Universal Conquest Review – Campaign Supernova

Being the resident “old guy” of GameLuster, I can well remember the classics of a lot of genres. How they first came about, their evolutions, their triumphs, and their failures. MicroProse’s Master of Orion, for example. It was addictive as hell, it was lovely to look at even in those early days of computing, and it filled me with joy every time I played (even when I got my ass handed to me). Fast forward to today, and the release of Universal Conquest, and you know what? I’d rather be playing Master of Orion for any number of reasons.

The Steam page for Reptilian Games’ debut title positions Universal Conquest as a “4X/Grand Strategy/RTS Hybrid Space Simulation based on principles – and developed in consultance with – alien contactees.” Part of me chalked that last bit up to tongue-in-cheek humor at first. But by this point, I’d take a good old fashioned crop circle to this abomination of a strategy game.  I’d call it a shitshow, but that’s far too mild a word to use.

Which void do you pick to shout into? Doesn’t matter, the result’s the same either way.

One of the most important elements in any sci-fi 4X or grand strategy game is the visuals, particularly and especially the user interface. You have to be able to evoke the awe and majesty of a galaxy while still providing useful information to your players. And Universal Conquest absolutely fails to do so. The text at any given section is small almost to the point of illegibility. But that hardly matters when the entire UI lacks anything like useful labels or intuitive organizational flow. I received word that Reptilian Games was working on a patch to improve the text formatting before release, and my mind immediately went to “rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic.” What does it matter if the text reads a little easier when you’re fumbling along trying to figure what various options are in the game setup or wishing you could close the “turn chat” log that shows you what everybody in the universe is doing?

To add further insult to injury, I feel as though the developers threw away virtually all of their budget on really great background images for the loading screens, and then realized, “hey, we need to have some character portraits and icons!” and found somebody whose only tool was Microsoft Paint. Some of the icons you can pick for your star empire’s insignia are kind of nifty, but the vast majority of them combined with the entire catalog of character portraits look terrible. The ship and vehicle designs lack a certain heft because the degree of detail is virtually nonexistent. In a further twist of the knife, navigating the star map section proves to be semi-excruciating because of the design choice made to keep things in a 2D overhead perspective. Using parallax mechanics to give the impression of 3D stellar navigation looks cool right up to the point you need to find a star to aim your fleets at. At which point, it stops being cool and starts being an active impediment to the gameplay.

I’m not yet so old I need reading glasses. But this might have advanced that necessity by a couple years.

The audio in Universal Conquest might almost be a piece of evidence in support of my theory about the theoretical budget issues. On the one hand, the “pew-pew” for sound effects during combat aren’t terrible. And the soundtrack (performed by Belgian artist Burning Mir) has some decent ambience at times. On the other hand, the voice over work is an affront to the ears which I strongly suspect is AI-driven. “What makes you think it’s AI-driven, Axel?” you may ask. One word: contractions. While the intonations for most words are passable, anything with an apostrophe in it gets treated as having a vocal stop by the voicebot. “Aren’t” comes out as “Ah-ren Tee.” “Civilization’s” comes out as “Civilization S.” Combine that with just a single voice actor listed in the credits, overall flat delivery, and what can only be considerable pitch shifting, and it smacks of shoddy bot work on so many levels. Even if it came down to the lead developer’s girlfriend’s cousin’s neighbor recording a couple of lines in exchange for free beer, it would have been better than what we’ve been presented.

When it comes to gameplay, the UI issues mentioned before turn Universal Conquest into a godawful slog of badly implemented systems bumping into each other, as if trying to figure out which one can screw the player over the worst. With 4X and grand strategy games, there’s an assumption that you’re going to be moving at a relatively slow pace. You’re in for the long haul, decades, generations, centuries, maybe even millennia. Universal Conquest seems to acknowledge this concept, then proceeds to demonstrate just how truly tedious and mind-numbing it is. There’s no abstractions of time here. You’re going month by month on a calendar which has no logical reference point. You have a bunch of “leaders” for every unit you create, yet you have no good way to manage them. Your research priorities are laid out in a list of fields you can pick, but have no “tech tree” layout to help you plan your research strategy. There’s no means of designing your own vessels (from what I could find), which means you’re stuck with generic ship classes and no good yardstick for their combat effectiveness. Same with ground forces. I never got far enough to engage in naval battles (apparently that’s supposed to be a thing), and I can only imagine it being just as straightjacketed as the rest of it.

Those are some awful big Zerglings…

Compounding all of this is the procedural generation elements which make an absolute mockery of your efforts to expand. You’re from a planet with an nitrogen-oxygen mix atmosphere? Good luck, schmuck. Trying to find another habitable world could take you a few decades of in-game time. Stellar classes are virtually non-existent (or at least operate on a completely unfamiliar system of categorization), and stars themselves are treated more like navigational hazards than beacons. And without being able to get a notion about avenues of research, trying to set down colonies in hostile environments is an exercise in frustration. Terraforming a planet to a more habitable environment might be theoretically possible, but I never had a hope of reaching the techs needed. 

Worse, the massive scale Universal Conquest is trying to run at, depicting an ever-expanding universe, is likely to aggravate these issues even further. Even setting things down to a single galaxy, you’re going to be at it for a while. You’ve got no good way to automate your exploration efforts, which means you’re going to be moving a lot of fleets around, almost certainly sending them to their deaths at some point, just to add a second star system to the empire. For an extra kick in the teeth, don’t even think about trying to save your game to come back to it later. I made that mistake and was graced with nothing but a black screen for my efforts when I tried to load it back up. As for controls, the mechanisms for movement and camera control are a complete shambles.  During a run through the tutorial, I had to plug in an external keyboard and restart the whole thing because it wouldn’t advance when using the mouse wheel to zoom in and out.  Not to mention the constant fiddling about with units because they continually accept movement directions until they run out of movement points or you break out of the movement commands using the left-mouse button. Whatever QA work was done on this game, it wasn’t nearly enough to get it polished from a user experience standpoint.

Cool idea: having a “black hole” sun. Not-so-cool idea: having said sun scramble UI information because “black hole.”

Years ago, another game designer and would-be auteur developer tried their hand at creating the “ultimate” in realistic gameplay in a sci-fi setting. For years afterward, Battlecruiser 3000 A.D. was considered one of the worst games ever made. I certainly thought it would remain with an unsullied reputation as one of the most painful experiences in my own gaming history before all this. But Universal Conquest has managed to outdo even Derek Smart’s first disastrous effort. Somebody needed to tell the people at Reptilian Games, “no.” There needed to be somebody who kept the game focused on being fun instead of this would-be galaxy simulator and paen to Giorgio Tsoukalos without any level of abstraction. And whatever roadmap the developers might have post-release, it cannot possibly be enough to fix this. Save yourself the aggravation and the disappointment, not to mention the money you might spend, and avoid this game at all costs. There’s so many better options out there already. Master of Orion, for example.

Axel reviewed Universal Conquest on PC with a review code.

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