interface to throttle frame speeds. Unfortunately, Egosoft opted to nullify some of those gains by heaping on additional details in several sectors to accommodate the mobile mining (of asteroids) model—where you could typically count asteroids on two hands before, v1.3 unnecessarily pops out interstellar rocks like Orville Redenbacher on Ritalin. Result: Unless you have a current-gen videocard, expect to suck up serious frame hits. When exploring or trading, this is a minimal bother, but it can turn dogfights into crosshair-steadying contests that instantly negate any visual perks. Game Theory 101: Save tempting additions for sequels or expansions and constrain postrelease focus to fixes.

Dogfights play big in the patched version; X3’s universe links through dozens of bracketed sectors framed by warp gates connecting north, south, west, and east. Trade and military ships lumber from planet to planet peddling meatsteaks and ore, while pirates smuggle narcotics and occasionally skirmish with police patrols. The retail version included a backstory about an alien race called the kha’ak (the game’s voice actors can’t decide whether to pronounce this “car” or “cock”), though you’d rarely bump into them if you lit out randomly. Acceding to player requests, the patch inverts the kha’ak spawn model and cranks the A.I.—making them commonplace, tactically smarter, and vastly more aggressive. That’s good news for vets who know how to quickly score scratch for better weapons, shields, and entirely new ships, but cash-strapped newbies may find that previously benign areas prove impossibly hostile. Do yourself a favor and dock often (to save) until you’re fitted with a save-anywhere module.

Substandard stability was another unhappy and universal retail issue. Sector-entry bombs, random hangs, mission-wrecking lockups…you can fling a thousand balls into the air, but it takes extraordinarily disciplined design to keep them there. While a few quirks seem to linger for a handful of users with hardware-configuration issues, the patch fixed every one of my nits, although Alt-Tabbing still throws the game into a sound-looping sleeper hold. It’s a bit dicey pronouncing any game “rock solid” given driver and hardware variations, but the majority verdict online now favors the latest patch as stability friendly, and I can personally attest to eight-hour stretches of uninterrupted star trekking.


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