Having not known too much about Dual Universe (DU) before diving into the beta, this game is now likely to be one of my most anticipated releases of 2021. Playing a game in its Beta phase is never a substitute for reviewing the finished product, but this is a fleshed-out experience with most of the key gameplay elements in place, and plenty of reasons to be excited about its potential.
I went into Dual Universe understanding that it was an MMO sandbox game with space exploration and combat, expecting elements recognizable from games like No Man’s Sky, Eve Online, Minecraft, Star Citizen and Conan Exiles (swapping dinosaurs for hover-speeders). Expanding on the developer’s soundbite - ‘A persistent single-server universe, entirely built and driven by players’, the game is a universe-scale sandbox with a comprehensive building/crafting system, with politics, economy and warfare emerging from its massively-multiplayer core.
Despite being a sandbox, the game still provides a compelling introduction and tutorial. The opening cinematic depicts the arrival of an ‘Arcship’ on a new planet, firing a beam of blue light that kicks up huge dust clouds, dramatically announcing humanity’s arrival in an uncharted frontier. Fortunately, by the time your character arises from their cryo-sleep, a gleaming base has been established and an AI is primed to remind you how to move and tell you where to go. From the starting room, the player is greeted by blue skies, sleek structures, and an array of curious-looking spaceships drifting to and from the base. It’s an impressive vista, and even more so when one learns that it can all be crafted through the in-game engine.
The game’s sandbox environment is driven by Voxel (Volumetric Pixel) technology, which allows players to craft vehicles, buildings, bases and cities. The technology essentially means that crafting takes place on a grid, with a powerful set of tools that allow new players to build functional vehicles and structures, and the most skilled creators – “Voxelmancers” - to create works of art.
The tools included in Dual Universe are comprehensive, and the technology looks at its best in the construction of imposing space stations and bases. It fares less well in creating organic, curved shapes, though this is still possible thanks to the toolset and aided by the inclusion of some pre-built components such as cockpits and engines. It’s also possible for players to create “blueprints” of their designs, so players less interested in the creative aspects of DU can still acquire unique-looking ships through the in-game marketplace.
From a gameplay perspective, the crafting, shipbuilding and ‘building-building’ mechanics are complex and rewarding without being tedious. For example, planning and assembling your vehicle with an eye to functionality will reward you with a ship that is more manoeuvrable, and you’ll need to cut your teeth as a pilot and engineer to fly with the best of them. That isn’t to say that the game is prohibitively challenging from an engineering standpoint, and is more forgiving than the system in something like Kerbal Space Programme. However, building larger ships with multiple crew members, including to the scale of colony ships, will be a significant planning and construction undertaking that will require the contribution of multiple players.
For this game to provide epic cities, ships and battles, it requires players to organize in order to assemble the necessary creativity, resources and time. The most industrious, efficient and collaborative organizations will find themselves with the best structures and most epic ships, and the success of the game will be built off of the innovations of players’ cooperation.
Whether it appeals to you to be a small cog in a machine or to own the machine, and whether it appeals to you to build the city or to simply go shopping in it, Dual Universe aims to offer all such experiences and more. However, this all depends on DU’s ability to launch with, grow and sustain a solid and dedicated player base.
The business model will inevitably be a decisive factor for many in choosing whether to ‘buy-into’ the game. Dual Universe uses a subscription model which, in fairness, seems a reasonable approach given the sandbox nature of the game, the lack of an inherent completion objective, and the substantial ongoing server costs to be expected with a player-built universe.
Currently, there are three packs available: 3-months ($20.97), 6-months ($38.45) and 12-months ($69.90), with the 6- and 12-month packs providing 0.5 months and 2 months free respectively. The existence of Dual Access Coupons (DACs), which can be traded in game and consumed to provide 30-days playtime, may provide a route for players to earn game-time through game-play.
Certainly, many will lament the lack of a single-purchase option and the fact that an annual subscription will quickly surpass the cost of even triple-A releases, but this is a game which premises and relies upon an actively engaged player-base tracking weeks or months of game-time, rather than hours. This model gives sceptics an opportunity to play the full game for 3 months for a relatively modest price before deciding to commit long-term - meanwhile providing some confidence about the long-term development roadmap. However, it’s also crucial that the game provides a consistent, compelling pipeline of content in order to secure the long-term buy in of players.
As a final word, DU seems to offer a gigantic amount of potential. Just imagine rival factions launching fleets of capital ships at each other from their respective colonies with players occupying roles ranging from fleet commander to radar operator and everything in between. The scale of opportunity in DU is huge, and the game in its current state provides plenty of reasons to get excited. Even if new players are on the fence at launch, player-built creations are likely to attract new converts as the universe is filled with more and more things to see. As true of the game as it is of the in-game world, this may be humanity’s best chance to create the universe you’ve always wanted.
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