My mother will disown me when she finds out: Core Design's Universe has made a thief and a liar out of me and, worst of all, I'm proud of it. Of course adventure games have always encouraged this sort of thing, right from the very beginning of time when text quests told you "... you are on a dusty plain, there is nothing to see", so you wandered off north, east etc, and it still told you "... you are on a dusty plain, there is nothing to see".
Finally, fingers worn to the bone, and having knackered your N, S, E ,W, keys, lo and behold, you "... are on a dusty plain, it is night-time, there is a troll sleeping by a camp fire in front of you". And what did you do? You examined him, found out he had a sword and some money and then, without so much as a by-your-leave, you stole them. What sort of example is this for the people, young and old, of this country?
Anyway, Mary Whitehouse mode over, it's time to return to the present day and Universe, which in fact is anything but an old fashioned text adventure, with beautiful 256 colour graphics, hand painted backdrops and detailed sprites - even on an A500.
The basic scenario is bog standard, involving a youthful adventurer, space, decaying worlds and strange aliens, but it's only while the game is unfolding that you discover what your real mission is and (without giving too much away) you end up tackling some of the most powerful figures in the universe.
You start off controlling an earthling named Boris Verne (16, of Ashby-de-la-Zouch) who has been transported into a parallel universe after messing around with an electronic pod in his uncle's back yard. Well, the young scallywag should have known better.
As the game begins you find Boris on a little asteroid in the middle of a much bigger asteroid field, with the primary objective of getting back home again before his mum misses him. And this is where the point-and-click system comes in.
There are very few adventures that have managed to really simplify the menu system to an ideal level. Game designers seem to have a morbid fear of placing too many tasks under a single heading, something to do with 'making things too easy', but if the game and storyline are in themselves complex and good enough then surely simplifying the controls could only add to the enjoyment. Universe's hidden menu becomes available by clicking on the right mouse button, while selections are made by clicking on the left button.
There are seven main icons, the following six of which control direct, self explanatory actions: Pick Up, Use, Look, Speak, Attack and Check Inventory. The seventh is an Options icon which contains another eight cleverly hidden action buttons and a question mark on the far right., beneath which lies the save/load game function, some copyright information and an Info requester that merely seems to repeat the introductory message from whatever section of the game you are in.
The eight icons under the Options menu are: Insert, Push/Pull, Eat, Wear, Throw, Combine Objects, Open Objects and Jump. Of these, Jump, should in my opinion have been included in the initial menu because you end up using it quite a lot. The other frustrating problem i Had concerned the distinction between Use (in the initial menu) and Insert (in the options menu).
Having a bank account and cash machine card, like most people in this country, I am used to 'inserting' it into machines to get money out. In Universe you can opt to Insert, for instance, an ID card into something, which would seem logical (and suits the description of Insert in the manual), only to find that it doesn't work!
In fact you have to Use the card with the machine. One of the few instances where Insert was any use was in prising off a panel with a... well, that would be giving too much away. My point is that they may as well have combined these two icons. It wouldn't have made Universe much easier, just less frustrating. Overall though, using Universe's menu is as easy as pie and almost as tasty.
In Universe, like other games in the genre, the mouse cursor is shaped like a hand with a pointing forefinger, however, when you select an Option, like Jump, this changes to a little jumping man with a pointer and so on. If you do something right the cursor changes to a 'thumbs up' sign, if you are not allowed to do something you will get a 'thumbs down' sign. This range of hand signals was very useful and, admittedly, could have been taken a lot further by a cheekier programmer.
There are plenty of characters, good and bad, helpful and unhelpful to interact with. Boris will tell you whether you can or cannot speak to someone, and along the way you may find that some of the aliens looks suspiciously familiar, especially the very helpful hermit-in-the-hut on the planet Jor-Slev 4. And just in case you don't get the joke Boris will jog your memory with statements like , "hey, haven't I seen you somewhere before?" (in Star Wars, etc).
As usual, proper interaction with characters will obtain valuable information and objects to help you further your quest. Quite a lot of the time Boris speaks to aliens with predetermined statements and replies, although you are also given multiple choice answers. The multiple choice answers aren't terribly funny though, and so, being a sort of chap I went for the most sensible answer each time. However, if you are well known to a frivolous japester make sure to save regularly; there is one particularly hairy moment towards the beginning of the game where a smart remark will get you blown out of space.
One the subject of saving, if you read only one page of Universe's manual let it be the one entitled 'Loading And Saving Your Game'. There are several sequences in Universe that suddenly become very desperate, with the risk of certain death or capture by the imperial forces imminent, and, at that moment you find that the save option is either of no use or unavailable. Top tip: regular trips to the save disk will relieve you a lot of head and heartache.
Once you have picked up an object, or traded for something, it gets placed in Boris' cavernous inventory. If you are the sort of person who sends their character all over the shop picking up everything in sight it's worth mentioning that Boris can't put anything down unless he uses it. Thus, like your mum's handbag, the inventory will quickly fill up with rubbish. God, I was carrying so much useless junk around towards the end of the game. You can combine objects in the inventory (using an icon in the Options menu) to create added functionality, though this doesn't happen very often.
Up close the main sprite is detailed and its movements have, Core assure me, been 'rotoscoped', a process whereby a real person is filmed moving and then digitised. This involves over 500 frames of animation and really adds to the atmosphere of the game, as does the felling of perspective, where Boris and other sprites disappear not the distance until, in some sequences, they become but a pinprick of light on the screen.
Controlling the lad is simplicity itself, point in the direction you want him to go, press the left mouse-button, and he follows your guidance. Double click the same button and he runs there. This movement is smooth on the horizontal plane, but there are a few instances when running diagonally where Boris starts break-dancing and jerking around like a maniac, he also goes through the odd wall or solid object, but overall the quality is still excellent.
As mentioned earlier in this review the painted backdrops, many with added animations, are gorgeous. There are always ships or hovercraft flying by in the background and Wheelworld, a space station you'll encounter sooner or later, really does rotate for gravity's sake, making Boris feel "quite dizzy" whenever he looks up at the stars.
Core have also created a musical score to match the graphical extravaganza. With intros, separate atmospheric tunes for each area and chase music this is yet another game best appreciated through a decent set of amplified stereo speakers. It's al a bit of 'Chariots Of Fire' inspired but I left it on (quite loud too) through most of the game, much to the annoyance of everyone else.
When all was said and done I was both delighted and sorry to finish Universe. Delighted because I had triumphed, sorry because I didn't really want it to end. The story twists and turns quite tantalisingly, and there is always something new on the horizon. That's not to say that I didn't have any problems along the way. Universe is not a terribly difficult adventure, but there are a few spots that will have you thinking for a while.
There are also some occasions where the interface demands more precise commands than you're used to giving and it's only after you've tried several options, or the same one over and over again, that you get things right. But these frustrations are infrequent.
Experienced adventurers will enjoy Universe's plot and planning but ultimately won't find it much of a challenge to finish. Newcomers to the adventure fold may find the initial lack of plot and direction demotivating (remember, the full story unfolds as the game goes on) but it's still a good introduction, not least because of the quality of the sound and graphics and the addition of arcade sequences.
It may not quite as visually stunning as Beneath A Steel Sky, but it is a stonkingly good space/futureworld adventure. I would buy it.