Premature Evaluation is the weekly column in which we explore the wilds of early access. This week, Fraser has donned the mantle of ‘deity’ in The Universim. It’s a god sim with more than a hint of Spore and good old Populous.
The big bang starts with a click. From that press of a button a brand new cosmos springs to life – a huge galactic stage full of worlds and civilizations for you to manage. At some point in the future. Now, though, The Universim’s attractive galaxy is a backdrop for a single, randomly-generated, Earth-like diorama. Those opening moments hint at its grand ambitions, of space travel and alien planets, before returning somewhere more familiar.
Developer Crytivo is promising more than scope, however. It’s arguably the simulation, not the size, that’s the real draw here. If you spend hundreds of years pumping water from a lake, it could dry up. Chopping down trees and expanding your city pushes the wildlife back and, if it continues unabated, can cause global warming. Mining gas causes smog, animals can be driven to extinction and the weather can become more and more unpleasant.
The environmental cost of civilisation doesn’t typically get much of a look-in, despite the vast number of games being churned out that focus exclusively on people building massive cities and empires. When it does, it’s all about resources. Oh, you chopped down all the trees? Now you don’t have wood. In The Universim, there’s still the threat of scarcity, but that’s also accompanied by ecological disasters.
So while a single planet might not show off the game’s potential scale, it does reveal a little bit more about its depth. Sort of. Right now, it only goes up to the Medieval era, slightly limiting the global impact of your civilisation. However! The technology tree is a bit of a mess, making you discover batteries and gas mines before your Nuggets – the species in your charge – even consider moving out of their stone huts. By the time they build their first Tudor homes (I knew the Tudors were aliens!), you might have already started work on devastating the environment.
I’m getting ahead of myself, though. Civilisation begins with two Nuggets. After picking a spot on the map, this duo sets about giving birth to civilisation. Literally. They build a home and then, with some divine intervention, they start making babies, all too frequently accompanied by the increasingly exhausting narrator’s commentary. The tone of the narration is curiously reminiscent of Dungeon Keeper, which isn’t a comfortable fit for a game that is otherwise light and, typically, optimistic. The narrator-who-is-also-a-dick setup is pretty tired as it is, and it’s only made worse by repetitive and sophomoric jokes about Nuggets knocking boots.
With more Nuggets came more buildings. Nuggets build their own homes, but most buildings need to be placed manually. Water pumps, wells, reservoirs, hunting grounds, eventually entertainment – it takes a lot to prop up civilisation. These buildings are all drip-fed to you by the tech tree. You need a water pump, so you research that, and you wait, and then you get to plonk it down and feel good about yourself. Then you’ll probably want a well, so it’s back to the tech tree and yes, back to waiting. And this just keeps on going. Being able to build two things without having to wait for the research timer to finish first is a treat. And between research projects, there’s not a whole lot to do.
Nuggets have their own routine that’s defined by their job and their personality trait, and there aren’t many ways to manage them. You can influence them by building schools to educate them and get rid of bad traits, but that’s quite far into the tech tree. God powers are really the only way to directly interact with them. These powers range from matchmaking to summoning storms, but using them costs belief, slowly generated by believers. To get more believers, you have to use your powers. Ultimately it’s just more waiting.
They won’t make you feel especially god-like. Sure, summoning a storm will make you feel pretty tough, and it’s always nice to be able to cool off the Nuggets during hot summers with a cooling magical breeze, but X-Men’s Storm can do all of that without even needing dozens of worshippers. A game that lets you found a civilization with a badass mutant and one-time Queen of Wakanda would obviously be great. It’s not that there aren’t handy powers; you’ll definitely get a lot of use out of the ‘change season’ ability, letting you skip winter (or any other season) and get back to the nice weather. But those conveniences are bogged down by an otherwise boring list. It’s a shame there’s no terraforming, either. I’m not sure if it’s in-development or just never going to appear, though I do wonder if completely malleable worlds would play nicely with The Universim’s simulated ecosystems.
I found myself mostly just using telekinesis. It’s how you physically interact with the world, picking up Nuggets, animals, rocks and trees. It’s ridiculous that it has a cost. It’s a measly five points, in fairness, but it’s so basic and important that it boggles the mind that you can quite easily find yourself in a situation where you’re unable to use it. It’s indicative of a larger problem: The Universim often leaves you with no way to engage with the game. Leaving it on the fastest speed was the only way I was able to alleviate some of the downtime, and even then I had plenty of time to splatter Twitter with my inane bullshit and cook several meals. OK, there was one time I returned from an excursion to the kitchen to discover a bunch of dead bodies in the centre of town, but these things happen. People fall over dead in the same spot all the time.
There is a hint of Black & White’s morality system, but I’ve not seen it in action. Apparently, doing benevolent things like completing quests (which stopped appearing for me after the first couple of hours) and curing the sick encourages a more pleasant civilisation to grow, while tossing around Nuggets or sacrificing them makes them nastier. I’d call my Nuggets pretty nice, but they always were. There was no change, and no way for me to see if I was having an impact beyond the number of believers I had.
