Sometimes we find companionship through games. Friends who will continue to game with us for years to come. Some games, like PlayStation Home and Second Life, are made for no reason other than to give you a virtual environment to meet with and interact with these friends. Atom Universe is another entry into this strange life simulation/3D chat room genre that seeks to just let you relax and talk to friends while partaking in some simple minigames. It’s still in development, but maybe that’s the best time for me to jump in and finally find friendship.
At the start of the game I am greeted with a character creation screen, but to say the options are limited would be an understatement. You can’t change your character’s body shape in any way, so all men and women have the same basic shapes. There’re some limited clothing options, but we’re talking about three shirts, two pants, and a single pair of gloves and shoes. There are a ton of different accessories, some of which can be acquired with Atomz and some through DLC packs. Atomz is the in-game currency: each day you’re given some Atomz and you can earn it through games and other activities. If you pay a monthly subscription fee (don’t) then you get extra Atomz every day and some unique items. I find it strange that the developers are working on DLC when the main game isn’t even done yet, but who knows. As an aside, I couldn’t help but notice that one of the accessories I could purchase was a Guy Fawkes mask, which I’m nearly positive is breaking some law somewhere.
Atom Universe currently has four areas available to visit: The Hub, the Arcade Plaza, a Mirage House, and a Woodland House. Each area can house up to 32 players at once, with the Hub and Arcade Plaza both having free official servers. If you want you can pay Atomz to run public or private versions of any of the maps. These public versions of the maps are the only way to get into one of the houses, notably. I decided to start with the Hub, as it seems like the central area. Indeed, the amusement park is the most mentioned area of the trailers, and the game itself even describes it as “home to the biggest thrills in Atom Universe.” The truth is it’s empty. There’s a ton of rides for you to look at, but only a single ride is open. There’s a water slide, a roller coaster, go-karts, bumper cars, and a club called “Crowbots” and all of this just sits outside the map boundaries, warning signs basically saying “coming one day”. What is the one open ride? A Ferris wheel that you can spend one Atomz to ride, which puts you in a first-person view to slowly watch. Fun.
I move to the Arcade Plaza with some hope that things can only go up from here. Similar to the Hub, there’s a grand total of one activity currently available, and that activity is bowling. The bowling minigame feels iffy at best, using some simplistic mechanics that take longer than necessary to figure out. You can spin the ball, adjust your starting position and switch between an accurate and a powerful roll by either looking at the pins or at your feet. Then you can ignore all of that and so long as you get a good roll you’ll probably take out most of the pins anyway. There’s also arcade machines, a coin pusher, a target range, and horse racing that, similar to all those great sounding rides from before, aren’t available.
Finally, there are the two houses. Unlike the other locations, there’s just nothing you can do with these at all. Even if you buy a house you can’t customize or decorate it in any way to make it unique. It just exists, either as a private server for you to explore or as a public one where others can join. The house designs were nice, you can sit on chairs or lay in a bed, but if you wanted to make the house uniquely yours then you’re out of luck.
Each of the game’s areas has passable presentation when not in motion. There’s some good artistic environmental design that the game utilizes, each area actually feeling well made, like a fantasy location I’d love to spend time in but wouldn’t find anywhere. Then characters move, their awkward animations totally taking me out of the moment. Everyone moves like robots, stiff and unrealistic. The soundtrack is barely there, a few boring notes played on a loop. The exception is the Arcade Plaza which in theory uses licensed songs from indie bands. In practice it plays one song then goes mute because it doesn’t work right.
I also can’t stand the game’s almost shockingly bad menu navigation. Every menu is a mess, as the game puts a cursor on the screen that you control with the right stick. Sometimes you use that cursor to select things, sometimes you’re supposed to use the d-pad and shoulder buttons, and it’s a total toss in the air on which menu is controlled by what. Furthermore, each menu is just ugly. Every screen feels like it’s loaded with logos to remind me what was used to develop the game while constant pop-ups want me to rate activities and areas before I can even use them. I’m not exactly sure how my advice on rides I haven’t used is valuable, but that won’t stop Atom Universe from asking anyway.
Maybe something interesting will come out of the game, but for right now it’s just empty. There’s people playing it, wandering around and using poorly made dance animations at each other while attempting to hold conversations in a barely functional chat box (a lot of symbols currently come out as a mess, for some reason.) That surprised me for sure, as I wasn’t expecting anyone to really bother with the game. There is a draw for this kind of game, even when there’s apparently no customization, no minigames, nothing that the genre normally has.
Right before I finished my time in Atom Universe I decided to sit down in a jacuzzi with some other player. I want to try and strike up a conversation with them, and asked: “Come here often?” (though it came out as “come here often?z??o>” because of the aforementioned chat box glitch.). He got up and left. I am alone again.