Genre : Action/Simulator
Developer: 3000AD Inc
Release Date: January 12, 2004
It’s a bad sign when a game is the subject of at least two lawsuits prior to its release, a dubious honor that Universal Combat holds. One of those lawsuits was regarding the price, where the publisher, Dreamcatcher, felt the game would do well as a budget title and priced it at $19.95. The developer, Derek Smart – himself no stranger to controversy regarding his games, sued Dreamcatcher because he felt the price was going to drive him out of business. If Derek is driven out of business the reason is going to be that the game isn’t even worth $20. The real crime, though, is that this could have been a decent game; instead it’s a $20 game that could result in hundreds of dollars in therapy bills.
Universal Combat is the latest in the Battlecruiser 3000 series, and has a grandiose vision being an epic game that brings the fight to land, sea, air and space.
The game suffers from two huge problems: an interface that is entirely too cumbersome and poor documentation that attempts to explain said interface. When I had heard Universal Combat had a “difficult” interface, I asked myself: just how hard can it really be? The answer, sadly, is pretty darn hard. Derek Smart apparently took a look at the standard key-mappings used in other sim/shooter games and found them wanting, since any similarities between the key commands you are used to and the commands in UC are purely coincidental. For starters, unlike traditional games, the ESC key is not the key you use to quit the game - that instead use the ALT-Q combination; this is the first game in many years I’ve had to read the manual just to figure out how to quit a game. Trying to play the game is even worse. To move your ship left and right you use the A-D keys, probably the only “normal” key-maps. To move your ship up and down you need to use the SHIFT-W and SHIFT-S keys, since the W and S keys are used for thrust. You can use a joystick for the space combat, although I had a hard time getting the thrust controls to map to the joystick. On the ground, it’s even worse where the Q and E keys are used for turning from left-right, and if you are in a ship the F and V change your altitude. You also can’t remap the key bindings that make more sense.
It would be a lot easier to deal with the controls if the manual and in-game tutorials explained them excellently. Unfortunately, the manual is poorly organized, riddled with acronyms, and lacks an index. It’s decent length, almost a 100 pages long, but doesn’t really explain anything. There is a cheat sheet for the key-commands that does an acceptable job at telling you how to do something; as long as you know what it is you are trying to do. There isn’t a tutorial, which this game sorely needs. Instead you are left to figure things out on your own, which is a harsh first look at what’s a fairly deep game. I’m not saying I want games to be easy to play with little challenge, but the challenges should lie in the game’s content, not the controls. An in-game tutorial that walked you through getting going would have benefited this game a GREAT deal.
Universal Combat has three game modes: career, roam and instant action. Career is the games campaign, a series of 25 missions strung together. Roam is where you have no set goals, but wander around the universe setting your own parameters, playing in the virtual sand-box they have provided. Instant action lets you choose from over a dozen scenarios, both on the ground and in space, where you are usually defending or attacking a base. You can play from 12 different races, and classes that range from battle cruiser commander to a marine.
Once you get in the game, be prepared for an information overload. In career mode, you are dropped into the thick of a battle without as much as a “howdy do”, leaving your first questions to be: what the heck am I supposed to do, and how do I do it? Within seconds, alarms klaxons will begin sounding alerts, you have no ideas what they are for, and more importantly, how to shut them off. After several hours with the manual and reloading the game, I was finally able to fly around and engage in dogfights. The early stages (which could last up to 20 hours before you get comfortable with the game) are a rough go given the interface. There are no pop-ups or menus, and blindly hitting keys to see what happens is counter-productive as most likely you’ll engage a ship system you had no idea even existed, much less what it does and how to get the ship back to normal.
Once you’ve got the hang of flying around and shooting down the enemy, it’s time for your next challenge: landing on a planet. To land your ship on a planet, you first press “N” to bring up the Navigation Info Display (NIDS), then use the “,” key to cycle the targets, and then finally press SHIFT-9 to jump. Those will allow you to enter the planet’s atmosphere, where you will again have to follow more non-intuitive steps to actually get it on the ground.
Once you are on the ground, piloting the ground vessels is like steering a wounded, pregnant elephant because the turning radius is much too wide even for the most nimble of craft, and the fast rate of speed means you will most likely overshoot your target anyway. As mentioned earlier, the planes use some weird physics model where they just use an up and down key to change altitude. That’s not a pitch control either – if you are flying at 1000 feet and hit “up”, your ship will go up to 2000 feet, all while remaining level. There’s no collision detection anywhere in the game either as I was able to fly through spacecraft, trees and ground vehicles.
In addition to a horrid interface and non-existent gameplay, the graphics are tepid and easily five years out of date. The spaceships lack any originality, the land and sea vehicles are ugly, and planets are represented as a giant Day-Glo blobs. The terrain on all the planets looks like the Siberian Desert - a barren, snowy wasteland populated by a smattering of trees. The buildings are uninspiring and standard sci-fi fare, and the only graphic elements remotely decent anywhere in the game are the space nebulas and the explosions; when you are finally able to coax the game into doing your bidding and successfully make things go "boom" you are rewarded with a decent particle effect. The sounds are likewise lackluster and easily eclipsed by any 1980's era arcade game.
There have been two patches since release, and I was unable to apply either of them. I downloaded the two incremental patches, but they both told me I needed to have the retail version which I of course had already installed. I then downloaded what appeared to be the comprehensive patch from the official site, but that one did nothing once I double-clicked on it. To be fair, the game didn’t crash once, so it looks fairly stable.
The box may say this is “the biggest combat simulator of all time”, but for me it was the biggest frustration simulator of all time. The only part of the game I felt was remotely enjoyable was the space combat, but I’d recommend getting Freelancer in the bargain bin instead. In fact, at first glance I figured this might be in the vein of Freelancer, given how many places there are to go -over 21,000 bases, enemy cities, star bases and planets. However, it will take the patience of Mother Theresa to unearth them, which apparently is something I lack, mainly due to being frustrated while trying to figure out the game. For me, this game is my new personal bottom-mark; every time I review a game that I feel just “doesn’t cut it”, the question I will ask myself is: was it worse than Universal Combat? If the answer is ever "yes", I'm going to go down to St. Brigit’s and light a candle for the gaming industry.
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