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Home bullet Games bullet Universal Failure

Universal Failure by Skonar Written on 3rd February 2006

The box is pretty. Really. It's got a rather clever image of four battle conditions, land, air, sea, and space, arrayed around a flashy 'Land, Air, Sea, Space' crest. It's also got 'The biggest combat simulator of all time' written on it, and on the back it makes claims to having 21,000 areas of interest, virtually limitless gameplay, a fantastic multiplayer mode, the ability to play as a marine, ship commander with a full crew, or a pilot in the latest starfighter.

This all sounds really, really great.

It's a concept that we, as gamers, have been begging for for years. It's a concept, as Derek Smart (lead designer, lead programmer, company head, last of the great indie game developers and Ph.D,) always seems quick to point out, that he mastered back in the late nineties.

He is the last salvation of gamers everywhere, quick to point out flaws and promote his own fantastic way of doing things. I can't say enough about the greatness of this man, (such as the Ph.D he uses in much of his game material originating from a diploma mill, his obsession with engaging in flame wars, and his general good nature,) so I shall instead extoll the greatness of one of his recent offerings, Universal Combat, the precursor to the more recent Universal Combat : A world apart.

Amazingly enough, playing the demo of 'A world apart' for about two hours, the sequel which is touted as having much improved technology, the only differences I noticed were the existence of trees on planets and a flashy 'wormhole' effect when you jump your ship across the galaxy in an eyeblink. Or in the case of this game, about fifteen minutes in which you can no longer do anything. At all.

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Yup. Amazing. This is the exact view you'll have about 90% of the game.
The realism in this game is absolutely amazing; if you get past the obvious stuff like thirteen highly detailed alien races, (which I can't find any information on while playing the game and have to turn to some rather poorly written 'extra' documentation,) fabulous spaceships such as carrier cruisers with guns that dogfight through space. Amongst these realistic features are a complete lack of any 'time compression' feature, (at least, one I could find,) and the requirement of years of training to play.

To give you an idea of the fantastic capabilities of this game, let me describe to you my early playing experiences. I booted up, read the manual while the game was installing, and eagerly began searching for the tutorial on how to be a commander of your very own battlecruiser, as promised in the manual beside other grand claims of excitement and adventure. (I did eventually find this, but as far as I can tell it wasn't with the release version.)

Dejected, I just hit 'roam', entering the massive living galaxy this series is famed for, and decided to play as a human mercenary. 'Space Marine' sounded pretty good, so I soon found myself in space, in the cockpit of a fancy new shuttle. As for being a mercenary, I guess that means getting to start off without any clue of what the hell is going on.

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Check out this awesome battlecruiser! Unfortunately I can do, basically, screw-all on this screen. And many others like it.
I consulted the manual, and found a reassuring message from Mr. Smart and the design team! (Actually, I lie. Just Mr. Smart. Who, in the manual's credits, is listed as 'Designer, Producer, Project Manager, Lead Developer, Chief Technology Officer, Core Development, Kernel AI, Scenario Scripting, Program Manuals, QA.' I sure wish he worked at 'QA' a little harder.)

Lost in space, the words that consoled me were as follows. 'Playing a campaign scenario is simply a matter of following orders and using your imagination with regards to how the mission is actually carried out.'

Ahh, clearly I was a little lost because I was playing the game as the hype and advertising implored me to! I should play a campaign scenario instead. Why? I read on.

'A lot of gamers used to the hand-holding prevalent in other games, may find this method of approach, intimidating.'

Apparently the one job Mr. Smart- Oh, sorry, I meant Dr. Smart - failed to take upon himself was proofreading.

'While the allows you to do what you want and when you want, (within the scope of the game's premise), if you read your mission orders carefully and use your imagination, you'd be amazed at just how intriguing this method of gaming is.'

Unimpressed but fortified by these strong words of encouragement for gamers like me, who are clearly not used to the hand-holding prevalent in those OTHER games, I set off to discover just how to play this game.

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Check out these incredibly well designed controls! Unfortunately there isn't one for a very common game action, launching star-fighters.
The tutorial is a loving thing, prepared by Derek Smart between industry interviews in which he continues to foster his 'bad boy' image and typing up his latest and greatest flame against anyone who didn't like the latest version of the same game he's been peddling for years. It comes, free of charge, as part of the 2.00.30 patch. It's a sixty-nine page document interspersed with what one fan called 'witty humour'. Universal Combat takes a bloody age to reload after an alt-tab on my system, and as such the only thing I could do was to get this document printed.

It's jam-packed with absolutely no wasted space and such valuable advice as:

'While the game is loading, now would be a really good time to close and lock the door, lock the pet out, chain the kids to the sprinkler outside, give your significant other a blank check or better yet, the credit card and car keys, take the phone of the hook, then...oh, sorry. Got carried away there. Is it finished loading yet? No? OK, well, continue reading for a bit and when it's loaded, come back to graphic below.'

I felt the money I spent getting it printed at the local copier shop was well spent.

I followed his instructions rabidly, playing along in a tutorial scenario, quitting and saving multiple times, as Derek neglected to think that people might want to save their game without quitting.

The first few tasks were simple enough, and were rendered into a mind-boggling clarity by Derek's kindly advice berating me for being unable to remember the thirty or so not entirely logical abbreviations for the various on-screen maps and similar. (Fair enough, if you mouse over some of them, it tells you the name.)

