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Universe at War: Earth Assault

Platform(s): PC, Xbox 360
Genre: Strategy
Publisher: SEGA
Developer: Petroglyph


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Xbox 360 Review - 'Universe at War: Earth Assault'

by Chris "Atom" DeAngelus on April 21, 2008 @ 12:49 a.m. PDT

Universe at War: Earth Assault is set in the near-future when multiple factions from across the galaxy have come to Earth to wage epic warfare. Containing numerous features and customization options never-before-seen in the RTS genre, Universe at War: Earth Assault will create an exceptional strategy experience for single-player and especially multiplayer battles.

Genre: Real-Time Strategy
Publisher: Sega
Developer: Petroglyph
Release Date: March 25, 2008

Video game consoles have advanced to the point where titles that used to be solely PC offerings have started making their way onto home systems. First-person shooters, adventure games and even MMORPGs have been found, in some form or another, on recent consoles, with only a few titles remaining PC-exclusive. There is one genre that hasn't made the leap yet, although it's due to controls, not lack of processing power: real-time strategy games. It's difficult, if not impossible, for an eight-button controller to match a keyboard and mouse in versatility and accuracy when the games require you to do a hundred things at once or risk getting crushed. A number of attempts have been made to bring RTS titles to the consoles, and while the efforts have been commendable, there has yet to be a real-time strategy title where the controller doesn't feel helplessly slow and unwieldy compared to the lightning-quick capabilities of a PC setup. Petroglyph Studios was quite aware of this danger when they attempted to port their PC hit, Universe at War: Earth Assault, to the Xbox 360. Did they succeed? Well … not quite.

In Universe at War, Earth is doomed, and humanity has lost. This isn't a case of humanity being on the run, as in "Independence Day" or "War of the Worlds"; it's down to the bare minimum of survivors, a few humans trying to stay alive in a world gone mad. A race of aliens, the Hierarchy, suddenly attacked Earth, slaughtering almost all of the planet's defenses in a matter of hours. The only thing that stands between Earth and destruction is a race of "friendly" aliens known as Novus, who show up just in the nick of time — although they seem more interested in destroying the Hierarchy than about the unfortunate survivors on Earth. Even worse, the war between Novus and the Hierarchy has awoken a slumbering race of aliens living under the ocean, who are quite ticked off at the invaders for ruining their planet and humanity for stinking up the joint while they were asleep. The battle for the planet rages on between the three unique races, and none of them give a darn about the fate of mankind.

Novus is the closest the game comes to a "good guy" faction, insomuch as they are not actually trying to destroy humanity. Novus is functionally a race of super-intelligent sentient machines that have dedicated themselves to stopping the Hierarchy wherever they may stand. As a race of androids, they have a number of advantages. They can mass-produce new units quickly and easily, create swarms of combat androids to battle for them, and upgrade those androids with patches and equipment in a matter of moments. The robots can even be converted into energy and transported along a series of wires spread along the map, allowing for near-instantaneous reinforcements to any location near a Flow network. Unfortunately, their mass-production fighting style is limited by the fact that the actual units are fairly weak, and the Novus can only harvest inorganic material to fund their research.

The Hierarchy represents the "World of the War"-style alien invaders. Of the three factions, they are most certainly the least original, although potentially the most fun to play as. A race of evil creatures who travel from planet to planet, strip-mining the organic and inorganic materials from each, the Hierarchy are basically a group of intergalactic jerks. They're also quite unsubtle. Playing as the Hierarchy involves brute force. They can strip-mine the area around them to get resources, which are promptly used to build giant all-terrain walkers that can be customized with a wide variety of nasty and lethal weaponry. They can even enslave the planet's human beings to serve as their shock troops. Their disadvantage is in their lack of subtlety; they are big, slow and nasty, relying on heavily armored and incredibly expensive superweapons instead of clever tactics and abilities. This race is the optimal choice for those who want to terrify and crush their opponents.

The Masari are the third alien race, and quite frankly, the most out of place. They show up late in the game and are revealed to be an ancient race that fled from the Hierarchy and was hiding in statis on Earth until the invasion woke them up. They're angry at everyone. They're basically a group of magical space elves, and while they certainly represent the old-fashioned "aliens who built the pyramids" concept, it doesn't work quite as well in execution, and they feel like refugees from Warcraft instead. The Masari are built around a dual-type system. Masari can switch between Light and Dark modes, with Light modes being flight-capable, heavy-offensive versions of the units and Dark being a ground-based defensive style. You can switch between the modes at will, and this adaptability is balanced by the fact that the Masari can't hit quite as hard as the other races. They also require a lot more micromanaging for full capability, compared to the swarm style of Novus and the brute force of the Hierarchy.

Universe at War had a really interesting concept behind it, but it just doesn't manage to pull off a worthwhile story to go with it. At best, all three races are clichés, and at worst, utterly boring. The Hierarchy couldn't be more mustache-twirlingly evil if every one of their units had a built-in orphan-punching machine, and the Novus range from agonizingly Asimovian clichés to the single organic in their team, Mirabel, who is perhaps one of the most offensively stereotypical female characters I've ever seen in a game. Worst of all are the Masari, who not only look out of place, but feel tacked-on and excessively goofy. When they show up, it's hard to care, especially when you've already run through stage after stage of the cartoonishly evil Hierarchy's mediocre evil plots, which have been occasionally mixed with Mirabel's completely unbelievable attempts to shoehorn a sympathetic character into a game filled with jerks.

