Whether you’ve heard of him or not, Derek Smart has consistently been a very hot subject to gamers at large, causing more than his fair share of controversy attempting to defend his games on forums or newsgroups, often leading to flame wars. But is Universal Combat condemnable just because its designer is regarded by some to be a man of questionable character? No - sadly it has plenty of other reasons to justify its poor reviews.
When you start Universal Combat you’re presented with a fairly cool looking menu, consisting of buttons to roam, start a campaign, or begin instant action. Of course, I didn’t want to go in half cocked and miss out on the best of the experience, so I checked out the options menu before I did anything.
Sadly, I was really only given two sub menus within the options menu, system, and keys, and while the system menu had all the options I’d expect from any game released these days, the keys menu did not, and also was lacking any sort of extensive configuration, limiting me instead by allowing only the reconfiguration of certain core keys all relating to combat. This is simply unacceptable in any modern game, and is made especially worse when you consider the vast amount of keys Universal Combat requires you to remember. Even if re-mapping was not allowed at least they should have shipped with a simulation style “key card,” but, as I said, neither were present.
Having finished configuration, I immediately booted up one of the 15 Instant Action missions and, also immediately, found myself confused as to my exact objectives, and the controls which governed the actions of my ship. Sure, I had a HUD, but it was covered with more acronyms than I’ve ever seen in my life, and I did not even have a remote clue as to their functions or meaning. So once again I turned to the options menu, and being unable to find anything there, I consulted the manual.
Thankfully, the manual included most of what I needed, and I was soon able to begin my exciting space piloting career, which apparently consists of little action, even in the instant action mode, and consulting your ships manual ever three seconds so you can understand the acronyms your crew has invented for everything.
Once you get beyond the gigantic learning curve though, the space portion of the game can actually be pretty fun, and leaves you feeling a lot like you’re actually the captain of a starship. In fact, the whole thing is a bit Star Trekesque, and if this is what you’re looking for in a game, you may have just found your title.
Unfortunately, the 3000AD team included a hell of a lot more than space flight in Universal Combat, and I believe in doing so, severely hurt the game. Sure, you can make planet fall, and you can fight on the air, land, sea or in space. But besides a few rarely seen good moments in the aforementioned 3, most of what you find on planet is horrible.
The air-air dog fighting for example, nearly always becomes a turning fight, or a head to head pass fest, and rarely ends up being any more strategic than Diablo. The first person shooter aspect of it, or the Marine Combat, is laughable, and would be so even compared to games released five years prior. As would the naval combat, which I think is entirely unnecessary considering that the future world of Universal Combat already has advanced space flight, and since ship to ship combat was not included, there is little point.
Once you get past playing around in Instant action, and if you feel you’ve learned enough, you can try your hand at tackling the campaign, which features 25 varied missions. Or, you can try your hand at the free roaming “Sandbox” mode, which is really one of the better parts about the game.
Of course you’ll be able to name your character and ship, developing a fairly intricate persona for your space career, but you’ll hardly ever find any real depth in the game, which is, quite frankly, sad, mainly because Universal Combat is really the only one of its kind anywhere. (Save perhaps Eve Online, but that’s more of Capitalism Simulation than a Space Simulation)
Bad, mixed with intermittent strings of “just ok,” is an apt description of the graphical content Universal Combat has to offer, and while this is really not a huge deal considering all the options afforded to the player, it can prove to be very annoying, especially in the Marine Combat or Air-Air combat environments.
To start, the ground is, in some areas, completely flat, with no deviation in altitude, at all, for miles in any direction. The textures are bland, and appear to be incredibly low resolution, especially on planet and when viewing the planet from space. I’m not asking for satellite quality terrain here, but I’d be nice if they even made an attempt to make it look decent; instead, some planets are just floating blue balls, while others are floating balls of a different color, and all are poorly textured floating balls of some type.
3000AD also almost completely ignores lighting and shadowing upon space objects, especially the light corona effect, which is my personal favorite of all light effects. Significant shadowing upon ships and upon planets is missing as well, which leaves many off ship experiences feeling like they were conducted in a gigantic florescent light.
And for a game so complex, I’d expect a little astrophysics to be involved, perhaps going so far as to model the light Doppler effect, or at least solar flares on stars, but sadly, none of these were present. Perhaps I’m just spoiled, but when a game’s claim to fame is a realistic and complex system depicting space flight, I’m expecting a realistic and complex environment to match.
Aside from the texturing and modeling, the animations are also quite horrible, leaving virtually the entire graphical line up to be a series of uninteresting, incorrect, or unappealing things. The best you can really expect out of Universal Combat visually would be the particle system, which is no more exciting than a fountain plug-in for Winamp.
The sound is bland, but really, a space simulation doesn’t allow for awesome pounding firearms and exploding buildings in 5.1 Stereo. However, the VOX systems can be annoying as hell, and the various warnings or commands around the ship can be either dreadful, or intensely uncharacteristic of their function. For example, in modern day ships and aircraft, when you launch a missile, you know you launched a missile; you have tones, buzzers, radar lights and all sorts of beeping or buzzing sounds that alert you to that fact. In Universal Combat however, you have a single monotone voice stating only, “Missile Launched,” which repeats each and every single time you launch a missile. Just launched 20 missiles, to bad, you’re going to be listening to “Missile Launched,” for an hour.
The missile launch warning is not the only strange VOX sound sadly, and such VOX sounds are really the only reason Universal Combat received such a low score in the sound category. The rest, for the most part is ok, and, like the music at some points, can actually be good. But no amnesty will be awarded just because the sound, or the game for that matter can be, occasionally, tolerable.
Universal Combat is a budget game, but it had an intense amount of hype surrounding it and I honestly expected it to be a lot better than it was. Perhaps this is due to Derek Smart’s fabled inability to compromise despite the fact he’s continued to release games of this type and continued to get similar reviews. Or perhaps it was due to the immense undertaking the developers took on with such a concept, simply working themselves over the breaking point with the inclusion of land, sea, air, and space combat (which Derek said was a requirement given by Dreamcatcher along with the rebranding into “Universal Combat” title from the “Battlecruiser” series). But whatever the case, Universal Combat remains really the only game of it’s kind, and sadly, if no other developer takes this genera seriously, Universal Combat is the best we’ve to hope for.