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.