Review : Universe at War

You can consider me a cynic, but I don't think I bend the truth too much when I say that the announcement of Starcraft 2 represented an extremely hard blow for real-time strategy developers. Titles which previously could be considered interesting (or even spiritual successors to Starcraft) suddenly became only appetizers until the release of one of the most expected follow-ups in history. So the only option for the competition was (and still is) to release their game as fast as they can before being “swept over” by the madness of the birthing of the new Blizzard Entertainment wonder kid.
After impressing us in 2006 with Star Wars: Empire at War and Forces of Corruption, probably the only quality real-time strategy games placed in the Star Wars universe, Petroglyph Studios focused on an internal IP, the main attraction point of this new title being the possibility to personalize the units “on-the-fly”, depending on the situation on the battlefield.
Although it takes place in the near future, the Universe at War story is a bit different than the usual standard fare. Yes, Earth is invaded yet again by a hostile alien race, called the Hierarchy - the galactic equivalent of a locust swarm - and of course humanity is almost obliterated, even though scientists warned the world's governments before the imminent disaster. But this time around we don't need to lead the human race to victory, because a short while after the Hierarchy's initial attack, the Novus forces appear, androids which have the sole purpose of fighting a guearilla war against the Hierarchy, to revenge the annihilation of their creators. As if this wasn't enough, the permanent battles on the Earth's surface alert the last survivors of an ancient and extremely powerful race, the Masari, which refugeed on Earth after they were defeated by the Hierarchy. And they realize that the only solution to end this conflict is to eradicate everyone.

Fortunately for Petroglyph, few real-time strategy games can boast completely different factions in terms of look and game-play, and Universe at War is one of them, because each belligerent force will need different tactics and strategies to win. Having the experience of thousands of conquered and devastated planets, the Hierarchy prefers frontal attacks, as the term subtlety isn’t featured in their vocabulary. The first interesting aspect regarding the Hierarchy is that besides the initial landing point, its bases are mobile, taking the form of colossal walkers, which will certainly remind you of Steven Spielber’s War of the Worlds. Barring the three main types of walkers (Assembly, Habitat and Science), the Hierarchy also uses flying saucers (a little tribute to Mars Attacks!) as well as very strong infantry units and tanks, and the ability to turn civilians into mutants.
The walkers are one of the most terrifying sights on the battlefield, each type having its own upgrades and weapons which can be used (only the Science mode can use one of the two Hierarchy's super-weapons for example). To knock down this kind of monster, the opponents will first have to destroy the armor which protects the upgrade slots (if it exists), the slots themselves and in the the end, the core reactor. And because of their size and number of upgrades which they can use, knocking down a walker is quite a challenge, especially if you play against an experienced opponent.
Another interesting aspect is that the drones which gather resources are mobile too - they don't need to return to a refinery. Because of this, economic strangulation is quite difficult to pull off against a Hierarchy player, because you’ll need to constantly look for his drones, as they won't be in the same area for too long.

On the other side of the barricade, Novus is the Hierarchy's opposite, with its units being more fragile, but extremely fast and easy to produce. The main advantage of these androids is their ability to disassemble into nanites and “flow” through a special transport network, making mobility and “hit and run” tactics essential in the long-term strategies for this faction. The fact that the units are very fragile means that a Novus player must have a very good micromanagement too, because during battles, if you don't use a unit or a special ability at the right moment, you may very well lose the fight.
To balance the unit's fragility, the Novus relays which make up the transport network mentioned above are permanently camouflaged, with special units being needed to detect them. The drones which gather resources can also use the relays as well, which means that a Novus player doesn't really need a secondary base built right next to an area rich in resources in order to exploit it. And although individually they are not very tough, in larger groups Novus units are extremely dangerous, and a decent number of Ohm robots can knock down even a Hierarchy's walker, using the Swarm ability.
Unlike the Hierarchy and the Masari, the Novus can also use temporary bonuses (patches). There are 12 bonuses, though you can use only two at the same time (you have to build a Science Center first). Another problem is that you can't use the same bonus forever, as you will need to activate them in rotation, which makes it necessary to carefully schedule them. Some of the patches are very powerful if they are used in tandem – Viral Cascade + Viral Reboot for example – while others can represent a short-notice solution to a particular problem – Coolant Boost, Overclocking or Emergency Flow.

