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Why X3: Albion Prelude is (still) the best space simulator on PC

It's a fantastic time to be a space sim gamer, because there are many solid options out there to pour hours of time into. However, one gem still holds a dear place in my heart and demands attention to this very day: X3 by Egosoft. After a thousand hours spent in space, managing my own empire, taking out extra-terrestrial threats and being a pirate, I'm going to share why X3 is my all-time favorite space simulator.

X3: Classic space

X3 Albion Prelude

X3 rolled out in 2005 as the sequel to X2. Titled "Reunion," Egosoft introduced enhanced graphics and other gameplay elements, which were then further advanced with the follow-up release of Terran Conflict (TC) in 2008. This is the first of the two big games, the second being the Albion Prelude (AP) expansion that hit in 2011. TC and AP combined (opens in new tab) added loads more ships, stations, and other features to peak the X series.

X3 AP (with TC underneath) allows you to do pretty much whatever you want. There's a storyline you can choose to follow, but as soon as you're loaded into space, there are so many opportunities just calling out to you. Initially, the learning curve of X3 is a steep journey to traverse along, and this isn't helped by the UI, but once familiarized with keyboard shortcuts and more, you'll be firing through menus.

You have gained recognition.

Starting off, you have the choice of several profiles. These don't really do much but dictate what ship(s) you start with, as well as cash and other minor factors. It's down to you whether you wish to peruse justice, set up an economic empire, wage war against all factions, manipulate the stock markets, command capital ships, or simply haul cargo to and from to make some credits. Come across an asteroid to scan and think it would be cool to set up a mining outpost? You can do just that.

Seriously, you can even command entire fleets of ships. It's all possible in X3 AP. It's an interesting mix of 4X, but in real-time, with first- and third-person cameras. The only downside to this game is the time investment; you'll need to find hours of free time in a day to make progress.

X3: Immersion

X3 Albion Prelude

To be a solid and immersive space simulator, you need amazing graphics, top quality scores, and excellent, realistic gameplay. You should be able to park up somewhere in space and just watch the AI handle day-to-day business. Thankfully, you can tick all these boxes in X3 AP, even in 2017. Yes, we're not talking similar levels of quality to Elite: Dangerous and Star Citizen, but for a game that's essentially nine years-old, it looks really good.

There are numerous varieties of ships you can pilot, and you'll be buying and selling many of them throughout each playthrough. Models look good, as well as the stations and systems in general. Some will be vast spaces of absolutely nothing (looking at you Terran), while others will be cloudy nebulas. Moving through each sector makes for an interesting space-trip.

For music, well ... just give this a quick listen:

The score in the above video is Kingdom End, a track in X3: Albion Prelude. This is what you can expect from the soundtrack while drifting around in space. Sure, space shouldn't technically have sound effects from weapons and explosions, but it would be a boring experience if the developer adhered to this. Weapons sound different, depending on what you currently have in the loadout, and when you're done shooting at a foe, the explosions are satisfying.

And this is good news since you'll do a lot of shooting. But it's not all about combat. You'll have the ability to develop (or harm) relations with the various factions, not to mention dock at nearly all stations dotted around each sector (depending on how they view you), where you'll be able to purchase or sell wares. Travel between sectors is handled by jump gates, which you'll need to discover since all sectors are unmapped — aside from the one you spawn in.

X3: Expansive modding

X3 Albion Prelude

After you've injected hundreds (if not thousands) of hours into the base game, Albion Prelude has full mod support. This means you can add new ships, features and make some core game mechanic alterations with awesome free content supported by the community. I usually roll with only a select few installed, mainly to affect the HUD, and a few other minor features.

The main mod I rely on is a game changer (quite literally) called Litcube's Universe. This mod is huge. It has a total of seven years of development history. It mainly targets late game when you may hit a wall where there's little else to do after you've amassed an armada of ships and have serious cash flow, but it does make serious changes throughout. Here's a list of highlights:

