Release Date: October 2007
There are certain beats you can comfortably expect a space RTS to hit. There will be a number of factions that handle more or less like the StarCraft factions. Some noble humans fighting to save their planet or race are going to be the heroes. There will be some friendly aliens, and some truly nasty ones to serve as the bad guys. If you win in the story mode, you probably save the galaxy ... at least until the sequel. Most of your gameplay involves obsessing over piles of resources until you've built up enough units to steamroll your enemy. Which units you use is the main thing that differentiates your factions.
Basically none of this conventional wisdom appears to apply to Petroglyph's Universe at War: Earth Assault, planned to be the first of a series of Universe at War titles. While the game only offers three factions, these alien races are developed in incredible detail that goes far beyond the RTS norm. Petroglyph's developers have taken Universe at War as a chance to rethink everything about RTS from the ground up, from how players use resources to how factions differentiate themselves from each other. Every faction plays so very differently that you almost seem to get a different game out of using each of them. The single-player campaign promises a rich and unusually nuanced tale of aliens invading a helpless Earth, while multiplayer promises to play off of the unusual gameplay style to create an RTS experience that is both unique and somehow familiar.
Best of all, Universe at War isn't yet another story designed to trumpet the superiority of humans in a supposedly vast and amazing universe. You use some human units in a tutorial stage to fight the invading Hierarchy race, and get to see just how impotent they are. In later stages and multiplayer, humans play no role more significant than acting as one of the resources Hierarchy players can harvest from the map. Instead, Earth Assault concerns itself with the three powerful races vying for control of the Earth: the Hierarchy, their bitter enemies the Novus, and the enigmatic Masari. Each faction obtains resources and demands a wholly different play strategy ... well, strategies. In Universe at War, players can re-invest their research points at any time, allowing them to adapt their tech trees as they go along. What they can't do is maximize all abilities of a given faction. So, most factions actually can be played in several different ways, depending on which abilities a player opted to buy. Most players, especially in multiplayer, are probably going to find themselves having to rapidly change strategies on the fly to deal with new gambits from their opponent, who can also constantly try new strategies while attacking. This aside, there's still a distinct central thrust to the way each faction operates.
The Hierarchy bad guys, for instance, are a faction designed to cater to the aggressive, attack-oriented player who likes to just wade in to the enemy and smash everything in sight. Instead of being tethered to a static base, a Hierarchy player instead gets to create and fortify a series of tremendous, heavily armored "walkers" that are studded with hardpoints. What you mount on the hardpoints dictates what role your walker will play in combat. Cover it in weapons to use it as an assault unit, or cover it in unit-production modules to make it spew all sorts of nasty reinforcements you can use to blitz enemies. The appearance of the Hierarchy units take cues from UFO and classic sci-fi lore, so they can produce (among other things) terrible flying saucers that attack with floating spheres of light. Hierarchy units tend to be very powerful attackers, but have to stay mobile in order to gather resources. Hierarchy get resources from living creatures like humans (who make delightful screams upon being harvested), cows, and even trees. This mobility can make a Hierarchy player vulnerable to concerted counter-attacks from Novus or Masari, who have an easier time gathering resources and benefit from being able to fortify base locations. Hierarchy walkers can't really be fortified, save by pairing a producer up with an attacker and hoping for the best. Once a Hierarchy player picks up momentum, she'll have an attack advantage over most other players, but maintaining momentum with the Hierarchy appears to be the real challenge of using them.
In the game's story, the Hierarchy is a race known for attacking planets and simply strip-mining them of all useful resources, including living creatures and ultimately the ability to support life. Earth is far from their first conquest. One highly advanced race the Hierarchy attacked long ago tried to battle them by creating a self-replicating race of highly intelligent robots to act as warriors. The Hierarchy destroyed their masters, but the Novus collective AI survived and has spent countless centuries honing its effectiveness as an anti-Hierarchy force. The Novus aren't motivated by anything so noble as a genuine concern for humanity or even living things in general; they're just trying to destroy the Hierarchy as they were originally programmed. This helps give the human race a certain boost in surviving against the Hierarchy, but the Novus are hardly allies. Much like the Hierarchy, their goal may eventually call for strip-mining the planet.
