Featuring (Dr) Derek Smart! DEREK SMART! DEREK SMART!!!
Dr Derek Smart is a polarising figure in gaming history. Depending on who you ask, he’s either a pretty good guy, or a borderline Lolcow when it comes to his games. I’ve lampooned him over the years a bit, but on reflection I actually fall into the former camp. Smart is a pretty passionate guy when it comes to his games, and he has big visions of what those games should be. He might (or might not) have assaulted an innocent soft drink vending machine, but he’s generally trying his best to make good games.
Does he achieve that goal? Eh, not really. In this Blast from the Past, I look at the 3000AD’s Battlecruiser series.
I was introduced to BC3K after it was released as freeware. I got it from a PC PowerPlay cover disc (remember when those were a thing?) and installed it without having any idea what the hell it was about. The idea behind the game is that you command a battlecruiser, a titanic space craft carrying a loadout of weapons, fighters, shuttles, mining drones, and a load of personnel – all at your command. The game was actually really complicated and not at all user friendly – but with a bit of manual studying and forum searching, it’s actually playable. Well, its initial release wasn’t – the game was in development hell for years, passed between publishers until Take 2 finally got it and forced a release – something Smart wasn’t pleased about. BC3K 1.0 was a broken piece f shit.
But what did you actually do? The game had a free flight and Advanced Campaign Mode. Free flight was exactly as it sounded – you just took your massive battlecruiser and did whatever you liked. The campaign was dynamic and featured different factions fighting across space – with you commanding a human battlecruiser. Factions had their own internal castes, which could fight amongst themselves. For example, humans had an insurgent caste that was hostile to the player and to other castes.
The game world was huge – you would start in a fairly decent representation of our solar system, and could visit many more solar systems too – and you could land on planets and moons. This blew my little mind back when I first experienced this aspect. The game world was huge, and there were even little ground bases present on planets, along with space stations and all manner of things to discover. You could throttle up and go wherever you wanted – getting into fights, doing some trading, taking a shuttle down to the planet’s surface for some mining… it was all very impressive.
But this also led to a lot of complexity, and even simple tasks were sometimes hard to perform. You had a full complement of crew, each of them performing a task and each of them requiring your attention. You needed to rest them, to assign them to jobs, and they could be killed if you came under attack. Intruders could board your ship, moving through it destroying subsystems and killing crew – until your onboard marines could hunt them down and kill them. You could assign pilots to shuttles and fighters and deploy them with specific orders – or take control of them yourself (just don’t die – or you actually die). You even had little tanks that could drive around on the planet! I can’t even list all of the things you could do.
The interface is cryptic and the UI is awful – even with a comparatively higher 640×480 resolution, things are a pain in the arse to manage. There’s lots of keep track of, and the myriad of acronyms and multiple systems to learn doesn’t make any of this easy. You’ll spend a lot of time reading the manual, trying things out, and probably screwing them up. There’s an overhead map sort of thing, but it’s not intuitive to use, and there’s loads of commands to give. When it works, it’s awesome, but it’s by no means easy to do. And the game is pretty unforgiving – it won’t give you the opportunity to learn on the fly, you either know how to do shit or you don’t – and if you don’t, you die.
When I started playing, I didn’t even play the campaign. Instead, I waged war against the insurgent faction on Earth – sending my fighters into the atmosphere to attack them, while my shuttles deployed mining drones so that I could purchase orbital weapons. Then, with my strip mining gains, I’d nuke them from orbit, wiping out their little bases. Then intruders would get on board, kill half my crew, and I’d see random warning lights flashing with no idea of what to do next. I’d also sometimes get into space battles, and would (usually ineffectually) launch attacks into enemy territory, attempting to expand humanity’s territory. It was all possible in BC3K.
For the time, BC3K was incredibly impressive. It’s a hard game to master, but it was ripe with possibilities. At the time I was thinking “Wow, imagine what they could do if only they had more time and money!”
Smart’s next crack at the game was Battlecruiser Millennium. Released in 2001, BCM was… pretty bad, if I’m honest. BCM brought the game into the Windows era, and added a few new additions – none of which were really any good. It was a clear graphical improvement and ran better than the DOS BC3K, but many of the additions were absolutely pointless.
Basically, BCM was a direct update of BC3K onto a new DirectX engine. Functionally, it’s the same game. You had the same campaign setup, the same systems, the same factions – basically it was the game you already knew, with a few new additions. For starters, you could now choose your faction – though not playing as humans meant you were limited to free flight only. But whatever, it’s a neat little addition, and this is ultimately a game for roleplaying, so that’s no big deal. You could also select a bunch of different ships outside of carriers. If you wanted to play as Insurgents on Earth… well, you could.
