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.