Dual Review: Terraria and Universe Sandbox
Some games just aren’t long enough for their own reviews, but are still important enough to deserve some attention. With that in mind we present the first of our Indy Shorts reviews. This week I turn my attention to two recently released titles on Steam: Terraria and Universe Sandbox.
With great innovation comes an inevitable flood of imitation. Mario 64 redefined the platformer style of gameplay by placing it within a 3-dimensional game world and expanding upon players’ abilities to interact with it (in the form of increasingly complex jumps, wall kicks and types of attack). About half of the games released for the Nintendo 64 following the release of Mario 64 would be little more than poor clones of the innovative title. Why? Because often imitation is easier than innovation. Occasionally a developer looks upon an innovative title and alters it or improves upon it, producing something of value rather than a crappy bit of shovelware destined for the clearance bin. Happily, Terraria happens to be just that, an imitation of an innovative game that improves upon the original concept in an entertaining way.
2009 gave us Minecraft, a spunky little indy game that redefined the 3D sandbox game. What followed were a number of rather obvious Minecraft clones such as Manic Digger and Fortresscraft which did little more than imitate poorly. In a refreshing change of pace, 2011 has brought us Terraria, a game that is more of a distant nephew to Minecraft than a straight out clone. At first glance, Terraria appears to be nothing more than an 16-bit, 2D sidescroller version of Minecraft. Like Minecraft the game world is composed entirely of materials that players can mine/harvest and then use to build structures to protect them from AI monsters, or tools that allow players to collect other more useful resources. The big difference (2D vs. 3D presentation aside) is that while the main focus of Minecraft is constructing elaborate structures, Terraria is all about combat and adventuring.
Terraria combines the platforming of a SNES era Mario game with the exploration and item crafting of Minecraft. While the surface world contains everything players need to build their first house and fashion basic tools and weapons, it’s only by delving into the vast, labyrinthine caverns below that they’ll be able to find the weapons, resources and power-ups that will allow them to survive against the monsters that dwell there. It’s this adventure aspect that will likely draw players to Terraria. Taking a cue from MMORPGs like World of Warcraft, monsters in Terraria drop random items, health potions, and resources when slain. Floating eyeballs drop lenses which can be turned into goggles, and skeletons occasionally drop hooks, which can be turned into a Legend of Zelda style hook-shot. In addition to the two dozen or so monsters that inhabit Terraria are a few rare boss monsters, summoned only by special events, such as the “Eater of Worlds”, a monstrous worm that spawns after players crack open a Shadow Orb (special items found deep within the evil looking corrupt areas of the surface).
One interesting aspect of Terraria is that a player’s character is saved independently from their game world. When starting Terraria, first creates a character and then the game generates a random world based on a few starting criteria chosen by the player. When players quit out of a game it saves their character (inventory and all) and exports him out of the game. This allows players to use the same character to explore multiple game worlds, and to transfer items from one world to another. The downside to this is that every time you load up Terraria, you start in the same spawn point (so saving mid-dungeon doesn’t work too well). The upside is that both the single player and multiplayer game modes flow together rather well as multiplayer is little more than up to 7 friends visiting you on your maps. While an entertaining game and a great value at $9.99 on Steam, Terraria does have a big downside. Lacking the emphasis on construction that helped make Minecraft so replayable, Terraria’s focus on adventure and combat provides little motivation to continue on after a certain point. Once you’ve unlocked the best armor and weapons in the game, there’s little reason to keep playing. After a while, you just get tired of killing slimes. Nonetheless, Terraria’s still worth a try.
Have you ever looked at something, a bit of software or a new gadget, and realized that it was destined to be used as a prop in a bad Syfy channel movie? As I began playing with Universe Sandbox, I realized that this was one of those situations. While a fantastic tool that appealed to the hardcore, realistic sci-fi fanatic within in me, Universe Sandbox is pretty much destined to provide cheap film makers with realistic looking simulations of the cosmos. Universe Sandbox is an interactive space gravity simulator designed over a period of 15 years by Dan Dixon, which allows users to run scale simulations of solar systems, galaxies and other celestial objects. It’s very pretty and incredibly complex.
One of the wonderful things about sci-fi fantasy settings like Star Wars, Star Trek, or Mass Effect, is that the laws of physics are ignored in favor of a more entertaining story. In reality, the universe and space travel are painfully dull. Pretty and deadly, but still really damned dull. The sad fact is that traveling between the stars has less to do with action, adventure and teaching alien women how to love, and more to do with complex mathematics and finding a way to pass the time. So while understanding the controls of Universe Sandbox is a relatively simple task thanks to the tutorial, fiddling with the software in order to produce the effect you desire will likely take far longer. Launching comets at the planet Mars until it drifts out of its orbit around the sun is a rather easy feat, but it’s an entirely different challenge to bump Mars into a collision course with the Earth.
Beyond that, there’s really little more to say about Universe Sandbox. The graphics are nice and the images can be viewed in a 3D mode that’s compatible with the classic red & cyan 3D glasses, but that’s about it. As a toy, Universe Sandbox is a complete bust, and it makes me wonder why it’s available via Steam. However, that’s exactly what Universe Sandbox is not. It’s not a game or a toy but rather an exciting and profoundly interesting educational tool. Want to gain a better understanding of the complex interplay of gravitational forces that keep the moons of Saturn in their orbits, or want to see what it would look like if two galaxies collided? Then you might want to give Universe Sandbox a try. Otherwise, you might be very disappointed.