Need to know
what is that A space sandbox that lets you establish your own industries and trade in a player-driven economy
Expect to pay: £10.49/$15 per month
Release date: Gone now
Developer: New quark
Publisher: New quark
Reviewed on: AMD Ryzen 5 3600, Nvidia GeForce 2080 Super, 32 GB RAM,
Link: Official website
My first attempt to reach space in a Dual Universe ended in disaster. I bought a space bike, which is the cheapest space-viable craft that Novaquark’s ridiculously ambitious space sim offers, with the intention of making a test flight from the planet Alioth to one of its nearby moons. But through a combination of ignorance and ineptitude, I failed to escape the planet’s gravitational pull, and ended up crashing 60 kilometers away from the nearest transport.
In a Dual Universe, distance is measured on a 1-to-1 scale, and without the means to repair my bike, I was faced with the prospect of a two-hour journey back to civilization. Having already fought the game’s byzantine systems at seemingly every turn, I was tempted to ditch it entirely.
After a bit of bad luck, I sat down and continued. And while not exactly exciting, that long journey home turned out to be more interesting than I had anticipated. You see, the planets and major moons of Dual Universe are not ecologically uniform, and as I traveled I passed through wind-sculpted deserts, lush forests and grassy plains. I also saw many player-built structures, ranging from starting prefabricated houses to elaborate industrial complexes, all with spaceships parked nearby. At one point, I spent fifteen minutes traveling across the bottom of a lake, and came across several play facilities that were built beneath the waves.
It gave me a sense of what was happening elsewhere in the world, and when I finally returned to civilization, I was inspired to continue. And this kind of encapsulates how to play Dual Universe is. It’s a willfully obscure, regularly frustrating, and arguably unfinished experience. But hiding beneath the tangled mess of its many systems are moments of a vision.
Sky is the limit
Broadly speaking, Dual Universe is a hybrid of EVE Online, No Man’s Sky and Factorio, with a bit of Minecraft thrown in for good measure. It aims to be a fully simulated, player-driven sandbox, giving players the tools to build their own structures, design their own ships and create their own interstellar businesses that form part of a dynamic economy.
You literally drop into this universe as a lone pioneer, given a piece of territory to claim as your own on the game’s starting moon of Haven, before descending to your chosen plot via an orbiting dropship. You then set up your launch habitat (I chose a flash-futuristic villa with its own miniature runway), deploy your launch vehicle, speeder, and get a crash course in how the game’s voxel-based creation tools work.
From here, you are theoretically free to do whatever you like and start building your legend within the Helios system. In practice, you’ll probably screw yourself into the ground figuring out what you should do Dual Universe’s learning curve is more than a launch trajectory, with countless interconnected systems to learn at the start of the game. Building, mining, crafting, establishing industrial pipelines, two different types of flight mechanics, the labyrinthine talent system that dictates a huge amount of what you can and cannot do in different professions. Even something as seemingly simple as buying and selling items at the market has its own tutorial that you will need to run through.
It’s a scary prospect, and the great irony of it is that what you should be doing at this early stage is very simple: break rocks. Planets are littered with randomly generated surface ores that can be mined with your universal multi tool. These ores are the baseline through which more complex materials are developed, but they can also be sold in bulk for a small but easily attainable income. Once you have a few hundred thousand under your belt, you can buy standalone mining units that passively mine ore and can also be calibrated about once a day to provide a fat chunk of ore.
The problem with doing this is that eBay does not exist in Dual Universe. To sell anything in the game, you have to take it to market as a medieval farmer. And depending on where you initially planted your flag, your starting point could be 20, 50, even 100 kilometers from the nearest market, which is a long journey at your startup speed. Therefore, the opening hours of Dual Universe is a pretty miserable grind, as you drive to the market, drop off a big bag of rocks, go home, give out more rocks, and then drop those off again.
