Another of the launch reviews that weighed in at slightly shorter than I would have liked, but it covers the key points of this above average RTS well enough.
Petroglyph’s first major game was Star Wars, Empire at War. It was a genuinely fun RTS game based in the Star Wars universe that didn’t break any new ground or stun anyone with its technical ability. It’s really no shock then that the same studio have now released Universe at War, a genuinely fun RTS game that doesn’t break any new ground or stun anyone with its technical ability. But how well is this new game going to cope without the strength of the Star Wars licence?
The prelude for the single player campaign puts you in command of a hammy and downright camp ‘army guy’ around Washington DC trying to save the president from an unknown alien force. It’s all enjoyable e and predictable enough, and it also serves to introduce some of the games common themes. All of the games main characters are two dimensional people with frankly dull problems, horrible one liners and laughable moral dilemmas. The overall story feels someone gave the plot of transformers and the plot of command and conquer 3 to Uwe Boll and told him to make a movie. Everything is functional, but nothing really feels connected or very coherent.
It’s wise not to make too much of a fuss of the story though. It serves its limited purpose and honestly, some of the movies are quite enjoyable to watch, especially the parts where the different alien races are introduced. There’s another more immediate common theme of Universe at War in the prelude; it’s simply just fun to play. It changes little, but it doesn’t move backwards (minus the lack of a retreat button), and it’s this simple playability that means you can jump in and start enjoying yourself straight away, providing you don’t take anything too seriously. Universe at War is the World of Warcraft of the RTS genre; it’s bright, simple and easy to just play.
The main races all work really well together, and are visually distinctive. You quickly lose control of the humans and begin commanding the Novus, the ‘noble’ race of robots who are out to destroy the Hierarchy, a dark, ruthless warrior race. Towards the end, you play as the Masari, a mysterious and technologically advanced race, who are the alleged creators of the Hierarchy. Many of the buildings and units in the game have impressive and distinct designs, and there’s little that screams ‘by the book sci-fi’, save the rather obvious War of the Worlds type walking units of the Hierarchy. The attention to detail in the design doesn’t totally transfer to a unique experience with each of the races. To say they all have different play styles would be going too far, but to not point out the small, important differences in resource collection and unit production would be unfair. The Novus are a typical base building race.
You build buildings that create ground and air units, buildings that defend your base and buildings that enhance the technology of your race. However, most of the Novus units are painfully slow. Building flow conduits around the map and linking them together allow the units to travel across them quickly. This is a great way to balance out the game and give the Novus an extra bit of strategy. If you can get your building units close enough to the enemy base to build a conduit, and then provide a network back to your base, you can launch devastating attacks.
The Hierarchy has access to ‘walkers’, huge production factories that can also build units which can be customised by several ‘hardpoints’ on the design. We’ve seen giant units before in plenty of RTS games, but in Universe at War they come faster and cheaper and can be customised to err on the side of base building or warfare. No, it’s not revolutionary, but it is a welcome change in a game that seems to want to stay as close to possible to the expectations of the genre.
Each race has its own super weapon and they all work as expected. Expensive to build and slow to charge, firing one can turn the tide of a battle instantly. They are all visually impressive, so it’s a shame the campaign doesn’t really let you use them very often, and in a strange order. During the Novus part of the campaign, you fire your black hole weapon on the first map, and never really get a chance to build another until the last level.
Not that you really need super weapons at any point in the campaign. I played the entire single player game through on normal not restarting once, and I don’t consider myself a skilled RTS player. The only time that I ever got close to dying was on the levels where the game seems to pull everything out from under you for no reason at all, and the annoying ‘squad’ type missions where you have no base building facilities and just get sent ‘reinforcements’ as you complete specific objectives.
The end goal of most of the normal missions will involve rushing at the opponent, especially towards the later stages of the game. The only difficult part is deciding how long you can hold on building units before you get bored and charge head first at the enemy. The only time the enemy launched direct assaults on your base are the missions where you are told this will happen in advance. There’s no real strategy involved and little need for defences. Hard’ might make the game more of a challenge for some of us, but any hardcore RTS player is going to find the single player a walk in the park, which is quite a shame as an RTS can get easily dull if there’s no real risk involved.
The AI is functional enough to enjoy the single player, but it’s not going to knock you off your feet. The pathfinding is easily the most frustrating part; the Hierarchies walkers stomp over buildings, but in your own base when they don’t have the luxury, they get easily confused. Unfortunately, I haven’t had time to give multiplayer a proper go, and this is where the real lasting appeal and balance of a strategy game will show itself. The game uses the rather abysmal ‘Games for Windows’ nonsense which certainly isn’t a bonus, but all the relevant options and modes are included. It remains to be seen how well UAW will stand up to in the multiplayer fields alongside ground breaking games like Company of Heroes and Supreme Commander. A lot will be down to how well 360 owners receive the game when it comes out in a few months time, as the system has far less in the way of serious competition for an RTS game. Universe at War has its problems. In fact, it has quite a few problems overall. If you’re looking for a game to restore your faith in real time strategy, this isn’t it. Luckily though, none of those problems stop the game being an enjoyable distraction while we wait for more substantial RTS games to come out. Don’t take it seriously, and you’ll have fun. Buy it expecting a deep and fresh gaming experience and you’ll leave disappointed.