My tiny hamlet grew into a large city, causing my reasonable PC (Intel i5-3570K @3.40 GHz, 16 GB of RAM, GeForce GTX 970, Windows 10) to start chugging away. I researched clothes, so people started to get all dressed up; there was an abundance of clean drinking water, so nobody was taking sips out of the lake and getting sick; and people were happier, largely because the dead were no longer left in the street. Most of the time. Fundamentally, though, the routines of my Nuggets, and my own, remained the same. It just felt like maintenance, and civilisation mostly just ran itself. It wasn’t until a disaster struck that I had any reason to wake up.
A tornado had torn through the settlement, and I underestimated how long it would take everyone to get into the shelters. There were deaths, lots of them, and countless buildings had been either completely destroyed or badly damaged. Suddenly I had to start planning. What gets repaired first, what buildings do I need the most, and how many babies do my Nuggets need to start spitting out to fill the labour shortage? Unfortunately, The Universim was just as unprepared for the catastrophe as I was.
There’s no way to see what building an engineer is going to fix until it gets there, and no way to prioritise them. Buildings under construction have a ‘prioritise’ button, but it provides no feedback. You hit the button and just hope something happens. There’s no queue, or at least no way to see it, so you won’t know what building will get constructed next, either. Despite this, 10 minutes after the disaster everything was running pretty smoothly again. I’d been busy, briefly, but I never felt like I was managing the crisis. I was just replacing lost buildings and occasionally giving a Nugget a swift kick up the arse to get them back to work.
Eventually the environment started to react to my civilisation, but it was out of the blue. I was in the process of constructing my first gas mine when I was informed that the very same gas mine was causing a great deal of pollution. With no overlays or filters, I was lamentably unable to confirm if the scaffolding was somehow causing air pollution. Not long after finishing construction, I was warned about all the smog I was causing. Global warming had even started to kick in. The temperature was rising so much that water in the reservoirs was evaporating. All because of one gas mine and the accompanying power plant. Deforestation likely played a role, too, but at the time I just had one lumber mill that had been running for around 15 minutes. There wasn’t much I could do about it. I was locked out of alternative power sources, like wind energy, because I’d picked combustion.
The Nuggets are part of this reactive ecosystem, as well. They have their aforementioned needs and personality quirks, but there’s no impetus to actually pay attention any of it. They might be individuals, but it doesn’t matter. Taking care of general problems, like not having enough water, solves all their basic needs, and then they just get on with their assigned jobs. If there were issues with people being poorly suited to their job or having to walk miles to work every day, there was no way for me to find that out without going through every Nugget one by one. And without curveballs, logistical conundrums or competition, I didn’t have to try.
Sometimes they do show some agency, however, mostly when it comes to picking out a spot of land to call home. Letting them choose their own plot of land should make it a management nightmare, but they don’t actually get in the way. They cluster around the peripheries, close to other buildings but not crowding them, sometimes pushing out into the wilderness just a tiny bit. They were reacting to my layout, but then they informed what and where I’d build next. And I did love watching all those stone huts finally get their upgrades. There was something not quite right about building a power plant next to Stone Age dwellings. The Tudor homes are much fancier, and you never quite know what you’re going to get. A cluster of apartment buildings, a four-story tower, a little squat cottage – it’s random, but also seems to depend on how many other homes are nearby. The tower, for instance, started life as four separate stone huts. When Nuggets build their own Tudor homes from scratch, instead of upgrading, they’re similarly diverse. I’m reminded of the Impressions city-builders and the way small hovels could, over the years, level up and combine into beautiful palaces, though here’s it’s also pleasantly unpredictable.
The tech tree peters out not long after that. I’d waited so long to see my city evolve that I maintained my unnecessary vigil over the world; I just wanted to see the last hut vanish. I wondered if my Nuggets would evolve, too. Living in houses with electricity, getting a formal education – would they be content with drinking water from the well and working in the mines? Yes. We’d both reached the glass ceiling, but my Nuggets still wanted to keep going. They kept making babies and new homes, and they might have continued if they hadn’t instead quickly done a 180 and chosen death.
The city had been hit with another tornado. At some point, the random bad weather just became annual bad weather, so once a year everyone piled into the bunkers, and after waiting out the storm they set about repairing the city. It was a lovely tradition. But for some reason, they’d all had enough. After the storm was over, they all lingered around the bunkers for a day, and then another, and then another. They grew hungry, thirsty and exhausted, but their strike continued, with corpses falling on top of corpses. I didn’t stick around to watch the last of them croak. I wouldn’t be the god of just kind of waiting around and stuff any longer.
While The Universim does end up feeling quite slight, I don’t think spaceships, new worlds and flashier technology is going to solve the underlying problems. It just isn’t fun. The management side is extremely underdeveloped and only appears in brief spurts, while the simulation is ambitious but doesn’t always make much sense, and in the case of the Nuggets, often doesn’t make a difference. These are significant, fundamental issues that would only be exacerbated by more planets.