And so we’ve reached the point where we can talk about the Masari, a race with a technology far superior to that of the Novus or the Hierarchy's. Gameplay wise, the Masari can be considered the standard faction for a real-time strategy game, with some players marking it as a “turtle” race, because its evolution is a bit slower than the other factions, and the starting units aren't that powerful.
But once they evolve, the Masari units and technologies are some of the most dangerous in the game. An interesting aspect is represented by the Light/Dark energy system, as only one of these two modes can be used at a given time. In Light mode, the Masari units have increased visibility and attack range, the attacks have “light” bonuses, but the movement speed is reduced. In Dark mode, the firing rate and the movement speed are increased, units and buildings get the equivalent of shields (Dark Matter Armor), the attacks have a “slow” effect, but the aerial units are grounded and the visibility is reduced. As a result, a Masari player will have to carefully consider at the advantages and disadvantages of each mode vs. the enemies on the battlefield, the available units and the researched technologies.
But as interesting as the three races are, the single-player campaigns leave a lot to be desired. It’s true that a single player campaign in a real-time strategy game has the role of a broader tutorial, as the cases in which you want to finish the story for the plot and characters are very rare, but in Universe at War, the single-player part will be disappointing. Besides the fact that the missions are heavily scripted, and the bugs can prevent the activation of some triggers, the technologies which you can research are limited, and you don't really have the ability to customize your armies like in the multiplayer mode.

This is one of the most dangerous downsides of the game, because a novice will always start with the single-player campaign, and once he encounters the above-mentioned problems, there is a big chance that he will abandon the game altogether without testing the skirmish or the multi-player mode, or without reaching the Masari campaign where the meta-game (like the one in Rise of Nations: Rise of Legends, Battle for Middle Earth series or Warhammer 40.000: Dark Crusade) is presented for the first time. The general impression that the campaigns give is that they were put together on the last stretch of development time, and although some events won't be surprising, players have a reduced time to know the characters, the races and their technologies, so particular actions may come across as forced.
Another problem – although this is about personal preference – is the camera. Or rather the limited zoom-out level available, with the perspective being very close to the battlefield. This shortcoming is somewhat balanced by the relatively low maximum unit limit (90), but there will be a lot of moments in which you will wish for a better perspective of the battlefield, mostly when one or two Hierarchy walkers will appear, which literally fill the whole screen.
Fortunately, the multiplayer mode is the place where Universe at War trully shines, but even here there are some problems, “thanks” to Microsoft and Games for Windows LIVE. To play online, you have to be registered on Windows Live. The game comes packed with a one month trial for the Gold subscription of LIVE, after which, if you don't want to spend €7 on a monthly basis, you will be downgraded to Silver level, which means that you can't access the Conquer The World mode, you won't participate in Ranked matches and you won't obtain medals, which offer you various bonuses in skirmish or multiplayer games (each race has its specific medals, alongside other five, which are common to all factions).
The only online options left will be Custom and Quick Match. Why do you have to pay for features which should be free? Call 0-800-WENEEDMONEY and a Microsoft representative will kindly answer all your questions.

The direct result of the online Conquer The World - LIVE Gold subscription link is that you hardly find players for this mode, regardless of when you will try to play. Things are somewhat better for the Quick and Custom Match modes (but not by much), but if you want Ranked matches you’ll need patience until you find an opponent. There is of course the option to play in the skirmish mode or a Conquer The World scenario against the AI, but despite its admirable efforts (it knows to fall back for example if it sees that it’s losing a battle), the AI can't be compared with human creativity.
But once you start a multiplayer match, you won't have enough time to think about these things, because you will have to find the most efficient way to defeat your enemies as fast as you can. Thanks to the research system's flexibility and other gameplay elements, it will be very difficult to always use the same build-order/strategy; as a Novus player for example, you can try to focus on the aerial units card to attack the Hierarchy's walkers, but you will have to move quickly, because the upgrade slots can be reconfigured on the spot if there are enough resources available, and you can have the unpleasant surprise to see how a Habitat Walker equipped only with plasma turrets suddenly transforms into a walking anti-aerial fortress.
If you play with the Hierarchy, you must know from the beginning what to do with the walkers, because you can only have maximum 3 at the same time. Will you use them as assault units, or will you armor them from head to toes and use the other slots for unit production? Even so, you must not ignore the Repair Pods when configuring a walker, because once destroyed, an upgrade slot can't be repaired and you can get into an unpleasant situation when you only have half of its attack or production capacity.

