Console RTS games are usually bad news, but every so often a few pop up that dare to go against the odds. The Advance Wars series has proven itself to be resilient, and the port of Command & Conquer III to the Xbox 360 was encouraging. Petroglyph Games is looking to move beyond that with Universe at War: Earth Assault.
Universe at War sets earth as the stage for an alien invasion by…well, just about every damn alien species in the universe. At the top of the list is the Hierarchy, a megalomaniac horde of bugs and big-headed extraterrestrials intent on strip-mining our precious planet of its precious resources. Fortunately for us, the other aliens in the equation are a lot less hostile and a lot more eco-friendly. The Novus is a flock of robotic peacekeepers keeping tabs on the Hierarchy, and the Masari, is an ancient race of Atlanteans who don’t take kindly to the ruckus going on in the surface world.
As you take up commandeering duties with each of the three alien factions, you’ll come to learn the driving ambitions of each race, though they rarely get any more complex than destroying the humans, destroying the Hierarchy, or going against the chain of command for the greater good.
It’s not exactly Dune, but the game puts tongue-in-cheek humor and sly pop culture references to keep things fresh--even if the story isn’t.
A quick glance at Universe at War’s spread of options reveals the usual stock of RTS-flavored features.
Aside from delivering a less-than-epic story, campaign mode’s main purpose lies in breaking down the game’s workflow by doling out missions catered towards teaching the basics of each race, and for the most part, it succeeds. The only problem here is that it dwells on the tutorial aspect a little too much, leaving little room for large scale battles in its short single-player game. With around seven missions to undertake for each race, you’ll quickly find that Universe at War comes up a bit short on the campaign side compared to other games in the genre.
To supplement this, the game introduces scenario mode, where players can put their army- and base-building chops to the test in a worldwide resource control meta-game. Being one of the only other single-player options, it’s a bit curious as to why this wasn’t integrated with the campaigns to produce a lengthier single-player experience, but it’s a welcome side feature nonetheless.
On the online front, players can expect to set up ranked, unranked, and matchmade skirmishes complete with custom rules like DEFCON, a fast-paced arms race for powerful upgrades and technology. The scenario option also makes an encore appearance here with Conquer the World mode--this time with the prospect of earning achievement medals and scoring high on the leaderboards for all to see.
Though Universe at War’s set of play options teeter a bit on the modest side, multiplayer mode features cross-platform connectivity against PC players online. The obvious disadvantages against an opponent with a keyboard and mouse are certainly there, though there’s actually not too much of a divide due to a smooth control scheme revolving literally around a menu that organizes the woodwork of your war effort into a collapsible ring interface. For a console RTS, it works surprisingly well. You may not be able to boast the same action per minute or pinpoint precision of a PC player, but for what you’re working with it does the job right.
In terms of building your army from the ground up, Universe at War takes a fairly standard approach common to many in the genre. But where it differs is in its offering of unique play styles among the various alien races in the game.
The Novus have the power of flow, the ability to phase through their vast network of cables and conduits resulting in quicker travel and a whole slew of tactical applications. The Hierarchy focus their tactics around walkers: gargantuan robot crustaceans that moonlight as walking barracks and weapons of mass destruction. The Masari, on the other hand, freely toggle between offensive and defensive states to adapt to the ebb and flow of battle.
Once you’ve picked up on each race’s special abilities, the rest is simple. Harvest resources, build up your base, and spawn units to do your bidding on your way to world conquest.
All of these tasks are wrangled in place by the aforementioned ring menu. Issuing commands is a cinch, as is tracking down idle builders, pinning down entire unit and building groups, and sifting through the various tech, ability, and research trees. But the system is not without its faults. Though you can easily designate custom unit groups, advanced maneuvers like cycling through individual sub-groups or assigning multiple waypoints are a no-go. Selecting units en masse is simple enough, but selecting individual units can be difficult. This may seem trivial, but poor unit pathing and the fact that you must manually indicate unit attack targets will make you think otherwise.
Fortunately, the slow pace of battle alleviates most concerns regarding micro management, but this ends up being a mixed blessing as battles tend to drag on. Once you and your opponent begin to approach the unit cap, you’ll encounter a third foe in the form of lag.
Upon a closer look using the game’s cinematic camera function, the many units and buildings in Universe at War have a fair bit of complexity and creativity to them. White metal sheens and blue LEDs run constant in the Novus’ aesthetic while Masari infantry are outfitted in a retro-futuristic Greco roman style. The game also delivers a few clever nods to alien pop culture, like Mirabel’s Gundam-esque battle armor and the Hierarchy’s War of the Worlds inspired walkers.
From a distance, Universe at War’s graphics makes for some picturesque intergalactic war scenes though the slowdown that often comes with it leaves a lot to be desired.
In spite of its technical flaws, Universe at War deserves merit twice over for not only presenting an RTS with a fresh spin on races, but also doing so with a neatly accessible control scheme. If gaming on a PC is out of the question, strategy tacticians will find Universe at War for the Xbox 360 a suitable choice that makes few concessions on its way to being one of a few manageable console strategy games.