by Thomas R. Carbone
and William G.M. Leslie III
by Ray Berube
I first saw Omnitrend's Universe color advertisement in the pages of ANALOG. The text of the ad promised that "using high-resolution graphics, and more than 30 custom displays -- distributed on four disks -- Omnitrend's Universe allows you to experience the life of a starship captain..." As an avid role-playing gamer and Traveler fan, I was immediately intrigued. So, when asked if I could find the time to review Universe, I replied that I would make the time! Little did I know how much time would eventually be invested in reviewing this game.
Before plunging into the log of my five-year journey through the Universe, I'd like to call attention to some "cosmetic" features of the game, and then briefly outline the idea behind Omnitrend's Universe.
The first thing that sells a game is usually the price or the reputation of its designers. Here, Omnitrend takes a big gamble. The designers (and the first page of the manual lists Mr. Carbone, Mr. Leslie, and a host of others) are not familiar to me. Then again, neither is Omnitrend Software. Names like Infocom, Scott Adams, Adventure International, Sierra OnLine, Activision, Carol Shaw, Larry Kaplan, Epyx and others ring a bell and sometimes a gong with adventure enthusiasts. So adding a hefty price tag and an unknown group of designers to a new product is taking a gamble. Omnitrend felt the game was worth the gamble, and they were right. Universe should help to establish Omnitrend and its designers. It will admit them to that privileged club of quality game producers.
One of the most important cosmetic aspects of a game is its packaging. Infocom recognized that early on, and Omnitrend has followed their example. Universe is beautifully presented in a thickly padded, self-standing binder. This binder contains the game's instructions, a manual of operations, a disk sleeve for each disk and ample room to include any documentation the player decides to add (and add it you will!). The folder is clearly divided and organized to facilitate referencing and play. The paper is a high quality, glossy magazine stock, and typesetting is clear and easy to read. I used looseleaf reinforcements on the pages to prevent tearing, and with all the use the pages are put to during play, I recommend it. Fine, you say, but nice packaging doesn't make a game. Agreed, but in this case it enhances the game's playability, so it is more than just a pretty box.
A word about the cost of Universe and then on to its playability. The game lists for $89.95, but some incidental expenses (which are suggested in the manual but considered necessary by this reviewer) will push the cost to over $ 100.00 for the game. I bought the reinforcements and a package of looseleaf filler, and suggest you do the same. In addition, the manual suggests that the player copy the disks to protect them from damage. I say it's necessary! You will need six blank disks: four to copy the game disks, a player disk you'll have to create and, finally, another disk to copy the player disk (more on why later). All this copying is made much less tedious by using Brian Moriarty's Black Rabbit 2 (ANALOG Issue 9 or the improved version in the ANALOG Compendium). The progress of the game relies on menu selections, and disk swapping is constant. You'll cry if you don't copy a game disk and while inserting it for the umpteenth time you damage it. Your game is now worthless, so please make the copies!
The premise of Universe is very simple. You are part of a fringe star group hundreds of light years from Earth. Your society depends on regular assistance packages from Earth which arrive via a one-way hyperspace booster system. Suddenly these packages stop arriving. Chaos and decline threaten your civilization, but hope springs out of confusion. It is believed a hyperspace booster of similar design to those which allowed contact with Earth has surfaced in your star sector. Find the booster and you'll save your civilization.
Sounds easy, but wait! No one knows where the booster is, and as you begin the game, you don't even have a space ship. So you're a long way from grabbing that booster and saving civilization. This is where Universe begins and, right from its opening graphics, it grabs you.
The game allows you to enter into a mortgage and buy a ship and the barest minimum to outfit it. But star travel is expensive! In order to fund your search for the booster and keep your ship flying, you'll have to engage in mining or passenger transport or trading or contract work or even pirating innocent vessels. It is here in this realm of real experience that Universe overwhelms you. It is filled with detail and depth of experience. I can't imagine anyone playing Universe to the point of completely exploring all of its aspects! You can find the booster, but... that's just a lure to get you into becoming a starship captain. Once you own your ship, the game is exploration, gambling, warfare, experiencing a Universe.
How does Omnitrend achieve this wonderful feat? By a very structured and logical set of menus which guide the player but present new possibilities at each selection. What is a menu? Well, as a main frame business programmer, I'm very familiar with menudriven data base systems, but it's not a common feature in adventures for the computer. So I'm going to break down the organization of Universe by delving into its menus.
Included in the appendices of Universe is a skeletal flowchart of how the game's logic proceeds. It is not very detailed but can be used to understand the menus. Most computer gamers are familiar with simple menus usually found after the title screen. Some examples are: select joystick or paddle; select one or two players; press start for a new game or option to restore a saved game. In Universe this concept is carried further. For example, the Flight Menu consists of nine options and many of these lead to further menus and even more options. Docking Control leads to Parts Removal, Purchase Parts and Place Parts. Sounds a little overwhelming? Well, at first glance it is. To play Universe a thorough reading of the manual and careful pre-play planning is a necessity. Now on to play action.
Play begins by booting the Construction disk, and after some impressive titles and opening music, the first block of text appears. This early text sequence doesn't allow for any real decisions from the player. You meet a bank loan officer, mortgage your ship, and are sent to the shipyards to choose a starship. From this point on, you are in control of your destiny! On arriving at the shipyards you encounter the first menu, a list of ten ship designs. Each design can be called up and examined in detail. The screen, through a graphics window, presents a three-dimensional view, an overview and a side view of the design while a text area provides statistics such as cost, size, visibility, integrity and specific features. It's a good idea to study each ship design carefully. Some are more suited to mining or pirating than others and a poor choice can spell disaster later in the game. After selecting a design, the game requires you to create a player disk. This is a tedious task comprised of disk swapping that lasts for more than ten minutes! As the manual suggests, be patient. There's a lot of data being transferred. As soon as you complete your player disk, copy it! Otherwise, should you meet with an untimely accident like death later on (in the game, I mean), you'll have to re-create your player disk. With a copy you can pick right back up with the next section: Flight One.
The Flight One disk in conjunction with the Flight Two disk contains all of the menus needed for space operations. You select locations for equipment installation, hire crew members, buy fuel, weapons, additional equipment such as scanners, rescue pods, etc. You must become familiar with the operation of every part of your ship. In order to enter hyperspace, you must understand how your drive works (and there are several drives to choose from). Here is where the menus allow you total access to every part of your ship. You can select to operate or study drives, weapons, scanners, mining systems, computer controls, orbital shuttle functions and more from just ONE flight menu! The ship is yours to exploit fully.
From passenger transfers to orbital shuttle repairs, the Starport menu covers just about any activity that might take place on reaching a distant star system. I can't begin to delve fully into each area of these menus in this limited review. In fact, I've played Universe steadily, six to eight hours a day, for over a week to do this review, and I'm still discovering new elements of the game! The Starport menu allows you to buy, sell and trade goods and services. It contains the activities of customs clearance, transfer of passengers, even repair and fueling of your shuttle. Outside of some unsavory activities omitted, it covers all the ground needed for exciting starport intrigue.
To conclude, Universe is a blend of text and graphics adventure. Though in places its pace is slower than most shoot-em-ups or text adventures, the richness of detail is unmatched. And when you're in a fire fight, nothing happens slowly.
If you buy Universe, you'll find months of playing pleasure ahead of you. Even though its price tag is a bit hefty, you get your money's worth and more. Let's face it, if we can shell out forty bucks for Dig/Dug and be bored with it after a week, we can surely invest $89.95 or so for a game we'll still be playing throughout the year.