  • A new competitor corporation called The Phanon Corporation.
  • Omicron Channel Virus that seeks to destroy everything.
  • Major balancing of ships and weapons.
  • New system to handle collisions.
  • Carrier Command Software rework.
  • Complex Management (for huge stations).
  • Support for displaying content on external hardware (keyboards).
  • Automated stock management for weapons and wares.
  • Dynamic menu system.
  • Emergency jump rework.
  • Encyclopedia updated with more useful information.
  • Automated scouting (that can auto-drop satellites).
  • Ability to export and import empires or saves.
  • Loot dropped from kills (increased with flight rank).
  • UI improvements (several UIs are available to choose from).
  • More hotkeys!
  • Ability to train combat marines.
  • Military Logistics Command Center to better organize fleets.
  • Chaffs for missile protection.
  • Revamped mining gameplay (with the ability to move asteroids).
  • Improved music support (with 42 combat tracks).
  • New ship and station models.
  • Better pathfinding (avoiding hostile sectors, for example).
  • Performance enhancements.
  • Jump points for jumping to specific areas in a sector.
  • More than 200 script commands.
  • Built-in database for comparing ships.
  • Revamped stock exchanges.
  • Ship templates for creating fleets easier.
  • Ability to search products everywhere to find best prices.
  • New ship bail feature.
  • New Universal Traders.
  • Loads of vanilla game bug fixes.

As I said, it's a huge mod, but since the two new opposing forces are rather aggressive it is recommended you play through the base game of Albnion Prelude first to get used to controls and gameplay.

Used to taking on the Universe with an M7? It's not enough anymore.

The Phanon Corporation is an interesting mechanic. This entity is essentially a company that expands as you progress through time. Imagine having another player in the game who is required to build up an empire and attempt to take over everything. They are far more aggressive than other factions, like Duke's. And the Omicron Channel Virus is a great opponent for more advanced fleets.

X3 Albion Prelude

Should you be a fan of Freelancer, Star Citizen, No Man's Sky, Galactic Civilizations, Sins of a Solar Empire, and other popular space games, you'll want to check out X3. Better still, because these titles are old, you'll be able to pick them up at a fraction of the cost. The Terran War Pack, which includes both X3: Terran Conflict and the Albion Prelude expansion, is available for about $19.99.

Rich Edmonds
Rich Edmonds

Rich Edmonds is Senior Editor of PC hardware at Windows Central, covering everything related to PC components and NAS. He's been involved in technology for more than a decade and knows a thing or two about the magic inside a PC chassis. You can follow him over on Twitter at @RichEdmonds.

9 Comments
  • Call me when it is in the Windows Store.
  • I disagree.  Elite Dangerous: Horizons is easily the best.  THAT is immersive.
  • Freelancer has always been a favorite of mine. I enjoyed the campaign and also being able to go and do what ever I wanted. It is definitely dated though. I also play Elite: Dangerous from time to time and it checks all the boxes for an open world space sim for me. It's certainly not for everyone though, especially if you need guidance on what to do since there is no campaign to speak of. You really have to chart your own course through the galaxy, figuratively and literally. You can get involved with the Federal/Imperial war and community goals as much as you want, but even if you don't they'll continue to progress without you. So there is some story there, but nothing to really provide guidance or a continous quest line/campaign. The only real advancement and progression in the game is ranks and reputation with the various factions and just amasing money to buy bigger ships and better equipment. X3:AP looks like it might be something in between and a worthwile purchase. I don't know why I'd never heard of it before now.
  • That's my point.  There's not a campaign.  It is immersive in the truest sense of the word right now.  Now, with the 2.4 update coming out, there WILL be somewhat of a campaign, since the Thargoid threat is being re-introduced.  But even that will be interacted with much as we do in real life---there are random things that happen, things that we may NOT even encounter at all depending on how WE act.  
  • Sorry that music sucks....my fav will ALWAYS be Homeworld, and Homeworld remastered was epic....if you guys don't think so, go look it up....it is truly awesome....I don't know what this wierd x3 is....maybe I'll try it, but homeworld is always will be amazing to me.
  • I've always enjoyed x3. Now the maker offs free Lance is creating a new game. It looks interesting. The name just flipped my mind.
  • Freespace 1 and 2 will always be my favorite space games, and Elite Dangerous has been a recent fun.  I've had the X3 games in my steam library for years and never got around to playing them, might need to change that soon.
  • I LOVED the Freespace games.  They were fantastic.
  • I thought I was the only one who loves the X games. I just never had quite enough time, and when I did have some I found the only problem was the AI being a little... flat. Multiplayer X3 would be magical, if it doesn't present insurmountable logistical issues. Better AI would make all the difference. The sandbox potential of this game is unlike anything I've seen. It does look great and I quite enjoy the fact fast you have to work quite hard to make small progress until you have a fleet. There are hardcore players who have written stories inspired by "dead is dead" play philosophy. That's what made me realise how I'd been ruining my gaming experience for years by loading save games. Try this one and take every mistake on the chin. Quite a different experience if you can't just reload and try again!