This truly is Video Game: The Game
Another year, and yet another RTS ported to the Xbox 360. Following in the footsteps of Battle For Middle Earth II and Command & Conquer 3, a new challenger approaches this platform with a new and evolved control scheme, and cross-platform online play with the PC as well via Xbox Live!. The developer of Universe At War, Petroglyph is made up of classic developers from Westwood, and has previously released the Star Wars: Empire At War series. This is their first original IP, and their first console port as well. Unfortunately, this is also their first failure, and while it does a few good things for the genre on a system without a keyboard and mouse, it falls flat of being a good game.
Universe At War is quite possibly one of the most generic RTSs I’ve played in quite some time, and even as a video game itself it really doesn’t stand out at all. It almost should have been labeled Video Game: The Game, as the entire thing feels like a developer just going through the motions to release a product on time. It feels rushed, untested, and probably could have been a somewhat better game technically had Petroglyph taken more time to polish it. However, the actual content of the game is where the core problems are, and that would have needed a lot more than a few months to fix.
The story is about Earth being attacked by a race known as the Hierarchy, and the only ones that can stop them are a race of sentient robots known as the Novus. Eventually, the Hierarchy overpowers the Novus, but a third race, the Masari, emerges that is also against the Hierarchy, and assists humanity as well. The Novus can be described as being very similar to the Protoss from Starcraft, only with less depth or personality. The Hierarchy are somewhat more interesting, mainly due to their units being based around Walkers, which are large tank-like machines with large legs that must be destroyed by taking out certain areas first, though the Hierarchy also has traditional ground troops as well as air. Finally, the Masari are ancient humanoids that had helped the Hierarchy thousands of years ago, but were forced to Earth in exile due to betrayal. Overall, it doesn’t seem like much thought was put into the units or races themselves, with the exception of the Walkers.
Probably the best part of the game itself are the controls, which are easily the best strategy controls I’ve used on a console. Everything is quite intuitive, and the using of the bumpers and triggers is far more useful than some other games. Also, Universe At War boasts a wide array of shortcuts that are very handy, though in some ways there are too many that they can get in the way, thus defeating the point. In any case, this is the shining point of the game.
Graphically, there is nothing especially great here. There can be some issues with framerate that can get frustrating, especially when you’re trying to command a large group of units at once on the screen. It is imperative that one switches the game’s speed to the fastest setting under options, for without this the game can feel incredibly slow. The models are detailed for an RTS, but using these same models for the in-game cut-scenes was a horrible idea, since the animations are laughable and when zoomed in, they aren’t quite up to snuff. There are some interesting effects and particles, but nothing that hasn’t been done in CNC3. In the audio department, we have decent music that is forgettable, phoned in voice acting, and sound effects that just scream “Generic SCIFI Game Sounds”. Thankfully, since the 360 supports custom soundtracks, you can at least listen to your own music.
As far as the campaign mode is concerned, it is inarguably the worst part of the game, and the very first mission sets the tone for the rest of the single-player. To start off, you begin with a rudimentary and incredibly basic tutorial that you are forced to complete to start the main campaign. I despise tutorials, and I especially hate it when you are forced to play through one. It’s almost as if they’re punishing the player for being too lazy to read the manual. In any case, once you complete this tutorial as the Novus, you switch over to a group of human soldiers that have survived the assault of the Hierarchy. It is explained that perhaps over 90% of the world’s population is lost from the attack, and thinks look grim for humanity.
The Novus intervene, and you switch to them and begin their campaign. From there you switch to the Hierarchy, and then finally the Masari. Most of the plot is rushed, and in the end I wasn’t very sympathetic to the plight of most characters at all. Overall, the singleplayer campaign is far too tedious and short that I would suggest avoiding it altogether. Never before have I played an RTS where I had to force myself through missions that were excruciatingly unenjoyable. The maps are just so drab, and half of the time they’re scaled in a way that they’re either too big or too small.
Of course, no RTS is complete without a multi-player component, and at least Universe At War has some cool stuff here, such as Live! integration with PC players, and a “Global Conquest” mode that uses a large map and allows players to compete as certain races to conquer the world, similar to the one used in Chromehounds. I was not able to find very many games at all, and in fact was unable to find any sometimes. Perhaps this is due to the game being new, but I don’t think this bodes well for the future.
It’s sad to think about what could have been with this game, since there was obviously some thought into some aspects, but the rest of it is so overly generic that it just doesn’t stand out from other games. The art, the audio, the level design, it’s all just sorta “there”, and feels creatively bankrupt. Petroglyph has a chance to fix these issues in an expansion pack, but for now I wouldn’t recommend this game unless you’re in dire need of strategy on a pad.