There are a number of ways to escape from this system chain gang. You could buy yourself a new territorial control unit and take a shuttle to the planet Alioth, where you can claim a new patch of land that has rarer and more valuable ores. But while claiming that your first piece of land on a new planet is free, that land is subject to a weekly tax of 500,000 units (or two to four hours of surface ore mining). I don’t understand why the game does this. If it’s to prevent people from claiming land they’re not using at the time, Novaquark could just have the game deactivate their claim after, say, failing to log in for a week. Arbitrarily taxing players on an imaginary land with a fictional centralized body is completely baffling.
The alternative is to use your ore in a crafting project, the results of which you can use yourself or sell on the market. But there are two things here. First, doing anything remotely useful in Dual Universe requires multiple processes, and unlike Factorio, which starts you at the beginning and methodically works you through each process, here you start with what you want to do, before working backwards to figure out how to do it . it, which is difficult when something as simple as a storage container has nearly a dozen nested components. Oh, and everything you do by hand has a timer attached to it. If you want to build an assembler to start automating the handmade process, you’re looking at about an hour of creation to go from raw materials to final product.
The other thing is that even after you have made something, there is no guarantee that you will be able to sell it. As I mentioned, Dual Universe’s economy is driven by its players. But being a new game with a fairly small player base, the economy hasn’t had a chance to establish itself yet, so it’s hard to know what you should be doing and where you should be selling it.
In short, every system is overwhelmed and difficult to deal with. At the same time, there is a lingering feeling that despite being launched in v1.0, Dual Universe is not actually finished. The game area is currently limited to a single star system, with the “Space” section of the game’s map menu grayed out. The planets you explore are topographically beautiful, but mostly inert, with no weather systems and no wildlife other than a few pixelated birds and butterflies. The handful of rudimentary delivery missions the game offers feel like a rushed attempt to make up for the absence of any curated experiences.
Basically, getting anything out in Dual Universe is a lot of hard work and only intermittently fun. Everything, that is, except the ships themselves. Honestly, of all the mistakes that Dual Universe makes, the biggest one is not immediately pointing you to your nearest ship vendor and enabling you as quickly as possible, because the flying in this game is. beautiful.
Dual Universe’s flight model leans toward simulation without swerving and crashing into the control tower of realism. Ships are relatively simple to control, but handling is affected by factors such as engine power, fuel type, momentum, gravity, even the mass of the inventory you’re currently carrying. Therefore, even simple hops from your home to the local market require careful, thoughtful flying, as you must control your altitude to avoid hitting terrain, and carefully adjust your speed as you approach the landing, while also keeping an eye out for another player. ships that can be parked or landing/departing themselves.
Flying between planets is even better. Getting off the surface of a planet is a tricky thing, as the planet’s gravity tries to hold you down, while the rapidly thinning air makes it difficult to maintain altitude. Take it, however, and your speed will begin to rapidly increase from the hundreds of km/h to the tens of thousands. Spaceflight itself is all about managing your acceleration and deceleration, because at high speeds it can take several minutes to decelerate, and if you start that process too late, you’ll smash the planet like a dart.
Aside from some LOD pop-ins on planets, all of this is completely seamless. Indeed, it’s one of the best examples of seamless space-to-planet flight I’ve ever seen in a game. If you’re flying a hybrid ship (which can do both space and planetary flight) for example, there’s a wonderful moment when your blue-tinted atmospheric engines shut down, and your orange-colored space thrusters slowly take off, pushing you into the void.
Dual Universe is in trouble. It tries to merge a wide array of systems, but does none of them as well as the games from which those ideas are borrowed. Its difficulty curve is so steep that many players will slide off it long before they see the game at its best. Doing almost anything requires you to go through seventeen different steps, one of which you will inevitably miss and then have to start the whole process over. But hidden beneath all that is a pleasingly tangible space sim with some powerful creative tools and a really cool flying experience. It’s certainly not for everyone, but it’s not a write-off either, and for a certain kind of brain, juggling all its circles will be absolute catnip.