Genre: Real-Time Strategy
Release Date: December 10, 2007
Although few science fiction RTS series have managed to slake the thirst many veterans have had since Starcraft, titles such as Petroglyph's strategic take on "Star Wars," Empire at War, continued to feed their need to wage intergalactic war. With Universe at War, Petroglyph has taken the lessons learned from pitting Rebel, Imperial and criminal forces against each other by turning Earth into a three-way war of the worlds where humans are merely the buggy paste squished beneath alien jackboots.
The story behind the main campaign takes place sometime in the future where Earth has been slated to be harvested for resources by an alien civilization known as the Hierarchy. Instead of plowing through the planet to build a highway, the Hierarchy intends to strip everything from the planet for its own ends as they have done with thousands of other worlds until one of their enemies, the robotic Novus, arrive to spoil their plans. As the two sides clash, an ancient power, the Masari, awakens to tip the scales against the overwhelming forces of the Hierarchy in a titanic clash for the survival of Earth.
UaW's main campaign serves as an extended tutorial to learn how all three factions operate, teaching you the basics from the basics of moving units around to waging war on a global scale. The story isn't bad as RTS titles go, deftly tying together the elements that the player will need to learn in order to get the most out of the game and survive, but the somewhat predictable nature of the twists and the shallow characters aren't as exciting as the lavish backstory purported in the manual. Solid voice acting helps to color the presentation to some degree, and the subtle humor will bring a smile to a sci-fi fan's face, but much of the rest can sound as if it were simply there to move along the game. The cut scenes help to a degree, but the low quality and the flat characters rob these of a lot of their impact.
Legendary Westwood alum, Frank Klepacki, provides another stirring soundtrack whether you're on the menu screen or in a pitched battle. The score consist of a mix of techno and sci-fi sounds alongside effects that can send your subwoofer bouncing when a Hierarchy walker goes out with a deafening bass scream of released energy. The look of the game wavers between being uniquely detailed, as is the case with the Hierarchy's massive walkers, to somewhat plain, as is the case with a few of the Masari units and some of the map graphics. Given how big some of the battles can get, the viewport can feel a little constrained, especially when one of the titanic walkers arrives to fill in most of what you can see. Zooming in might give you a front row seat to the action, but doesn't help much in seeing more of what you need.
Instead of simply taking a list of basic units and asking the artists to make them look unique, each faction provides its own set of strengths and weaknesses. For example, the planet-raiding Hierarchy view the universe as one big gold rush. If the tree-hugging Captain Planet decided to get in their faces, he'd find himself harvested and recycled. Their whole economy is based on harvesting whatever they can and leaving a wake of irradiated pollution as a parting gift. Similar to some extent in how the Novus can harvest raw material from battlefield wreckage or abandoned structures in order to produce units, the Hierarchy can also convert humans into mindless zombies by bleeding radiation from their engines into the air they breathe, convert cows into resources, or land one of their giant walkers on the ground to step on whatever is left. Immune to their own lingering radioactive attacks, the Hierarchy is a formidable enemy. The downside is that their units tend to be pretty expensive compared to everyone else and can take some time to get to where they need to go, especially in the case of the titanic walkers.
Key to each of these diverse sides in UaW is the ability to modify their abilities on the fly and through tech tree upgrades. The Novus can apply software "patches" that can enable them to resist radiation or cool their weapons faster, the Hierarchy can equip their massive walkers with a variety of swappable weapons and gadgets, and the Masari can switch their powers to Light or Dark throughout their entire faction, adding unique layers to the strategies that players can employ against the often cunning AI or against each other. Turning a Hierarchy walker into a weapons platform bristling with firepower is a lot of great fun, and watching it in action is just as entertaining. Most of the time.
A zero-day patch is available for UaW, although it didn't prevent the degrading performance that you might encounter when you try to autosave your progress or manually save it to a slot. The longer that I'd play as any one of the three sides, the longer it would take to save until it would randomly corrupt the latest one or simply crash me out to the desktop. Crashes are nothing new, but the degree to how badly it hurts the experience begins when it forces you to repeat hard-fought battles.