BCM initially advertised that you’d be able to choose to fight as infantry, as a pilot, or continue on as a carrier commander. They also advertised sea combat, but this was broken and I don’t remember if it was ever patched to work properly. The idea sounded pretty cool – now you could deploy more ground assets to attack land installations, perhaps even black ops teams, as opposed to just nuking everything from orbit. Maybe you could be one of those troopers! Those were the hopes I held for the game.
These all universally suck though, and playing anything except the Battlecruiser mode is pointless. Firstly, there are new Instant Action modes for the various “careers” on offer – but these are all very short missions of no real consequence. There’s the campaign, for battlecruiser commanders. Finally, there’s the “roam” mode, which applies to every other ‘career’ out there. Careers include:
- Pilots – either ground or space force, with the only differentiating factor of where you start. You get a fighter and that’s it. You fly around. Sometimes you shoot at things – but usually not because either nothing approaches you, or it gets destroyed before you get close. The end.
- Marine – You walk around a planetary base as one of several different classes. You can either shoot at nothing, or you can teleport into a hostile base and immediately get killed. Nothing threatens you at your home base. Basically, this mode is pointless.
- Space Force Marine – You’re a marine who floats around in space with a piss-weak gun. You can shoot at nothing. You will never attack anything else, because it’s all too far away. Basically, this mode is even worse than the pointless Marine mode.
- Commander – If you pick a carrier you can continue with the campaign, but you could also pick a myriad of other ships to command. This is the meat of the game. This is the only game mode worth playing.
Basically, if you weren’t playing as a commander, you weren’t going to be doing anything. The other careers are pointless. Nothing ever happens. Nothing. Well, I suppose if you waited for a really, really long time, you might get to see something happen as a space pilot, but for the other careers? Nothing will ever happen, and you may as well not play.
From there, it’s basically the same game as before. Now you can get out of your vehicles and walk around on the planet, but that’s basically about all BCM added.
Oh, wait, it added multiplayer. So that was a thing, I guess.
Download BCM here, if you really want to. (Spoiler: You don’t)
By the time Universal Combat first came out in 2004, what BC3K had done was no longer all that impressive. There were much better space games. They didn’t offer the same sort of freedom that the Battlecruiser series did, but they were much more focused and better games overall because of those decisions. But Derek Smart continued his crusade, and holy shit, absolutely nothing was learned.
Universal Combat is basically an upgraded and repacked BCM. No, really, that’s basically how I’d describe the game. Oh sure, some purists will come in and tell me how wrong I am, but at first glance, that’s basically all you’ll notice. The same careers and general gameplay structure are still in place. Anything other than the Commander career is still absolutely pointless with no real gameplay.
The graphics are, once again, improved. There are now flora and fauna present planetside. Creeping up on a base on Earth, you may encounter a random horse, and have lots of low-resolution bushes appear in front of your face. Textures are improved, meshes have more polygons, and yeah, that’s basically it.
In terms of gameplay changes, most things are the same – it’s the same cryptic interface except with things moved to different places. Marines now get a squad to follow them – except sometimes they bug out, and they’re always pretty much ineffective. There are more vehicles to play with, but they’re all useless.
By this point, I’d run out of tolerance for the series. It’s basically the same game from all those years ago, with a few new gameplay elements that ultimately have zero purpose. It’s rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic. The core gameplay is dated, and the UI was never updated. As a result, the series has done poorly over time and interest has significantly waned. Some games, like the X series, can get away with dated user interfaces (and yes, the X games have an awful UI that never got any better – just adding an RTS-style map would fix a lot of the issues), but they have to have good underlying gameplay to start with, and the UI has to be functional enough to at least get you started. The Battlecruiser series might have a good premise but it’s destroyed by a crap UI and obscure gameplay mechanics.
You can download Universal Combat for free. Universal Combat went on to have multiple re-releases with things that probably should have been patches or free content updates. Universal Combat CE, the sum total of these efforts, is available on Steam. And no, it isn’t worth buying.
The Disappointment Saga Continues…
My experience with the series has been pretty bad. I’ve gone from hope and wonder (BC3K) to bitter disappointment (Universal Combat – and everything that followed). BCM was where I thought Smart might actually start delivering on the game that seemed to be promised in BC3K. Universal Combat demonstrated that it’s out of his reach. The fact that each subsequent releases has the same criticism seems lost not only on Smart but on the community too. Significant bugs remain – and often survive even into subsequent releases (paid releases). Hell, when UC first came out, there was a game breaking bug where Alt-Tabbing out of the game would cause it to crash. Smart’s solution? “Don’t alt-tab.”
I want to love the series. I want to go back to those BC3K days, when it felt like all the series needed was time, and we’d get the Space Sim to End All Sims. We’d have gotten what Star Citizen keeps promising to be – except it’d probably be better. But for now, Smart keeps on rehashing the same tired concept, making the same mistakes again and again.
And it’s sad, because he’s a genuinely creative guy who clearly loves his game and is doing the best he can. But the series is going nowhere, and it’ll never improve at this rate. Perhaps it’s better if the series just died.