I then had to wait about twenty minutes for various hyper jumps through the system to complete, because I misjumped the first time. Not wanting to get this tutorial wrong, I stayed put in the face of pressing needs, as Derek smart advised, developing a rather severe ache in my nether regions until I remembered the single shred of useful information to a man in my situation - how to pause the game in the terrifying event that something should happen.

And then it arrived, my first taste of combat! A disabled craft in the middle of nowhere! Derek introduces this in fabulous style, by informing you how to shoot at empty space, and advising you to do so. Aware that this is an important skill I will use all the time, I agreed wholeheartedly and ejaculated gunfire into the stars. A rather spiritual moment, one that no other game has ever come close to repeating for me.

He then advised shooting at the disabled craft, but only a little, since we are not to destroy the target outright, or we shall have to restart the tutorial entirely. Not realizing that the gunfire, supposedly lasers, takes about five seconds to travel the three kilometres to my target, something his wonderful documentation omitted to inform me of, I peppered the target until something happened. Releasing the fire key, I smiled as rather badly rendered blue flashes indicated hits on the enemy ship's shields. And it promptly exploded into smithereens, all for the want of the man telling you to gently tap the fire button once.

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Another hyped feature, being able to watch your crew move around your ship, basically boils down to this. And again, there's nothing you can actually do on this screen.
Things continued in much this manner for quite some time, following Derek Smart's fantastic advice until about halfway through, when I finally decided to 'rough it' and go on my own to play this marvel of game design, manual in hand, key chart at the ready, and only a vague idea of what was going on.

Unfortunately, this game's gameplay dynamic, involving marvellous interactions with the rest of the world, is not exactly clear. Perhaps foggy, or even largely opaque. There are starbases and starships all around you, but you cannot talk to any of them. You can dock at a few, trade parts and spares in the best 'Elite' tradition, land on planets, fly around, and have a grand old time.

After spending three or four hours trying to puzzle out this game, what this all amounted to in my case was trying to land on a planet, and rather crashing into the ocean because I was looking around one of the control panels at the time during the fifteen minute wait to transfer from high orbit to the surface. There was no warning, no 'pull up', not even a merry 'Something is still going on in the game world'.

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You really can do almost anything in this game, but only if you manage to find the correct option out of hundreds.
No, merely a collosal crash, destroying half my ship's systems and rendering it incapable of taking off.

Of course you don't have to have a spaceship in this game. You can go around on foot. Trying this out I had the genuine pleasure of being able to walk around my crashed craft, even jumping up onto it and getting a feel for the massive scale of the thing. I was amazed to see not a single scratch marring its poorly textured surface. After searching around the manual, I even found a key-press to call for help. However, I was far beyond help.

The game's graphics are, frankly, lacking. Particularly in comparison to much older games. The game's music is, actually, rather good. The voices, few and far between, are badly meshed together to produce such eloquent sentences as 'Left Engine... is... damaged.' Perhaps Smart was trying to emulate Kirk.

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The most powerful screen in the game, and probably the least comprehensible.
The control system, as I've tried to explain, is about as user-friendly as smashing a brick repeatedly onto your own fingers until rendering them into a fine paste. It is often claimed by Smart that the interface is merely something that takes 'getting used to' and 'learning'. While the portions I did manage to learn were rather useful, the fact of the matter remains that the lack of any in game tutorial system renders this a gargantuan task worthy of hercules.

As for the desire to command massive ships and fleets, this is much better done by the far more user friendly Nexus : The Jupiter incident. (And, frankly, in much more relevant detail.) Other war in space games which are much better include the fantastic I-War series, Homeworld, or Pete Sampras Pro Golf 2007: The Shuttlecock's Flying Now.

Derek Smart, a man whose myriad exploits have been well documented, (just type his name into any search engine,) has made a promise to us gamers with his games. Perhaps this is the worst cruelty of all.

He has offered us a nirvana. And behind the clunky interface, shoddy graphics, and painful learning cycle, there is a glimmer of something truly great. Something every one of us has been dreaming of since we first saw Star Trek, or watched capital ships dispersing starfighters in Star Wars. It's just not something most of us can reach.

There is a legion of rabid fanboys ready to extoll every minimal virtue of these products, and perhaps the game works for you and you will join the stalwart defenders of Derek Smart. However, he just hasn't provided the rest of us with a playable game. I will, no doubt, be picking this game up again, and trying to understand its unnecessary quirks and insane interface. Frankly, though, I feel I may have wasted the ten quid or so I spent on fishing this piece of trash out of the bargain bins... except that I have prevented some other poor gamer from buying it themselves.

Click to enlarge
There's a command for everything in this game, if you can find it. Except 'put handgun to head'.
So, if you're tempted, don't bother spending money. Don't bother encouraging publishers to pick up this man's leavings, though I hear rumours that he will cease trying to publish in favour of selling online. Go buy something else, practically anything else. However, for the brave, foolish, and curious, there is another option. Smart releases all of his games to the public when they have passed their shelf life, after a year or two, and they can be downloaded from www.3000ad.com. Somewhere. If you can find a bloody link which works. Most of these are similar to a point of madness to the previous releases. For additional fun, read Smart's reactions to negative opinions on his forums.

So give Universal Combat a try, and see for yourself why Derek Smart is the best game designer EVAR!


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