E3 2015: Stepping Into the Stone Age in The Universim

The god-game genre has seen better days, but The Universim is looking to turn that around and restore it to its former glory.  After a successful Kickstarter in 2014 and a year of development time, Crytivo Games brought their baby to E3 for its very first hands-on testing with the public, and while the demo is small it’s also a very promising look at the features to come.

The E3 build is a little slice of starting gameplay, designed to give a feel for the overall look of the game and how the UI will work.  It’s still very early days in development, so progress is limited to building a few stone huts and growing the population from its initial two people into a small village.  While that might not sound like a lot on the face of it, the world this section of gameplay takes place on is huge and very pretty.  You start on a planet and can choose where the settlement goes, whether that’s near mountains, forest, plains where the wooly mammoths roam, or by an ocean filled with fish and whales.  Clouds drift by in the skies, the sun slowly circles the world, and storms can rise up to dump rain and lightning on your settlement.  There’s only the one prebuilt planet for the current pre-alpha version, but it will be randomized as development progresses.

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Once you’ve chosen a starting point your pair of settlers gets to work living the primitive life.  The UI is arranged unobtrusively around the screen, giving you access to information and various tasks, but much of what’s there won’t be relevant until later in development and farther into the game than where the demo goes. The special buildings like farms and warehouses need resources that aren’t ready yet, and there’s no point in worrying about how many trees have been cut down to negatively effect weather patterns quite yet.  Cavemen can only effect the world so much, after all, and their stone huts and foraging won’t have much of an impact even when the demo population tops out.

Even in The Universim‘s current stage it’s fun to watch the settlement start to expand, especially when the cavemen start rocking the stone huts as little hearts pop out the top.  Playful little details like that can go a long way to adding personality to what could otherwise be a dry genre, although The Universim isn’t exactly short on charm.  The fully-explorable globe is cartoony but detailed, and the little guys walking the world are instantly likeable.  Even the menus have a sense of play in their designs, which is a pretty good trick when pulled off successfully.

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The current build is about 15-20 minutes of play, and I topped out at eight adults and two kids after a couple of my original cavemen died of old age.  My settlement of five buildings was nestled securely between a mountain range and the sea, and the nearby forest held plenty of wood if they’d only been able to keep on building.  Mammoths roamed in the distance, wolves and bears stalked far-off lands, and the planet slowly turned from day to night and back again as clouds drifted by.  It’s nice that my guys are safe in a peaceful prehistoric world, but new development builds are coming that will make this little more than a peaceful resting point before the hard decisions start cropping up.

Nice as the home planet is, the name of the game is The Universim, not The Planetsim.  The stone age will progress to medieval and then the space age, and then it’s time to go exploring.  The stars in the planet’s sky are all destinations to explore, with new worlds and new challenges ahead.  The mother planet may be an ideal evolutionary starting point but there’s no promise that alien worlds will be anywhere near as hospitable.  The universe will be big, dangerous and scary, filled with terrible threats like the occasional meteor strike to balance out its prettiness.  Hot planets burn, cold planets freeze, aliens drop in for a visit and unexpected drama can come from anywhere.  While you can intervene directly to a limited extent, your real power is to research tech, assign jobs and let your people get on with the task of living as you gently guide them on their way.  There’s a very long path ahead to see any of this implemented, of course, but if the E3 demo is anything to go by it’s going to be a lot of fun watching these features develop.  The cavemen are resting in peace right now, but there’s a massive universe out there waiting for them to advance into a culture that can explore its starry depths.