As a Masari player, besides the Light/Dark modes juggling you will have to take care of the Architects, as they are one of the most versatile units in the game. Their main role is to build and repair buildings, but they can also boost the unit production, the fire rate and the damage of the turrets or speed up resource gathering. Considering the maximum unit limit, you will have to find the optimum balance between the Architects' number and the military units themselves, but also a way to protect them, because the Architects will be the main targets in case of a surprise attack on your base.
Besides these considerations, you have to also be aware of the fact that although all the races have 3 research branches (Assault, Mutagen, Quantum – Hierarchy | Computing, Nanotech, Signal – Novus | Light Mode, Balanced Mode, Dark Mode – Masari), the total number of technologies (suites) that you can research in a single game is limited, so you can't use them all. This only happens if you play with the Defcon mode activated, in which case all the research branches are gradually and automatically unlocked for all the players after a certain period of time. So you will have to think very well what you research, because a wrong step will usually mean defeat. Yes, you can undo researched suites (but without recovering the resources spent) to pursue another one, but if you play against an experienced player, it's nearly impossible to have time for something like this, because the units' limit automatically brings a large tactical importance to any battle. If you lose a big part of your forces in a single confrontation, it will be very hard to come back and to win the match, especially if your opponent knows where your base is. It’s not impossible, but it's very hard.

To bring even more variety, every race has three heroes, which are the main characters in the single-player campaigns, and they can also be summoned on the battlefield in skirmish matches or multiplayer if you research the correct suites. Even though they have different strengths, abilities and weaknesses, the heroes can be placed in one of three categories: Assault, Support or Stealth, with Vertigo being very good for those who prefer speed, hit-and-run attacks and scouting, while Orlok The Eternal is a true war machine.
The special abilities are their most important weapons though, being able to change the tide of a match if they are used at the correct time. The Novus Founder, for example, can activate Flow Tap to create a temporary relay through which an entire army can pour through and attack the enemy base, while the teleport ability of Prince Zessus can be used in some very interesting ways.
Considering the number of available options, a clumsy interface would have buried the game 10 feet under, but in Universe at War it's a very ergonomic one, with the research menu, unit and hero abilities, production buildings, units groups, Novus temporary bonuses, Masari Light/Dark modes or the upgrade slots for the Hierarchy's walkers being only 2 or 3 mouse-clicks away. This accessibility is very useful for creating reinforcements without getting back to the base or using all the abilities of your army without remembering dozens of keyboard shortcuts. Also, the tool-tips are very generous, detailing buildings/units/technologies descriptions, strengths and weaknesses, the researching/building completion time, the available/needed resources and so on. And speaking of resources, in Universe at War there is only one general resource, the second element which confines the army creation being the maximum population number. So during battles, the accent will be put on tactical side of things rather than on juggling with x types of resources to build more advanced units.

This will be useful when you will play one of the Conquer the World single-player scenarios, because the “global” buildings require the same type of resource. Also, all the action takes place in real time, so you will always have to be on your toes at what happens with the other territories on the globe, so you won’t be taken by surprise by your enemies. Structures and improvements built on the global map (like defensive turrets) will also be present during skirmish matches, which decide who controls a certain territory. If you win, the created units will follow you through the next mission, with each hero having a maximum number of units which can make up his army. Also keep in mind the fact that heroes have different action range, fact which limits their movement ability, turning particular territories into disputed strategic choke-points.
Although during battles you don't really have time to admire the landscapes, the atmosphere of a world coming to an end is very well reproduced: civilians will start screaming and running when they will see your (or your enemies') units, the car alarms will automatically start if something explodes near them or if a walker will pass nearby, the helpless cows will start mooing when they are lifted by the Hierarchy's drones and so on. Also, the feeling that you are surrounded by bugs when you are directing a walker to the enemy base is surprisingly satisfying and mostly you will choose to smash some buildings or parking lots just for the fun of it. The music composed by Frank Klepacki (who also scored the soundtracks for the Westwood Studios titles and the Empire at War games) fits very well with the action on-screen, with its tempo is rising right in at the moment when you are attacked, but the tune being specific to each race. The voice acting is good... not bad, but it could have been better.

