Destroying the human race should be more fun than this...
Universe at war – Earth assault is a sci-fi RTS developed by Petrogylph, consisting of many of those lovely Westwood fellows (It said so on the back of the box!) who I’m sure you all know for the seminal command and conquer series. Naturally when one places the words “Westwood” and “RTS” in the same sentence when describing a game, you expect something special. I mean, those guys are pretty much the daddies of the genre as it stands, so the game has to be good, right?The games setting is a fairly unfortunate one for us earthlings, as from right at the offset we’re being smacked around left right and centre by alien invaders. These extra-terrestrial fiends are the nasty Hierarchy, the mysterious Masari, and the somewhat prissy Novus. These three superpowers have come to earth to duke it out for various reasons, using our familiar settings to throw down on – so you can expect to see at least 3 monuments explode within the first 60 seconds of the game. While you will get to play as the humans in the tutorial, that’s the only time you will actually spend as them – and you’ll probably be glad for that too, since they’re totally uninteresting. After the training, you won’t be playing as the humans ever again; however the game provides three relatively lengthy campaigns for each of its factions, so it’s not exactly short on content.
One of the most interesting things about Universe at war is actually its design choices. The game’s characters borrow heavily from various sci-fi staples from present and past, such as mechas from anime, and Tim Burton’s ‘Mars attacks!’ (A film which I loved at the time, but in retrospect…. ergh). The game’s story is a fairly standard fare for an RTS, playing out similarly to Warcraft 3 and other recent offerings, where you’ll occasionally get in-engine conversations between the hero characters. Interestingly, the dialogue and voice acting in Universe at war is actually fairly good, especially considering that this genre isn’t exactly known for stellar performances (with the exception of Joseph D. Kucan as Kane). The story will develop throughout the missions themselves, though at times you’ll get tired of it randomly taking twists in just in order to make you play a certain scenario; such as defending a super weapon for a set amount of time, or destroying a specific unit. Then again, these are common genre trappings, so it’s only fair to expect these kinds of elements in an RTS.
Each of the games three factions are incredibly diverse, and require drastically different playing styles and strategies if you’re going to be succeeding with all of them. The Novus play in the traditional RTS style, using power stations and buildings to produce their forces – they’re also capable of teleporting troops down power lines around the map, which makes rushing a viable strategy. The Masari are able to put their units and structures into different ‘modes’ which will flip their strengths and weaknesses; Which of these you use will often decide the result of a battle. You’ll also get the Hierarchy, a race of intergalactic bastards who, in age-old alien tradition, just want to blow everything up. The Hierarchy are probably the most interesting race, since instead of structures you’ll primarily be building from giant ‘war of the worlds’ style walkers, which seem nigh on impossible to take down. These walkers provide some of the most entertaining parts of the game, and taking one down (or on the other hand, taking something down with one) is downright awesome. You’ll also be put in control of special hero characters that can decimate large groups of enemies on the battlefield. While the units aren’t anything revolutionary to the genre, they’re pretty unique and memorable, and also have some cool looking special abilities.It would have been nice to have thrown a couple more factions into the mix, but you’ll still probably gel to at least one of the three in universe at war which offer the play style that suits you. All three of them also seem to be pretty balanced, which is nice, although getting to grips with the Novus is nowhere near as difficult as learning to play as the Masari effectively, so don’t expect to see an overwhelming amount of their players in the online mode. Speaking of the online mode, this is one of those few special titles to allow cross platform play between the PC and the XBOX 360, although the clunky control of the 360 version can be a bit of an unfair handicap. That said, Universe at war is still a fun and balances RTS to play online, and hardcore fans of the genre will find a lot of competition to sink their teeth into. There’s also a territory controlling ‘Conquer the world’ mode, which isn’t anything particularly new to RTS games, but does offer a decent distraction from just playing normal ranked matches. By the way, be warned that the PC version of the game required a gold subscription to play online, so if you don’t already have one for your 360 or other live PC games (yeah, because there are so many of those out right now!), then be prepared for fork out a note or two if you want to duke it out on the web. On the plus side, it does have achievements for us junkies.
There is however, one important flaw that bugged me to no end while I was playing this game, and it’s not something you’d expect from an RTS game. The camera. When the game was originally unveiled and the first gameplay was shown, people commented on how the camera was a bit too close to the action. Developers Petroglyph shrugged that off by saying that it was to give the game a more cinematic feel. Well that’s fair enough, but when the units in the game nearly outsize the screen in the maximum zoomed out view, that’s just ri-freaking-diculous. It’s actually kind of remarkable how something which could be fixed so easily can bring a game down a peg by itself; but this wasn’t noticeably fixed for the later-released 360 version, so it’s pretty unforgivable.
What Universe at war offers up sounds like a recipe for RTS nirvana, however there are a few problems that stop it from being anything more than a slightly above average RTS romp. Don’t get me wrong though, there are some strategy or sci-fi buffs that are totally going to eat this game up, and good on them, because it’s not a bad way to spend £30. The rest of us mere mortals however, are probably better off sticking to World in conflict for the time being.
The good: The three different playable factions are vastly different, well balanced online with cross-system play, some very cool and unique units to command
The bad: 360 controls are awkward, campaign is a little humdrum, camera is waaaay too zoomed in – especially when controlling the large hierarchy unitsUniverse at war – Earth assault gets 3/5