Where the Hierarchy gather resources from living creatures, the Novus gather resources from inorganic structures on the map, particularly metal ones. This generally gives a Novus player an easier time when it comes to gathering resources than a Hierarchy player may have. While a Novus player may build momentum more slowly than a Hierarchy or Masari player, she'll be hard to beat once she's built enough units and fortified her base enough to have the upper hand. Interestingly, Novus are so expert at scavenging inorganic material that they can use the wreckage of defeated enemies as particularly rich resource piles.
The Novus playstyle is suited to the clever player who enjoys tricking opponents into defeat, and using plenty of cheaper, weaker units to swarm more powerful foes. Individual Novus units are among the weakest in the game, but generating massive Novus armies is easy. Their bases create networks that allow for instantaneous transportation across the map, granting the Novus increasingly valuable maneuverability as their influence over the map spreads. In mirror matches, you can even use an opponent's network to transport your own Novus units. Because of Novus' reliance on their network, your combat strength is especially reliant on the size of your base and your ability to produce new units. To help defend your base, Novus can use a lot of interesting tricks that turn an enemy's attack power against them. The most prominent are "redirection towers," which cause enemy fire to bend around the tower and fly back at the original attacker. You can upgrade your Novus in a variety of ways by downloading "patches" to them, but the Novus play style appears to be less radically affected by what patches you're using than, say, the way customization changes the Hierarchy or Masari style. Novus specialize in swarming, trickery, and amassing resources. The main difference in how you use them is really how you choose to exploit those basic strengths.
The Masari seem to encourage traditional RTS gameplay insofar as anything in Universe at War does, favoring defensive strategies and slow build-ups. Conceptually, the Masari are the alien race that may have inspired human civilization. Their structures resemble Egyptian architecture and the famous monolith from 2001. They gain momentum in much the traditional way, but instead of harvesting particular resources from the setting they instead built tremendous "matter engines" that convert any type of matter in the area into energy that can be spent on further construction. The trade-off for this versatility is danger: if a matter engine is destroyed, it goes up in a cataclysmic explosion that destroys everything else in the area. Taking out an entire Masari base by destroying a single matter engine is entirely possible, so Masari players need to take defense very seriously. By the same token, Masari players can use their matter engines' volatility to bait opposing players into traps.
The Masari upgrade gimmick involves giving them two separate combat modes, "Light" and "Dark." Light Masari favor long-range combat and maneuverability, while Dark Masari are powerful at close range. The Masari have totally different technology trees for their Light and Dark abilities, forcing a Masari player to choose exactly what to invest in. You can invest in neutral abilities and so not get the full benefit of either Light or Dark, or specialize in either. This makes the Masari a potentially very interesting faction for multiplayer, as a "mirror match" could easily turn out to be anything but. Alternatively, Masari players can teach themselves to rapidly change the way their tech tree points are invested on the fly, allowing them to constantly keep enemies off-balance by totally changing their combat style as necessary. So the Masari aren't all build and blitz, but encourage players to be creative and sneaky just as much as the Hierarchy and Novus do.
It's so much fun to talk about how Universe at War: Earth Assault plays that it's easy to forget to talk about how beautiful the graphics are, with every unit detailed to a perfectly ludicrous degree. The screenshots can speak for that well enough, though. In the long run, it's gameplay and interface that keep RTS alive more than a few months, and Universe at War may well have what it takes to found a new sci-fi franchise in this otherwise oversaturated and overexposed genre. The gameplay ideas and fiction behind them feel genuinely fresh and new, and that's a very good thing after seeing dozens of flashy but largely interchangeable modern combat RTS. Here's hoping that Universe at War is a gamble that pays off, both for Petroglyph, Sega, and RTS gamers everywhere.
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