Reviewed: June 29, 2008
Released: July 31, 2008
Download Tank Universal Demo (93 MB)
I have a soft spot for Indie game developers. After all, GCM is an indie webzine who answers to neither advertisers nor publishers. We’re a site for gamers by gamers, and as all the major game studios flock to the cash cow consoles, the PC – the birthplace of gaming – is left with only overseas developers and small upstarts. We have come full circle and the games of tomorrow are being made by the gamers of yesterday…at least on the PC.
That leads us to one of the best kept secrets of this summer; a little indie game called Tank Universal. Not since 2003 when Monolith released TRON for the PC have you seen or experienced a game like Tank Universal, mostly because this game borrows heavily on the bright neon-style visuals of the classic Disney film as well as a few story elements. Let’s just hope the Disney lawyers aren’t on the prowl looking for copyright infringements.
Tank Universal features:
Tank Universal starts off on foot and you wander the VR-scape using traditional WADS controls like any other FPS. You glide effortlessly across the polished floors and grid-like patterns. You can approach and eavesdrop on NPC’s and stare in awe at the colorful visuals, but eventually you’ll end up being teleported to a combat exercise area where you are to engage in tank battles.
It turns out these exercises are in fact a deadly trap set in motion by the evil Gorgon, who rules from his gigantic flying carrier ship (which looks suspiciously like the one from TRON). As you are getting the feel of driving a tank (also controlled by the WADS cluster) the leader of a rebel resistance movement hacks into your com-link and instructs you to break off from the rest of the tanks. Just as you divert down a secret path the rest of the tank pilots are ambushed and destroyed.
Welcome to the resistance and Tank Universal, a game that takes place on virtual battlefields as you drive tanks, collect resources, and try to disable enemy installations while Gorgon’s evil minions are trying to do the same to you. It’s a clever mix of Battlezone meets TRON with tanks instead of lightcycles – at least in gameplay and visuals, but there is also quite a bit of strategy lurking beneath the run and gun gameplay.
As you drive around you can mark glyphs for collection by harvesters. These are the resources that fuel the war and add to your number of tanks. You’ll also want to pick up the energy crystals from defeated enemies in order to power your shields. Everything you need to know to control your tank is handled with the WADS keys, the shift key (run and turbo) and the F1-F9 keys, which select weapons and tank functions.
There is a slight learning curve to the combat. Not only do you need to learn to drive in one direction while firing in another, you also have to lead your targets and even plot accurate firing solutions for long-range targets. You also have to balance the tactics of rapid fire (weak shots) versus holding down the fire key for a far more damaging powered shot. A host of upgrades such as mines, rockets, turrets, and a booster will all factor into your battle strategy.
The game is friendly in that you can respawn infinitely, but your overall score will suffer. There is no save feature other than your progress being saved after you complete a mission. After each battle the story will advance and you will find yourself in a new area even more fantastic than the last. The trick is to find the willpower to actually stop playing this game. It is quite addictive.
My complaints are few. I would really enjoy a quick-save feature because some of the battles can wear on for an hour or more and you can’t always finish them in a single session, which means pausing the game and using Task Manager. Tank Universal can be run in a “windowed” mode like any other Windows application, which makes it easier to pop in and out for quick gaming sessions. You are also locked into the cutscenes, which can be a bit drawn out, especially if you are replaying the game. One of the first cutscenes has you standing in line waiting to get in your tank but you have to wait for the super-slow carrier to fly over, then watch a smaller dropship descend to your location. And finally, there is no multiplayer, but rumor has it a skirmish mode may be forthcoming. That would be cool!
While Tank Universal shares the same style as the 2003 TRON game it lacks a lot of the smaller details and polish you can only achieve with A-list funding and a massive budget. Even so, for an indie action title, this game kicks butt, both in simplicity and finesse. The entire premise of the game is that you are in a VR world so the visuals are old school polygons with simple shading, but then you have these elaborate texture designs for the sky/ceiling and various landscape details like mountains and buildings.
The ships, tanks, giant robots, turrets, and anything else you encounter in battle all have excellent designs, and function realistically with moving parts. The HUD is simple and extremely organized and I loved the easy-to-read radar with arrows that show you exactly where to go. There is even a green tint monochrome feel to the menus, which is very old school. The star of the show has to be the special effects. Amazing particle effects, explosions, smoke, bright flares, incoming laser weapons, all light up the battlefield in blinding displays of carnage.
As previously mentioned, the game can be run in windowed mode or in a variety of full-screen resolutions. Just pick the one that offers the best framerate. System requirements are modest, but a nice rig will net you a stunning gameplay experience. One minor complaint is that there are no widescreen modes supported and the max resolution is only 1280x960, but the game still looks great and there is minimal distortion when you stretch to fit a 16:10 monitor.
There is no speech in Tank Universal – not that I really expected any from an indie game – so you get to read all your dialogue and incoming com-chatter. There is a modest selection of techno and trance tunes that fit with the futuristic theme of the game. I would have enjoyed even more but there is nothing stopping you from running your own MP3 play list in the background.
The sound effects are awesome with all sorts of futuristic sounds for lasers and the hum of tanks and the thunderous explosions. Most of these sounds probably come from a stock library of effects that we’ve probably heard a hundred times before, but for some reason they sound really good in this VR world.
There are 20 levels that can take you anywhere from 12-20 hours to complete depending on how good you are. That’s a pretty good deal for a downloadable game you can purchase for less than $18. The game is actively updated and patched and the designers really read the input on their forums. There is even a hint that multiplayer may be forthcoming.
I can still remember when VR was all the rage, both in video games and movies. Then all the buzz seemed to disappear and you really don’t hear that much about VR anymore. Tank Universal is a great throwback to VR, TRON, Battlezone, and just plain old-school gaming full of action and strategy. It’s hard not to love this game, especially at its affordable price. It’s also one of a few games that works on modest hardware and is surprisingly stable – not a single lock-up or crash in nearly 15 hours of gameplay.
If you love VR or the concept of TRON - getting sucked into a living-breathing video game - then Tank Universal is going to rock your virtual world.