There's a brand of game that is often overlooked, and to be brutally honest there haven't been many of these games around recently. It seemed back in the day that you couldn't move, walk or talk without hearing about a slew of space sims and trading-style games but none of them quite got near the simple pleasure of Elite and even to this day - not many games come close.
Elite was /the/ space sim and only X2: The Threat after quite a few patches, ever got close enough to give me my fix. I have however recently been playing Universal Combat: A World Apart and this is one game that actually surprised me quite a lot.
I warn you now however you'll need a lot of patience to get the best out of it - so if you're an action/thrill/FPS/Instant adrenaline junkie - best to stop reading this review and find something else to do. Also, if you don't like 3000AD or Derek Smart I don't want to hear it, there are plenty of other sites out there to haunt. This is a review about the game, not the man.
A World Apart
There's a certain group of gamers out there, rather like me, that don't mind if the game they're playing isn't up there with the latest HOO-HAH release of EYE-POPPING graphics and special effects (usually with lack-lustre gameplay and extremely short as is the trend of our industry these days). As long as the game is playable and they enjoy it - they could care less if it boasts billions of terraflopmegatripixelations.
These are the gamers that will like UC: AWA - I happen to fall into that rare breed and I love nothing more than huge amounts of controls, buttons and systems to look after. I adore flight sims and space sims with that kind of depth. I adored the Jane's Combat Sims and the Falcon series.
What UC: AWA is
To miss-coin a phrase from a recent successful movie, no one can tell you what UC: AWA is: you have to experience it for yourself. I can only really give you the bare-bones from my experiences with the game so far, since I have spent a fair amount of time playing it.
UC: AWA is a huge game in the mould of the glory days of Elite. It is a game that actually sets out to do what it says on the box, a game that makes no pretence about what it offers and delivers everything that Derek Smart and his team said it would. You can play this game how you want to, as part of the Military or as an Independent faction, with a huge choice of ships and a variety of characters.
But for people like me there's only one way to play, as a Commander of a massive warship (of which there are quite a selection). This is where you're going to either love or hate the game, because you have complete control over the ship/functions/systems and crew management.
You can assign fighter squads, security staff and manage every kind of system you can think of that might be on a massive battleship of the future. All of this is done through a number of screens, which might seem complicated at first but like anything - practise makes perfect.
Don't kid yourself in thinking you can leap into the cockpit of an F-14 Tomcat and fly away to the tune of: Highway to the Danger Zone. The chances of a regular joe like me or most of you being able to cope with the bewildering array of controls, buttons and complex avionics are a million to one and only really happens in movies.
Likewise - you can't just jump into the bridge of a Battlecruiser and expect to get the hang of it straight away. You're going to need to read the manual from cover to cover to fully understand every system and how each one is simulated. Sure you can blast away in any number of Instant Action scenarios or take a spin in the ROAM campaigns, but you're going to be scratching your head as to why Insurgents have boarded your ship and are systematically blowing up your key locations.
How do you assign Security to hunt these fellows down, how do you make Planetfall and how on earth do you fly this thing? It took me quite a while to get used to it, but when I did I had a lot of fun just trying out the various options - and this is the key here - fun. If you want to use your warship as a trader, you can. If you want to explore the massive Elite-style Universe, you can. Your own limit is your own imagination, there are random encounters, attacks and people in Derek's Universe go and do their own thing.
You can jump into a sector and witness the Insurgents or any other faction battling it out, you can join in or you can steer clear. The gameplay for me is spot on, letting me do my own thing but not allowing me to become bored since there's so much I was allowed to do. Make some money, buy massive weapons and sit in orbit while you send down a nuke to a non-friendly base.
You can fly any of your fighters, any of your support craft and any of your vehicles - it's all yours to command/control/play with. In essence it's a big-kids playground/toybox and the Universe is yours to poke/prod/tickle as much as you like. It is nice to see that the control system has been improved from Universal Combat.
For example, once you learn how to use the transporter - you can send down an away team to a planet to explore. Don't like transporters, then load up an ATV into the back of a Shuttle, load the ATV with men and fly it down yourself. If you don't want to fly it yourself then send it there with a pilot.
You can give orders to any of your outbound units, fighters, support craft and if you have enough rank you can even control a whole fleet of ships.
There's a FP view and there are 3d worlds, with foliage and other elements. I have heard people say they are too barren, but frankly I don't care (They don't seem all that barren to me either). I mean if you were to give each world that's out there, the same detail as you might get on a game like Quake 4 and the same level of graphic shiny-effects as Half-Life 2 then you'd require a computer that Douglas Adams would have been proud of.
There's a difference with mapping/modelling and creating a Universe and making it live/breathe/react - than making a lot of pretty space sectors and filling it with an abundance of stations/ships. In UC: AWA I can pick a planet and do what I could do in Elite: Frontier and Frontier: First Encounters, landing on it and exploring the surface.