Fortunately, Universe at War's gameplay more than makes up for the lackluster plot. While it doesn't deviate too far from the classic RTS mold, there are a few unique and interesting features that really help speed things up. First and foremost is that the entire game runs faster and is easier to manage due to the fact that all three races have automatic resource collection. There's no fooling with tiberium gas plants or gold mines here; just have your respective race build the proper building, and most of your troubles are taken care of. It's a small change, but it really allows players to focus on the enemy.

Another neat feature, making its way from Warcraft III, is the hero unit. Each side has three unique hero units, each generally representing one part of the faction's ability set. Hero units range from the aforementioned Mirabel, a female pilot in an anime-inspired giant robot, to Queen Altea, a powerful Masari leader with no regular attack but an incredibly wide variety of powerful special abilities that can be used at will.

By and large, however, the coolest feature in Universe at War is the global map, which plays heavily into the Conquer the World mode. Unlike most RTSes, Universe at War allows you to actually influence the battle outside of skirmishes with the other side. You move your heroes from country to country on a map, conquering areas and using the resulting resources to create bigger armies, send spies toward enemy territories, and various other neat features. When two sides collide with one another, the game returns to its RTS roots and allows you to use your forces to take out the enemy in actual gameplay. It is an incredibly compelling mode, and it, more than any other feature in the game, is what really makes Universe at War stand out from other genre offerings. Universe at War's basic design is excellent, but the world map really makes it feel like you're fighting for the planet, not just a bunch of levels.

The three races in Universe at War are exceptionally well-balanced. Almost every unit has a strength and weakness that can be exploited by clever players, and no one race is inherently superior to the others. The title does an excellent job of making sure that Novus, the Hierarchy and the Masari control quite differently. Switching between one and the other really feels like you're controlling an entirely new group; clichéd personalities aside, each race is an absolute blast to play.

While the basic gameplay of Universe at War is quite good, the same can't be said for the porting. It began as a PC game, and unfortunately, that shows very heavily when you play the Xbox 360 port. The simple fact of the matter is that a console controller cannot replicate the smooth and easy action and the wide variety of hotkeys of a PC. Universe at War tries, using a rather heavy-handed system of button combinations that allow you to access most of your characters at the touch of a button. When you're trying to do large-scale actions, this actually works fairly well. It's a piece of cake to move around the map or select all of your units at once.

As soon as you try to do more detailed maneuvering, though, the controls turn to mush. Trying to select individual units is an exercise in agonizing frustration, especially in the heat of a fierce melee, and attempting to perform any sort of precise movement just won't work. By the time you actually maneuver the sticky and uncomfortable controls into position, a Hierarchy walker has already stepped on half of your troopers and rendered your plan moot. Even worse, there are a number of times when you're required to pick out a specific point, such as aiming at hardpoints on the aforementioned walker. No matter what sensitivity to which you adjust the controller's movements, it takes a few seconds of effort to correctly pick out a hardpoint to target … at which point the Walker has already fired its giant gun, reducing your hard-earned defenses to ash.

If the only problem in Universe at War was the iffy controls, it would be a frustrating, but ultimately rewarding, experience. But Universe at War's problems don't stop there. A far bigger and far more annoying issue comes from the seemingly endless frame rate issues. Early matches run just fine, but once the Hierarchy begins to mass-produce their giant robots or Novus begins to create a swarm of troops, things begin to chug. The frame rate drop is noticeable when it's only your own troops on-screen, but when a major battle rages between two sides, prepare to see the frames drop to single-digit numbers. Struggling with the uncomfortable controls to aim at hardpoints on a Hierarchy robot is annoying enough when the game is running smoothly, but when you have to compete with frame rate issues and the controls, you'll want to snap the disc in two. These slowdowns are fairly inexplicable, too, because while Universe at War isn't a terrible-looking game, it isn't hugely impressive, either, and there isn't anything that should really be making the Xbox 360 choke so hard and so quickly.

Further issues plague the Universe at War online play. On top of the issues that plague the single-player campaign, the online play is further riddled with problems. Right off the bat, even trying to find a game is an exercise in frustration. There are few players online, to begin with. Part of the reason for this is that the promised Xbox 360/PC cross-platform online multiplayer is nowhere to be found in the retail version, and at time of writing, is due in a patch coming at some unknown time in the future. Even beyond that, though, the online play is inconsistent at best. Dropped connections and synchronization errors are commonplace, and actually finishing a game feels more attributable to luck than anything else. When you can get a game running and work past the frame rate and control issues, Universe at War has the potential to be a lot of fun. All of the work that you have to put in just to play a single mission far overshadows any possible fun.

Universe at War: Earth Assault is a fantastic game marred by technical issues aplenty. The unwieldy and uncomfortable controls alone would make it difficult to recommend this title for anyone who could possibly play the PC version, but when combined with the slowdown, freezing, dropped connections and countless other issues, it's just not worth the trouble, even for those whose PCs can barely run Solitaire. If Petroglyph's upcoming patch manages to fix both the slowdown issues and the online play, Universe at War could become a game potentially worth playing, but until that time comes, Universe at War isn't worth the frustration and difficulty needed to actually enjoy it.

Score: 6.0/10

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