The system requirements are pretty much on the low end, especially since I was playing Crysis (with just about every setting maxed out) on the same box and didn't experience a problem, but UaW will simply chug when the action gets a little too much for it to handle. In the worst cases, it will dump you out to the desktop with a message stating that something "abnormal" happened. This is also particularly frustrating when you try to save and, after several tense seconds of wondering if it did, you're staring at your wallpaper as the game apologizes.
Managing your war is somewhat easy to do with the interface, but RTS veterans will quickly discover that the manual does a poor job of outlining many of the basics that they take for granted in most every other RTS. Convenient, tactical things like forming grouped units accessed via hotkey or setting rally points might not be found until players take a look at the Options screen outlining the extensive selection of available commands. The tutorials help in understanding how each faction works, but some of the basic, general commands are completely glossed over, which may make things much harder to grasp for players new to the RTS genre. Although the easy answer might be to tell players to simply look at the Options screen, it would have been better to list the most important ones somewhere in the manual.
The interface has a few issues of its own. Buttons on the bottom of the screen bring up all structures associated with a particular build type, whether it's soldiers or vehicles; it can occasionally disappear in the middle of clicking up a batch of units, so you'll be forced to bring it back up again. RTS veterans hoping to assign a permanent queue to a production structure won't find that option available anywhere, giving players a little more to micromanage. Two of the Hierarchy's walkers double as barracks and vehicle factories, but occasionally clicking on a walker won't bring up the unit queue until you use the interface buttons to force it onscreen.
Pathfinding problems can sometimes result in units getting stuck on objects and left behind, or becoming confused when they try to get around each other. Hierarchy walkers can occasionally get tangled up and become unresponsive to your clicks. You'd expect them to just walk over buildings or through rubble and most of the time, they do. When they occasionally get crowded, however, they go from looming behemoth to Tinkerbell in ballet slippers as they try and dance around everything.
The AI is pretty challenging and can be particularly brutal to face off against at higher difficulty levels, as it can surprise you with a mix of units that hit you from the air and on the ground. It can also be helpful; in one mission with Novus allies, I had built up a string of turrets to protect my side of the map from the Hierarchy. The Novus built up their base on the other side, and when they were powerful enough, they sent over one of their dual-purpose units that projected a protective shield over part of my defensive line without even asking.
Players can skirmish with the AI, try out different scenarios, or conquer the world online, map by map — if you can find anyone to connect to, as UaW will take you back to the days when you had to open special ports on the firewall or set up a new security rule just to get connected to others. It doesn't matter if you've played World in Conflict, Company of Heroes or even UT3 with the settings that you've always used. You might have to fiddle with your router and/or firewall, something that neither the manual nor the game will help with, aside from championing the virtues of Live.
A "Gold" account for Microsoft's Live network is required for ranked matches and cross-platform gaming, and a free month is included with the package. You can still take it to LAN parties and wage war on a local level without one, and a generic silver membership that doesn't require a yearly fee will still allow you to play online on Live, but competitive RTS veterans might be put off by having to pay for the privilege. Even so, there doesn't seem to be a lot happening online. I found, at most, about five servers on Live hosted by players on the lobby list, but I had no idea what the pings were like, or if the server I wanted to join was still there unless I refreshed the screen. There's also no lobby chat for players to trade information with each other on topics such as what settings I need to configure in order to actually connect to a server.
To its credit outside of the game, Live actually works on XP as I was able to log into the profile I already had with my Xbox 360, complete with achievements and everything else. My friends were able to find me online, message me back or basically do all of the simple things that a Live account allows you to. Unfortunately for UaW, it wasn't as easy to get into a game as it was to check my messages.
Universe at War's decidedly old-school feel might be fine for RTS vets and newcomers who can overlook its shortcomings to enjoy the deeply diverse, tactical gameplay, whether they want to play as the technologically alien Novus, the world-killing Hierarchy or the enigmatic Masari. Unfortunately, a host of other issues, from the buggy interface to the nearly broken multiplayer, can turn you from waging war against aliens to against your own PC, dampening the three-way excitement that it brings to the table. There are still plenty of entertaining moments buried beneath the scorched rubble if you have the patience to dig far enough to find them, but be ready to accept a little collateral damage on your part if you do.
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