Not content with just offering you a Singleplayer sandbox and campaigns, 3000AD has put a robust MP element into the game and proven it can be done. You can either take on your friends/enemies on the servers or you can opt to run a coop ROAM style scenario and join your friends in exploring and fending off various threats.
So to sum it up, here's a checklist of the things that you can do in UC: AWA.
* Control any number of ships.
* Do your own thing.
* Play with friends.
* Run around planets/explore.
* Exit your ship in space and explore.
* Manage every element of running a giant warship.
* Control large scale battles.
* Singleplayer campaigns.
* Freeroaming campaigns.
* Play the game how you want to.
You can't go for a wander around your ship, or stations and so on (But knowing 3000AD it won't be long before that happens) and the various management screens are in 2d, but that doesn't hurt the game - at least the option to actually manage these systems is included. Everything that 3000AD set out to do and promised has been implemented and in this day and age, of hype and tripe - there are games out there with bigger budgets and flashier graphics that have given us eye-candy and very little else.
There are even a few tools that allow you to make your own missions, edit things included with the game - this is how committed 3000AD are to making the game your own.
These are not show-stopping, ground-breaking, all-singing and all-dancing graphics. They're not the latest and greatest in a long line of technological breakthroughs and dazzling eye-candy special effects.
They are good looking though and robust, they work to create the world that 3000AD wants you to have fun in. There are some nice space effects, the planets look pretty good and the textures on the ships and stations are fairly well detailed. The nice thing about it is that you don't have to have a computer souped up to the nines, to enjoy it.
There are some nice special effects overall and in the case of this game it is actually the gameplay that's King (Which should be the case for all games). You can get some pretty cool atmospheric external views as you're exploring deep space and other planets.
For more screens: check out our screenshot page.
UC: AWA is well animated, it shows a progression of talents from the developer and has some very good animations overall. There's nothing more I can say about that, the extra level of animation brings things alive and certainly helps to immerse you in the Universe.
I should really have said Universe design here rather than levels, you can expect some nicely decorated planets to land on, replete with mission zones and a few surprises here and there to keep you on your toes. Overall there's a massive Universe to play around in that has been created with just enough detail to keep you from becoming bored and to ensure that you don't need a '42' Gigahertz processor to run it.
Adequately done sound, it doesn't boast impressive audio effects - but in space, really, no one should be able to hear you scream. What effects the game does use are good/solid and they do the job nicely - its not crammed full of useless audio.
There's the background chatter, which can be turned off, the various messages from your officers and all of the voice work in the game is passable. Again rather like the sound there's enough to add to the overall feel of the game, but not enough to overload you and no hour-long Metal Gear like speeches.
Some fairly nice up-tempo pieces, a little heavy in places but the option is there for you to turn off the music. What's there I didn't hate and that in of itself is a rarity for me in games since I am fairly picky about the type of music that accompanies a game.
It can make mistakes and there are several levels of AI at work here, the AI that runs in the background and governs your ship's crew/personnel is pretty much invisible though you can track their status through the 2d management screens and make sure they're going where you told them to. The combat AI is fairly solid and the various battles are intense and satisfying with a decent level of skill required to survive in the hostile Universe.
Enemy AI can be quite ruthless and will exploit weaknesses in your ship's defences, trying to take out systems with boarding parties and so on. In combat they prove to have a varying degree of skill and in the further-out systems you can run into some tough cookies indeed.
If I were to list everything that's inside UC: AWA then we'd have a small novel instead of a review. It is a comprehensive space simulation game and requires a lot of time to get the best out of, there are some quirks and 3000AD are dedicated to support/patching the game through their auto-patcher and their own forums.
• Massive space sim, with more than enough to keep you occupied for years.
• Intense space battles.
• Free roaming, multiplayer game modes. (Coop included)
• Good, solid gameplay.
• A step above UC, UC: Gold.
• True open-ended gameplay.
• Complex: requiring digestion of the large manual.
• Graphics may put some people off.
• Large game may put off instant-action junkies.
Despite a couple of crashes to my desktop, which I am sure is a-typical of computers being computers, I had a lot of fun with this game and it provided for me a return to the glory days of Elite when I could be master of my own skies/space and be beholden to no-one but myself. I like the free-roaming aspect and the solid MP element of the game proves that it can be done.
Anyone that says such games like X3: Reunion can't have MP and Coop MP is selling you something. 3000AD's game has all the MP features you would expect from a sci-fi MMORPG without the pay-2-play price-plan and keeps a solid, stable platform throughout.
So there you have it. Universal Combat: A World Apart...forgetting uber-shiny graphics and brain-popping eye-candy for a moment. If you want a solid playable space sim, with excellent support - then UC: AWA and 3000AD deliver what they promised.