This wildly ambitious simulation is torpedoed by an almost incomprehensible interface, the absence of a tutorial, numerous bugs, and many fit and finish issues, including dated production values.
Controversy is an undocumented feature in games designed by outspoken developer Derek Smart, whose previous work includes the Battlecruiser series of space simulations. So perhaps it's no surprise that his latest effort, an expanded and updated take on the Battlecruiser universe called Universal Combat (which began life as Battlecruiser Generations), was the subject of litigation due to publisher DreamCatcher Interactive's last-minute decision to ship the game as a $19.99 budget release. Unfortunately, Universal Combat probably just isn't worth all the hassle. Much like its predecessor, Battlecruiser Millennium, this wildly ambitious simulation is torpedoed by an almost incomprehensible interface, the absence of a tutorial both in-game and in the poorly organized manual, numerous bugs, and many fit and finish issues, including dated production values. While it may contain incredible depth and a range of activities that let you wage war in almost every conceivable fashion, all of these features are inaccessible unless you have hundreds of hours available to figure everything out, and even then, the quality of these elements is uniformly lacking. This is the Rosetta Stone of computer gaming.
However, the game does mostly live up to all the prerelease hype, at least where features are concerned. The universe is absolutely massive. There are hundreds of worlds to explore, thousands of ships and starbases, a dozen playable races, and career and caste options that let you play as every sort of character from the standard ship commander to such esoteric specialties as marines and medics. You can fight among the stars in immense battlecruisers, and you can fight on planet surfaces or in planes. Ship-to-ship naval combat, as seen on the box, apparently didn't make the cut, although you can battle on and around sea vessels. Game modes include a 25-mission solo campaign, a sandbox roam option, instant action scenarios, and even a multiplayer selection. If you've played any of the previous Battlecruiser releases, you'll immediately recognize many elements of play, along with the tremendous scope of this design.
You'll also immediately recognize many familiar problems. Universal Combat is more of a demo than a completed product. You can catch glimpses of real depth on occasion, though you have to play for many hours to find these highlights, and you must often play for much longer to fully understand what you lucked into during the first go-round. The biggest problem is the lack of tutorials. No step-by-step guidance is provided in the game or in the manual, although you can download a 44-page PDF tutorial for the demo. The latter does contain a lot of information (scattered over nearly a hundred pages), although the organization is slipshod, and there is no index. As a result, you can't look up basic terms or skip around to answer questions as they arise while playing. The in-game description of the roam mode is fitting for the game, as a whole, in that you're really abandoned with "no hints, no tips, no directions, and certainly no instructions as to what you can and cannot do."
And if any game needed interactive tutorials and thorough documentation, it's this one. The interface remains ridiculously obtuse, which is hard to understand considering that Smart and his 3000AD development company have been working on this series for almost a decade now. Three pages of dense type are required to spell out all of the game commands. Few of these commands are intuitive, and there is no way to remap keys. Even quitting the game requires hitting "Alt-Q" rather than the usual "Esc." Mastery of ship interfaces requires both an intimate knowledge of hotkeys and nested menus. You also have to memorize the meanings of at least a hundred acronyms that represent vital ship systems. You can't go too far, for example, without understanding that activating the EMD will disable the NIS, TRS, and VDD. Only the first-person interface is remotely straightforward.
Yet not everything about Universal Combat involves drudgery. There is more of a focus on battle this time out. Provided that you can get over the initial interface learning curve, the majority of missions prove to be more action-packed than those in Battlecruiser Millennium. You are typically thrust right into the fray, particularly in the instant-action scenarios, where you're either defending against an enemy attack or leading an offensive. For instance, a mysterious weapon is en route to galactic command, an opposing alien fleet must be attacked as it retreats, an aerial strike force flies a sortie against an enemy base, a strike team of marines takes out an enemy gunship on a planet surface, a wing of fighters engages in a dogfight, and other scenarios will be encountered.