Back to the January sale games, then. I haven’t really got into Unreal Tournament 3 yet; the single player campaign, as ever, is fairly ho-hum and mostly involves getting annoyed by your ‘bot team-mates stealing the good vehicles and getting them stuck on a random bit of the map. They’re either incredibly stupid, or it’s genius-level AI that’s become disenchanted with the futility of never-ceasing virtual violence, and has taken to staging bold performance art pieces like “Goliath tank upon scenery at most unexpected cant”. Multiplayer, I haven’t played enough to get to know the maps, so my brief online forays consist of popping up somewhere and going “Where am I? Who am I? Why am I here?”, before a tank shell/artillery barrage/sniper rifle rudely interrupts my existential crisis.
I’ve been cruising around the galaxy a fair bit in X3: Reunion, though. I played the original X: Beyond the Frontier sometime in the 12th century (or possibly 1999ish if not exaggerating quite so much for comic effect) but have forgotten pretty much everything about it, except it involved spaceships and had a really great soundtrack, and never played X2, so I was a bit rusty on the old spaceflight. That wasn’t helped by the fact that X3 doesn’t so much throw you in at the deep end as club you unconscious, tie you up, stick you in a helicopter, fly you out to the middle of the biggest ocean it can find and shove you out the door. Chained to a weight. Made out of chum. And sodium. Faced with an entire galaxy, a keyboard chock full of spaceship controls, more menus than the draw where I shove all the takeaway menus and nothing in the way of a tutorial, I thought I ought to have a bit of a look at the manual. As I got the game on Steam, the manual is a PDF which is a bad start; PDF conversions of printed manuals usually aren’t terribly easy to read on screen, this one being no exception. A useful reference once you’re going, perhaps, but not great for starting out, so with a bold cry of “too long, didn’t read!” it was off to Google. That did the trick, and in no time I was using the Freehand Tool and Bezier options to create beautiful art, at which point I realised I’d found a tutorial for CorelDRAW Graphics Suite X3 rather than space-shooting type thing X3: Reunion (or X ‘superscript 3′, to be technically correct, but I can’t be arsed to find the superscript tag). A slightly revised search turned up the deeply splendid Apricot Mapping Service HQ, which turns out to be dedicated to X3 and not old PCs. (Momentary digression: never mind the Logitech G15, the Apricot PC had a keyboard with LCD display and programmable keys in 1983!) There I found the X3 Handbook, a couple of years of collected wisdom from the X3 forums jammed together in one handy place (also available as a 156 page PDF; this one’s much easier to read on screen than the proper manual, being nice plain text (with a few pictures to liven things up) rather than something formatted for hardcopy). Within the handbook are a couple of tutorials at the “press this key, then this key, then click on this icon on this screen” level, just the job to get me flying around
Having mastered the basics like “speeding up” and “slowing down again”, and then the really advanced bits like “turning left and right”, it was on with the plot. The X games have always been very freeform, and I’ve posted before about how I like a bit of structure. X3 seems to handle this quite well; upon starting, you can choose to either engage in the plot, or just start with an archetype (explorer, trader, assassin) and make your own way in the universe. The plot, such as it is, so far seems to involve me as a square-jawed ace hero investigating missing crystals with the help of a sassy space-chick, battles with pirates and assorted other staples of sci fi; unlikely to win a Nobel prize for literature, but it does the job required of setting goals other than “fly around the galaxy going wheeeeee!” Unless I’m terribly mistaken it’s not at all time critical either, so you’re free to break off at any point and go play in the sandbox (which might not exactly help out the narrative (“I can give you information on these crystals, but first you must free my daughter from her awful captivity.” “Sure! Would you mind awfully if I went off exploring for a while first, though?”), but works for me at a game level).
After a few plot missions, I thought I’d have a potter around to earn a bit of money, pimp out my spaceship a bit (maybe get imitation fur seat covers and some classy blue LEDs dotted around the cockpit). As is traditional with space sims, there’s two main ways of earning money: trading and shooting stuff. Buying stuff at one space station, flying around a bit then selling it another space station is about as exciting a prospect to me as picking up some cushions from one sofa then walking over to another sofa to drop them. For three straight hours. On to plan B, then, laser attack PEWPEW! More reading of the X3 handbook revealed that, when under attack, there’s a chance that the enemy pilot will decide discretion is the better part of valour, and eject. At that point, you can carefully fly up to their abandoned ship, eject from your own ship(!), fly over to the other one in your spacesuit, claim it, return to your own ship, then issue orders to your newly claimed prize to fly off to a shipyard to be sold for profit. Thank you, step by step guide of the X3 handbook, lord knows how long it would’ve taken me to work that out otherwise. Again, as is traditional in space sims, you can be a pirate and attack hapless traders (while saying “yarrrr!” a lot, splicing mainbraces and drinking rum), but not wishing to incur the wrath of the intergalactic authorities I decided to instead be a Force for Good (and Profit) and go after pirates myself (though I still say “yarrr!” and drink rum while doing so). This has led to mixed results; on my first foray, I nabbed a couple of pirate heavy fighters, excellent start! (Beginner’s luck, more like.) There followed a series of disastrous expeditions and much loading of saved games, where overconfidence set me off attacking anything I saw and learning the hard way about rear turret mounted plasma cannons; nobody seemed interested in surrendering unless there was a pan-sector dogfight going between many pirates and a bunch of police, in which case I’d lock on to a lone pirate, knock down his shields, he’d eject and then the collective forces of galactic law enforcement would swoop down on his abandoned ship and blow it into tiny pieces, the gits; and finally, I eventually got a pirate to eject, had his ship all lined up to claim after carefully manoeuvring over, ejected from my own ship… and a stupid twitch of the throttle accelerated my spacesuited self up to ramming speed, and I splattered myself all over the hull of my potential prize. All very frustrating. Finally last night, I went on a particularly excellent rampage, laying waste to the evil forces of piracy and capturing another couple of ships, carefully escorting them back to friendly territory in my own, rather battered by that point, fighter. They were only interceptors, so not worth a huge amount, but it was still a pretty nice profit… until I repaired my own ship, which used up all the credits I’d made and a few more besides. Ah well; I managed to upgrade my own ship with a few bits I’d stripped off the captured vessels, at least, so it wasn’t a total waste.