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In X3-TC and X3-AP, assisted aiming was something that you had to purchase (via ship software), activate in the UI, get the target's vector cue into the main reticle and then trigger using the left control key.

In X-Rebirth, there is an "aim assist" option in the configuration menu but it's not clear when it's working (partially because the early weapons are pretty quick so their offset isn't obvious).

Does assisted aiming only happen when I use the left control key? Do I still have to aim pretty close to the target's vector? Or is it just a magic increase in hit probability?

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Aim assist is toggled on by default. It can be changed in Game settings.

Mechanic is same, you press Ctrl key, weapon fire with correction to enemy in main reticle.

Aim assist to not increase hit probability, it just adjust targeting. With slow projectile weapon against fast targets you still miss.

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It's automatic. The laser will aim at the sweet spot. You don't need to buy anything; it's default in the ship.

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