On the visual front, Universe at War looks good, although the limited zoom-out level won't allow you to really appreciate the clean, Apple-like, style of the Novus bases or the huge size of the Hierarchy's walkers. A little warning though: the frame-rate can vary during battles when there are a lot of units on screen if you play on high resolutions or maximum details. So, don't activate them if you don't have a really powerful system. Unfortunately, the game has some annoying bugs, which can make the difference between victory and defeat, especially during an edge-of-your-seat match-up. It happened to me on many occasions to try and group some units with the classical group combination CTRL + #, only to see that nothing happens. After several attempts I noticed that there is a certain lag between the command and its execution, being necessary to perform an... easier key pressing to recognize the command. This is also valid for the ulterior group selection performed with the numeric keypad. The units are also kind of stubborn, sometimes not following an order until they stand idle for a couple of seconds. The path-finding isn’t that brilliant, fact that can be very dangerous when you have to retreat.
Universe at War is a true diamond in the rough, a game with great potential, but sabotaged by the LIVE system and some elements which can be repaired by a future patch (the bugs, the limited zoom and the pathfinding). When it comes to the online multiplayer however things aren't really that simple, because forcing players to pay for features which could have (and should have) been free isn't the best way to build a strong community.
A ray of hope comes from the moders and their possibilities to modify the game. Some total conversions are already in development, but some time will pass until these will get to a playable stage. And until then, it’s highly possible that Jim Raynor & company will finally make their long-awaited on stage and strike down the competition, regardless of its potential.

Update: at the date of the review’s writing, the #2 patch wasn't available. As such, some shortcomings mentioned in the article are no longer valid, so the score for the #2 version of Earth Assault would be 88.


Legendary Game : Spore (part III)

Part I or Part II

A few hiccups

Apart from what I think is a skewed game mechanic, the game falls short on a couple of other counts. What I'd have really liked to see is a simple feature called auto-save -- that is not too much to ask for in a game. Although 'death' in the game is of little consequence, an auto-save feature was sorely missed when the game crashed on more than a couple of occasions and I found restarting that stage of evolution all over again. Spore obviously has a save feature; however, the creation tools and the world can be so engaging that you miss to save your game. Some gameplay aspects feel too easy and simple, reaching Armageddon was never so easy, although it's addictive to expand; the civilization phase seems too short. In Space phase, you can't save a game if you are on a planet, one has to exit a solar system to save the game, and the game does not convey as much. Then there is the DRM issue -- you can read about that can of worms here. These are some of the flaws that I hope will be fixed through future patches.

The game is well designed with many amusing add-ons. Funny voice effects and amusing antics by the creatures are found throughout the game. The game looks good, for what it sets out to do, and the interface is smooth. Visually, the game looks perfect for its content.
A few nifty multiplayer features have also been built into the game, mainly encouraging sharing and flaunting of your creations. While in the creation mode, the game automatically captures frames at each stage and creates an animated forum avatar that'll let you show off how you went from that simple block to the uber-cool space ship. The 'My Collections' feature of the game is a repository of your creations and collection that you can share over the Internet. Additionally, you can create videos of your creature in action and upload it onto YouTube from within the game. I am guessing that there are more features that'll emerge after further exploration and hopefully through updates and patches.

As it stands right now, Spore offers a Petri dish, a sandbox, a snow globe -- you can pick your analogy. If you are looking for deep strategic options, you'll find this game wanting. For those who enjoy building things, the game will offer you endless hours of fun (unless the dreaded DRM decides otherwise) and take you back to the days of playing with Lego blocks and play-dough. If you are looking from more 'traditional' form of game play, skip directly to the space exploration stage where creation takes a back seat in the game. This game is a true masterpiece in my opinions and it is one of those masterpieces that brake the mold and fire fresh imagination .

