Universe at War: Earth Assault (PC)
If you look closely, you can see what Universe at War should have been: a contemporary real-time strategy game with three unique sides, each drawing from a weird atypical mythology, and a whole mess of gameplay in the various ways they intersect each other. In other words, StarCraft done up with a modern interface and modern graphics, and built from a vivid imagination instead of an expensive intellectual property.
Of course, such a game already exists. It's called Rise of Legends. The differences between Rise of Legends and Universe at War are worth noting. Big Huge Games' Rise of Legends was about gameplay first and foremost. If the graphics were a bit clunky or the pacing was a bit stilted, no big deal; the gameplay was still solid, built around fresh ideas and unique mechanics for each of the three sides. It was a slick and manageable game, exhaustively playtested and immaculately documented. Here were no mysteries, and the spectacle was in its strategic breadth and depth. It was a triumph of game design.
But Petroglyph's Universe at War has roots in the Command & Conquer school of RTS design (many of the developers are old-school Westwood employees). So it's no surprise that it has a different set of priorities than Rise of Legends. The graphics in Universe at War are big and splashy and all up in your face, even if they upstage the ideas. If the interface or artificial intelligence (AI) don't quite come together, well, tough. Most players don't care about the particulars of what's going on, and the hardcore guys can figure that stuff out on their own. This is an action RTS, but with lots of little details around the fringe, like sprinkles on a cupcake. It is a triumph of watching weird stuff blow up.
At least, that seems to be the idea. But the spectacle wears thin as it becomes increasingly apparent that Universe at War is underdone, with a half-baked interface, questionable AI and hobbled multiplayer support. There's a sense that the game was designed -- or at least deemed finished -- by a committee of guys who don't really know the genre very well. Within 30 minutes, the average RTS fan will have a list of problems as long as his arm. Universe at War is shot through with oversights, shortcuts and problems that have long since been solved in other games.
This is particularly disappointing since the three sides are so imaginative, with nary a sign of anything resembling vanilla humans. These are factions you want to play: the voracious alien invaders with their enormous walkers and lethal radioactivity leaking all over the place; the nimble, noble anime robots with their tricky tech and clean bright lines; and the mysterious keepers of light and dark arcana with their blocky temples, mechanical angels and ornate chariots. It makes no sense, even once you've gotten through the bog-standard campaign mode, but it's memorable, intriguing and brimming with possibilities.
Petroglyph obviously appreciates the possibilities. Each race has its own play style, with unique tech trees, economies, heroes and armies. The alien invaders build upgrades onto their walkers, which serve as mobile bases. The anime robots have all sorts of micromanagement tricks, like running "patches" for global bonuses, spreading viruses and hacking vehicles. The magicians alternate between special light and dark powers and are ideally suited for classic turtling or booming strategies. If it worked well, Universe at War would be one hell of an RTS. But somewhere between the design doc and the gold master, Petroglyph dropped the ball.
The interface is the first and most consistent problem. It simply can't keep up with the pace of the game. It suffers from a constant and stingy refusal to give the player useful information. There's a lot of extraneous activity onscreen, but it's impossible to see how a battle is going until it's over. For instance, you can't see the amount of health enemy units have without mousing over them one at a time -- and even then, you only get the percentage of health it has remaining rather than any sense for its total hit points. There's no distinction between a lowly Ohm robot and a mighty Peacebringer tank. Want to know how much and what kind of damage a unit does? Want to know a unit's range? Want to know about an enemy's special powers beyond the flavor text? Want to know how you're supposed to destroy that alien walker? Want to see a tooltip for an enemy unit or building to find out what it does and whether it's worth destroying? Want to know what the glowing green special effect means? Too bad. Universe at War might be generous with the flavor, but it's stingy with the data.
Unit management is equally sloppy. The AI and pathfinding are terrible, and there's no useful way to manage large groups of units. Consider, for example, that you find there's no efficient attack move; instead, units simply march on to their assigned destination until you manually tell them to stop. There's no way to keep faster flying units with slower land units, resulting in armies that are spread out across the map. Many maps have destructible terrain, but there's no way to manually target it to let your units through, which breaks up groups even more. And the prohibitive unit limit puts a serious ceiling on the number of viable strategies. Did Petroglyph really mean for the default unit limit to be 40? That's not an army. That's a scouting party.
You can't even queue up building orders to manage your base, something that's standard in any modern RTS. But this is nowhere near as bad as chasing hardpoint nodes to configure a moving walker, much less trying to get a sense for what you've already built on which walker. Even if you're not building alien walkers, you get to manually target the node icons when you fight them. Things like this might by funny if they weren't so obviously bad ideas. Did no one at Petroglyph notice how awkward their game turned out to be? So much of what passes for gameplay in Universe at War is simply wrestling with the interface and units. Even the single-player conquest mode, a strategic campaign meta-game, is a wash for running in real time, having a terrible interface, and being poorly documented.
Finally, Universe at War deserves raspberries for throwing its lot in with Microsoft's horrible Games for Windows Live, a PC-based offshoot of Xbox Live, but minus helpful features like a chat lobby or custom names for hosted matches. Adding insult to injury, Microsoft expects you to pay a regular subscription fee to access features that are free in other games. Given the state of the game and the transparent money grab of Games for Windows Live, Universe at War doesn't have much life expectancy as a multiplayer game, and considering how inelegant it is as a single-player game, it unfortunately doesn't have much life expectancy there, either.
This review is based on a retail copy of the game provided by the publisher.