Universal Combat Review
developer: 3000AD Inc.
PIII 1000, 128MB RAM, 32MB Video card, 1GB HD
|ESRB rating: T
release date: Feb 07, 04 (released)
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Well it took them forever, but DreamCatcher and 3000AD finally unchained and launched their space saga Universal Combat, a game that's been in the works for several years. Formerly dubbed Battlecruiser Generations, this title actually comes as a fifth installment in the long-running Battlecruiser series. Throughout the game's lengthy development period, 3000AD kept promoting it as a major improvement over the last incarnation in the series. Guided by a controversial game designer named Derek Smart, 3000AD took up the task of expanding on what had been regarded by many as a rather promising premise for a sci-fi simulation. This time around, apart from giving it a visual overhaul, the developers vowed to incorporate certain unique features that would make it a pleasure for players to explore the vast universe, through open-ended game play mechanics previously instituted by Battlecruiser Millennium (the previous installment). The trouble with Battlecruiser Millennium is that it failed to measure up to the visual standards of its time, in addition to treating gamers to quite an unpleasant mixture of technical mishaps and sub-par AI routines. Regardless, we saw some potential in the whole concept - being able to venture in a practically infinite universe (not that it hasn't been done before, but it was still an admirable effort) and enjoying tons of races, ships, vehicles, and planets. Now, after a lot of what ifs, we finally got a chance to investigate this latest endeavor to see if the developers kept their end of the bargain.
If you refuse to bother with various settings (adjusting tons of parameters, choosing races, profiles, professions, and so on), you always have access to a variety of missions that send you straight into instant action. Being able to commence the game almost immediately can be construed as a good feature for the average gaming crowd. Unfortunately, the first real problem with this game ensues from the moment players begin their voyage through the galaxy. First of all, if you begin playing Universal Combat you should be prepared to face a rather steep learning curve, especially if this is your first Battlecruiser game. Many gamers are going to wish for a tutorial before they start playing through the main single-player campaign. To our great disappointment, there simply aren't any shortcuts to mastering this game right at the beginning. If you're eager about getting into the spirit of the gameplay, ready yourself for many, many long hours of extensive research on various parameters and options, simultaneously struggling with interface commands and the basic control system.
To make things worse, the substandard overall presentation is bound to dishearten many gamers right from the outset. Another aspect that truly enfeebles the whole undertaking is the lack of a decent and involving narrative. A well-conceived plot and a few character profiles here and there would surely have brightened up the game's recurrently dreary atmosphere.
Universal Combat allows you to try out several different modes of play: roam, instant action, the single-player campaign, and multiplayer. No matter which one you choose, it will take a lot of time to understand exactly what you're supposed to do. Fair enough, if we cast aside certain off-putting features and technical mishaps, it can actually be fun to explore the possibilities of space travel, trading, fleet control, naval combat, gunfights, dogfights, and so on. Instant action, the single-player campaign, and multiplayer, all proved to have a satisfying amount of facets. Throughout the campaign you'll go on over 25 missions, while 'instant action' offers you 25 unique scenarios. Every mission or scenario provided is a long and involving process, and challenging enough for any gamer.
If you're patient enough to go through the game's elaborate and exceptionally steep learning curve, you'll definitely be ready to enjoy the game's free-roaming career mode. Before you begin, you are welcome to choose a race, caste (class), and a ship for your avatar. After that, players may decide which profession they would like to advance in. Overall, the selection is impressive. You can be anything from an ambitious elite force pilot to a medical support marine. It's also important to think about the faction you elected to support, since some of them are not well-liked throughout the universe. The fact is that the game allows you to do many things including mining, trading, exploring, etc. Being a go-getting space explorer I initially decided to do nothing but wander across the galaxy in search of good fortune. It didn't take me too long to realize that this really doesn't suite my talents, so I started over, this time playing as a fleet commander. The first two or three hours of playing were extremely tedious and were spent in pointless rummaging around space waiting for something exciting to happen. The unrestricted gameplay might keep you occupied for weeks... and even then, you still won't be able to explore half of the star systems and planets. Land missions can be interesting, especially when you're put in charge of a strike team. The disappointing part is that you'll have to deal with enemies using a selection of somewhat unbalanced weaponry. Long-ranged weapons (those with the available zooming scope) are often useless against enemies, since you'll have a hard time hitting targets. Also, in the heat of battle, it takes too long to switch weapons... which proved really irritating at times. In spite of the game's hugeness and open-ended gameplay, it's still frustrating to deal with the various technical mishaps (more on that later on).
The interface gets overly convoluted in a few spots, making it more difficult for gamers to find things that are essential to the game. It took me quite a while to locate the universe map as well as some crucial commands, like the 'jump drive' option (which is at times really important if you want to move about quickly). Still, the manual is packed with info, patently listing all the commands and options available within the game. Even so, it takes way too long to get it all together in order to properly enjoy flight and real-time combat.
AI routines were clearly tweaked since the last game. There's no doubt that you'll experience some serious and challenging shootouts on ground missions as well as in space. On occasion though, I noticed that enemy movement patterns tend to get a bit simplistic, especially during certain missions in space. For example, at a certain point in the game, I managed to hunt down a small pirate spacecraft; I was right on her tail and I, naturally, expected some resistance. This wasn't the case. The ship just kept on going straight, refusing to engage in any evasive maneuvers. In the end, it was exceedingly simple to gun it down.
Huge universe, a of variety careers, planets, ships, vehicles, and weapons, tons of options, can be fun if you're willing to master all the commands and ignore all the technical issues;
Buggy, sluggish, clearly incomplete, nothing essentially new since the previous game, disappointing presentation, extremely high learning curve.