Legendary Game : Spore (part II)

Part I

Civilization Phase can be quite challenging because you have to capture the entire planet. You start off by designing the city, the factories, the houses as well as the combat vehicles. I designed my very own Metal Gear Spore and a Spore 22 Raptor as well as my favorite -- the Sea Santa. These vehicles are necessary to acquire Spice, which is the main currency. Spice can be found gushing out of land and sea. You have to plan out your city, which includes creating a house and factory model in the editor.

Building a house increases the vehicle cap, while building factories increases the revenue. It's up to you to keep a balance of both and make a profitable empire. Once you have enough resources, you need to start capturing cities. Every new city you capture will unlock a new feature. You will eventually be able to create sea and air vehicles, which are absent at the start. Capturing new cities also unlocks various super weapons including one which nukes all the other cities. The city planning and resource management aspect of the civilization phase is quite addictive; you want to advance fast and nuke even faster.

At the end of the civilization stage and depending on your choices, your species will now have enough economic and/or muscle power to develop space technology and you set out to find other sentient beings in the vast universe of Spore. It's fairly easy to go from a single-celled organism to a dominant space-fairing species, in a matter of three to four hours.

The final frontier

The Space Phase starts off with you building a spaceship. You use the spaceship to scout your planet, learn about the various creatures, and do some simple tasks to get used to the controls and so on. One of the tasks includes tractor-beaming up a creature and bringing him to any of the cities: reminiscent of the time you were the creature. Your progress during the space stage is significantly slowed down; the ultimate goal is to travel to the center of the universe.

In Space stage you can explore other planets, some of which are created by other users, interact with their creatures and lean more about them. The space phase is vast and you can explore the 500000+ planets in the game's galaxy. A user-created planet and its AI borrows traits off its creator's style of play: if the creator is aggressive, the AI will be aggressive. You can make allies like in the tribal phase or launch an inter-galactic war. The Space Phase is never ending; you can keep exploring deeper and deeper, and keep interacting with the ever increasing world of Spore.

Up until this point, Spore is dominantly about playing an architect and you'll likely spend the bulk of your time within the cleverly crafted creation tools. Once you enter the space stage however, it begins to feel more like a game and also compels you to drastically rethink your strategy. This brings us to the difficulty balance of the game.

To test the game mechanics, I experimented with different levels of aggression. One of my creatures was an aggressive carnivore and I found the going got really tough at the civilization stage of the game. Alternatively, I created an herbivore creature that befriended, impressed and bought off others to breeze into the space stage of evolution. Maybe it's just me, but I found that my passive ways forced me to be submissive to the more aggressive species of the universe. With limited military might, our economic dominance at the home planet offered little help to counter the opposing forces of the universe. Running helter-skelter between fighting off raiding space pirates, retaliating against aggressive species, and preventing biological disasters -- my aspiring space marine found little time to do what I wanted -- peacefully explore, colonize and build inter- planetary trade routes. At this stage, you do have a choice to refit or upgrade your spacecraft with more destructive force, but I was disappointed to find myself in a situation where I was forced to take a certain path.

Part III

Legendary Game : Spore (part I)

After nearly eight years in the making, the world saw the release of Spore from Will 'Toy Maker' Wright's Maxis studio. Spore has been touted and speculated as a god game or a simulation of everything; however, in our humble opinion it's neither a game nor a complete simulation, at least not in the strictest sense of the words. What Spore offers is an opportunity for a controlled experiment in nature, or evolution if you will.

Speaking of evolution, the game tends to throw our traditional understanding of the Darwinian theory of 'survival of the fittest' out the window as you have fair amount of choices to ensure your species survival and dominance in the universe. Having said that, the game design doesn't stray too far from our understanding of evolution and offers the progression stages starting with a single-celled organism all the way to what we may consider peak of a civilization -- space exploration.

Starting your journey

Your creature's journey in Spore begins as a humble single-celled organism, whose sole purpose in life is to consume and multiply. Determining your creature's traits at this stage are two main factors -- your dietary preference (plant-eating, carnivore or omnivore) and your survival tactics (aggressive, passive or adaptable).

