It's always good to see a game that takes a simple approach. UltraCorps, from VR-1 and available via Microsoft's MSN Gaming Zone, is about as simple as a game can get. This turn-based online-only strategy game is all about patience and conquest, as you struggle to build your empires one day at a time.
The game is much like a play-by-e-mail sci-fi wargame, except for the fact that 200-300 other players are competing against you all at once. A single game of UltraCorps lasts for either 30, 45, or 60 turns, with either one or two turns per day. All totaled, the game requires an investment of about ten minutes per day - plus the $9.95/month subscription fee, that is. At the end of the day, the game computes all moves, resolves any battles, and updates the universe for the next turn. You can get more for your money by joining more than one game session, since there are frequently three or four concurrent games running on the Zone at any one time.
You begin each game with control of a single planet, which is home to a meager population, a small military cadre, and some ultranium (the game's universal currency). These elements vary depending on the race you decide to play. In all, the game has 14 different races, ranging from the enigmatic Cosmic Needle Men to the strikingly familiar Entradishar (ever see a Simpsons Halloween special?).
Your choice of race also dictates the technology you possess at the beginning of the game. Though UltraCorps does not include a research element of any kind, it does limit you to building military units for which you own a design license. You begin with a few licenses specific to your race but can then purchase additional licenses for any unit in the game (there are more than 30 core units in all). Once you own a license for a unit, you can build as many as you want so long as you have the people (labor force) and ultranium (money) to do so. Also, each planet in your empire must have its own design licenses in order to build units (I bet Microsoft added that little feature ).
Battles take place whenever two fleets meet over a planet. The computer decides the outcome of these battles and reports on them to you the next time you log on, but the results are fairly easy to predict. He who has the most firepower wins - always. Battles last until one side is completely destroyed, so before you deploy your fleets, make sure you know what you're doing. You can always see what sort of defenses a planet has, whether you control it or not (this does not include stealth units, which are invisible until encountered in a battle).
One of the game's most impressive elements is its dynamic economy, which fluctuates according to supply and demand and the buying habits of the universe. For example, Xiron Medical Cruisers are popular because of their high defense value and the number of attacks they get per combat round, so the price of this unit typically skyrockets in the first five to ten turns. Units like the Anti-Population Rover, on the other hand, are basic components in most players' inventories and tend to cost very little to produce.
The overall goal in UltraCorps is simple - conquer as many worlds as you can. Still, the game features a healthy amount of diplomacy between players. In fact, while there is no diplomatic model per se, players simply negotiate nonaggression pacts and treaties amongst themselves. The game has its own built-in e-mail and discussion groups, so communication between players is readily accessible and reliable.
As far as graphics and sound go, UltraCorps really doesn't offer much. There is no sound, in fact, and the graphics are exceedingly plain, unless you call up an encyclopedia entry for one of the game's units or races (then you get to see a nice hi-res static image). But that may be part of the game's charm. A fancy graphics engine would only slow down this browser-based game, while adding very little value (if any).
As it stands, UltraCorps is recommended to anyone interested in a simplistic, slow-paced sci-fi strategy game. If you can spare ten minutes a day and $10 a month, UltraCorps is definitely worth a look.