X3: Albion Prelude – Fun Times, But Not Without Work
I’m gonna be honest right up front here: I’ve not clicked with an X game since X-Tension many years ago. While I’ve tried every iteration, the further series has progressed, the more it’s felt like a business simulation in which your office just happens to be a spaceship. I’m totally fine with trading in space sims, but I’m here to fly, haul and fight, not manage a business. That sounds a lot like WORK. So it was with some trepidation that I approached X3: Albion Prelude because I knew I had something of a bias against the series. I figure one of the beauties of this blog will be to help me possibly overcome such biases by looking at games more critically that I might have if I were just playing certain games for my own amusement. With that said, I tried to approach this game with as little amount of trepidation and bias as possible. Read on to find out if I was successful in overcoming these biases and actually find some fun underneath all the numbers.
I tried to approach Albion Prelude from the perspective of a player new to the X universe (since I felt I kind of was anyway), and jumped right into the tutorial as a Terran Commander. WOW what a mistake that was. Let me just say, the tutorial in this game is HORRID. It appears to assume you’ve played previous games in the series right off the bat because the information it gives you is quite minimal. The tutorial boils down to this:
Fly here, dock here, shoot that, okay, have fun!
That’s it. Seriously. At the end of the tutorial, I felt WOEFULLY unprepared for the intricacies of this universe I’d been thrust into, so then I dived into the manual. While Albion Prelude has no manual, it’s predecessor (which is required to run this game anyway, so you’d have it) Terran Conflict does, so I read that a bit. It helped a bit, but the PDF was a bit blurry so some things were harder to grok than others. Since the Terran Commander felt terribly unfocused (i.e. I had NO idea what to do once the tutorial was over), I tried a custom game and ran the tutorial again. Here’s where I ran into some awesome bugs, like ships getting stuck into stations or ejecting cargo thirty clicks away. Good times.
Again, once the tutorial was over, I had no idea where to go or what to do. The manual for Terran Conflict listed clearly all the beginning job descriptions in the game, so I tried nearly all of them to no avail. I felt like each time I’d start a game with a new vocation I’d once again be thrust out into the cold blackness of space with nary any indication of where to go or what to do. I’d fly around a few systems, look for missions or trade or what not, and find myself aimlessly going “What am I doing here?” Not a great way to bring a newcomer into the game, folks. Then, I noticed there was a vocation in the game not in the manual, Argon Peacekeeper. I figured “Why the hell not?” and dove in.
What’s this, much of the map is already unveiled and I’m getting missions right off the bat? OMG LOOK, IT’S FOCUS! YAY! Finally, after maybe two hours of “playing” the game, I finally found like the one mode that was likely meant for newcomers and impatient bastards like me, only the game took no steps to TELL folks that. ARG. Regardless, I was finally beginning to have…fun? Yeah, actual, serious, fun. The game was being clear on goals and I was actually…*gasp*…enjoying what I was doing.
Missions were much easier to find in this mode too. I’ve always felt like missions are the bread and butter of games like this, and making them easy to find (i.e. at your local station bar or mission computer) makes a whole lot of sense. Not, however, in the X3 universe apparently. Missions are offered at random at random stations wherein someone who is offering a mission is physically at that station. While this seems like a reasonable setup, it means that missions are much fewer and far between than they are in other games of this type, giving the universe a much less focused feeling than other games.
Thankfully, as an Argon Peacekeeper, there was plenty to do, such as spying, combat, cargo fetching missions and more. This, honestly, went a LONG, LONG way toward helping me feel not only like I’m a part of this universe, but that this universe I’m inhabiting had some life in it, some purpose. When I took the other vocations, I felt like the universe was just one big empty playground with maybe a slide and a see saw but little reasons to actually use them since it all felt pointless, you know? The fact that there are other ships apparently doing their thing isn’t helped by the fact that they all seem as boring and lifeless as the universe around them, however.
This brings me to the main problem I think I have with this and the other recent X games: they’re trying to be too big. This is accomplished by arbitrarily putting all of the bases way too far away from each other, making most ships too slow and making time acceleration both necessary and problematic (i.e. this coupled with the autopilot led my ship to crash a few times). The large sizes of these orbital systems (they all seem to be in orbit of a planet, which seems a bit silly) is then padded out by traffic that appears to be doing its own thing, but to me didn’t feel realistic at all. Also given the distances involved, it was rare you actually SAW this traffic except on the system map. This makes the game’s universe feel emptier than it needs to be.
Couple the game’s size with time acceleration and overt autopilots and this is game where one barely has to play it themselves, it seems. You can even put your ship on a combat autopilot so it’ll fight for you. What fun is that? When you couple these distances with the liberal use of autopiloting, the game can almost play itself. I did one lengthy run through maybe ten systems, and had the autopilot take me through all ten of them. While it did this, I cleaned my apartment, occasionally checking on it to see if I’d missed anything. Now, one COULD role play this and pretend they’re doing ship maintenance while she’s flying herself, but c’mon, that’s a bit of a stretch.
It’s not all bad, of course. As I said, there were moments of fun where combat was intense and exciting (and well controlled using the game’s recent gamepad implementation) and there were some fun missions. But the downside is these fun parts were interspersed with long periods of boring, uneventful transit, which took away some of the fun and actually took me out of the moment whenever I’d have to go…anywhere, really. It’s a shame, because this is a beautiful game that one can tell has had a lot of love and effort put into it, it just has some issues that prevent it from being fun, for me at least.
Overall, I played many hours of X3: Albion Prelude — more than the last several X games combined — because I found buried in its menus a game mode with style, purpose and focus. This universe has a lot to offer the patient player (which certainly isn’t me, let me tell you), but I think what the next version of the game needs is a bit more…conciseness, both in its size and in its scope. Right now I think this game is trying to do too much, and it kind of suffers for it. It needs a better balance of trade, combat, mission generation and so on, plus better accessibility (though this game is far better than its recent predecessors in that regard) to really make it shine, because this is a universe that deserves to be explored.
So yeah, if this review seemed a bit “meh” to you, that’s because it represents my general feeling on the game. I’ve been putting this one off because these are the hardest kinds of reviews to write, and also the least rewarding types to write. That said, I enjoyed some of my time with this game, I just know I could’ve enjoyed it more if it wasn’t just so dang obtuse. Anyway, thanks for reading my inane rants, and enjoy the few screenshots I took below in the gallery (for some reason FRAPS would crap out on this one without me knowing it, which is why there’s so few shots).