This Cell Phase is basically a top-down view of your creature eating and growing on a 2D surface. Since I was an herbivore, I was swimming around looking for plants to chew on. As you eat, a progress bar at the bottom of the screen will track your progress to the next phase. You will have to keep your distance from other carnivores -- since to them, you are on the menu. Occasionally you will discover useful body parts that can be used by you inside the game's editor: such as a spike on your back to hurt those pesky predators.

Irrespective of the means you choose, the end entails making your creature's DNA complex enough to grow 'legs' and move on to the land above. Before exiting to land and entering the Creature Stage you are given a special ability, to survive in the outside world. I was given the Siren Song, for example.

With similar choices offered at the Creature Stage, your main goal is to collect more complex body parts that you will use to enhance your creature through an incredible fun and simple to use tool kit. In this phase, the game will also generate species around you, to balance the ecosystem. The world around you is thus filled with many different creatures; you will also find many dead animals as well as skeletal remains. These skeletal remains can be scourged to discover new parts that can be later used in the editor.

Do the dance

The Creature stage of the game ends with the consequence that your creature will emerge as the dominants species in the world, right at the top of the food chain. Since you are the only sentient species on the current planet, the power struggle shifts to intra-species strife for domination or survival.
At the end of the tribal stage, the biological blue print of your creature will be set in stone and the way forward at this stage is through collection and implementation of various tools that'll lead you through to the civilization stage. The game introduces balance by spawning bigger and stronger creatures around you. I turned into a carnivore after a while by editing and adding a new carnivorous mouth piece. I realized that as an herbivore I was very passive and harmless, hence was hunted quite easily. A few modifications later -- I got me an offensive bite ability as well the ability to sprint -- attributes of my new-found body parts.

In the creature phase one can earn DNA points by either eradicating other species -- this is done by killing 5-7 members of the species, or by being friendly and impressing 3-5 members of that species. It's your decision, and as you complete the tasks your progress bar grows towards the next Phase.

An interesting anecdote: During one of my hunts, I saw a huge herd of creatures running away, after a while I heard a strange noise and before I could comprehend, I saw a giant spaceship looming overhead. I was quite shocked and not knowing the ship's intentions, I fled. The ship started abducting many creatures and after a while, it just flew away. I saw a couple of creatures waving at the ship with gloomy faces, as the ship had abducted one of their own.

Every time you are ready to evolve and add new parts to your creature, you have to mate. The creature phase can be quite action-packed if you are a carnivore. After earning a decent amount of DNA points your brain gets bigger and you can now add a member to take along on your adventures. In plain language, you start a pack. You can make allies by singing to others: a small mini-game starts and if you are able to impress, you win an ally. This socialization is not limited to singing and there are other abilities like charm and dance which are earned depending on the body parts you use in the editor. However, a tribe might demand you dance for them to become allies -- whenever one asked me to dance, I eliminated their entire species. I remember earning an achievement (yes the game has achievements) as I eliminated about 20 species to earn DNA points.

Once again, at these stages of the game -- starting from your arrival on land to the peak of your civilization, the course of the species is determined mainly by how you use your acquired technology and your social interaction with other species, tribes and civilizations.
In the tribal stage your goal is to grow as a tribe and dominate others. You start off by hunting and collecting food. Once you have enough food, you have to produce more babies and increase the size of your tribe. More food leads to more development, which can be used to create tools. These tools can be used for making allies or for eliminating rival tribes. I faced five tribes, I dominated and captured 4 of them and made the last remaining tribe my ally. Every time you eliminate or become allies with a neighboring tribe you receive their tribe Totem to indicate your victory. Once all the tribes have been defeated you get to advance to the Civilization Phase.

Part II


News : Spiderman Web of Shadows

Activision should be proud of Spider-Man: Web of Shadows because from what I've seen until today it looks that it will pack a lot of action . Adventure ? That reamains to be seen , sometime in October , when it is dued for launch .Had you seen the new screen-shots with the black Kitty that looks de-le-cious , even better than Merry Jane. Spider-man it's a lucky guy ...