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Space is big. Really, really, really, really, really big. Huge even. If you stood on an infinitely long beach, holding an infinitely large handful of sand, I still couldn’t come up with a salient metaphor to explain how gigantic space is. Due to its immense size compared to anything else in existence, the law of averages dictates that space must appear as the setting in a number of videogames. Everything from Mass Effect to Knights of the Old Republic (and even some games made by companies other than BioWare) often use the infinite starscape as a backdrop.

What few of these games accomplish however, is a gameplay system that offers depth enough to match the inscrutably vast setting. Those that do — Elite and Freelancer come to mind — are hailed as true classics of the genre.

Egosoft’s X series is something of an also-ran (or for those rabid fans, “the little series that could.”) Each of the entries in the series has promised the immense scope and endless replayability of games like Elite, and while every one has so far exhibited some flaw that keeps them from being truly outstanding, Egosoft has exhibited a keen instinct for recognizing and fixing its flaws. Version 2.0 of PC title X3: The Terran Conflict still falls just short of being a classic, but certainly ranks as the best, most polished X title so far.

The immeasurably long backstory of the X universe is, well, immeasurable, so don’t expect me to relay the entire thing in this review. All you need to know is that space is full of diverse, interesting, often-violent races, and in the future humanity drives really shiny spaceships. Though the game is full of hundreds of different objectives, the entirety of the gameplay centers around flying these shiny spaceships, buying and selling shiny spaceships, using said shiny spaceships to transport resources, and shooting other shiny spaceships.

Seems simple enough, but when those basic principles are then filtered through diverse missions and years’ worth of universe development, the actual game rivals most roleplaying games for length — and that’s assuming that you’re a prodigy with X‘s nebulous control scheme.

First and foremost, let me say this for the latest versions of X3: The controls here are as simple and streamlined as the series has ever seen. Second and somewhat less foremost however, I have to stress that calling X3‘s controls “simple and streamlined” is like saying Hitler misunderstood Nietzsche; While it’s a relatively true statement, its such a huge understatement as to render the claim nearly moot.

To wit, a story from my own experience: On first firing the game up I was sitting adrift in space. I wiggled the mouse a bit and realized that only spun my view around. Figuring nothing good would come of endlessly staring into space, even from new and interesting angles, I set out to learn how to do something, anything else. I tried the usual suspects: The “Enter” key, the “Spacebar” — I even accidentally hit the “Tilde” — but none of these would move me an inch. After 20 minutes of clicking and reclicking, I finally discovered a method of locomotion, buried under the third layer of a menu system that was only partially helpfully labeled.

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I could have saved myself a lot of time by reading through the game’s manual, but after so many years playing videogames I’d like to think I’d have a bit of intuition on the bare basics of the medium. I won’t decry a game for complexity, but in X3‘s case, the controls alone are a huge stumbling block for anyone unfamiliar with the series.

In that same vein, the user interface in X3 is also almost entirely inscrutable. You do eventually learn what all of the hundreds of glowing words and abbreviations mean, but for the first few hours of gameplay, you’ll most likely be baffled by why your monitor is spitting out images akin to a NYSE stock ticker on acid.

I am docking a point for this bit of complexity as it’s simply not necessary. Most of the information imparted by the UI could have been hidden inside menus, if only to keep the screen less cluttered, and it really feels like the developers left it all out there just to make things seem more “futuristic.”

Now, if you’re one of the hardcore space simulation fans who can overlook such complexities, this latest version of X3 offers a ton of new content not found in the original release of the game. Key to the new content are the Aldrin Missions. There’s no good way to describe the missions themselves without dropping tons of plot spoilers, but I will say that they comprise enough fresh content to justify an entirely new release. Fans who already know what they’re getting into will definitely appreciate the additional missions, space stations and ships.

Still, I can’t rightly recommend this game to everyone. If you’ve loved X games in the past, or the idea of a minimum two hour learning curve doesn’t turn you off, X3: The Terran Conflict Version 2.0 offers a gorgeous, fleshed-out virtual universe for you to spend months of your life in. If, however, anything more complex than StarCraft makes your brain hurt, this is most definitely not the game for you.

Bottom Line: X3: The Terran Conflict 2.0 is a lot like reading Nietzsche. There’s some excellent content there, but it’s all covered in a thick layer of needless complexity and pretension.

Recommendation: Only the most hardcore space simulation fans and masochistic gamers will survive the learning curve in this one. For everyone else there are less taxing pastimes, like simplifying the U.S. tax code or inventing cold fusion.

Earnest Cavalli traded in his intergalactic freighter for a two-bedroom condo in Seattle and an HDTV.

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