• Petroglyph Studios employ ex-Westwood veterans, so they should know a thing or two about RTS games.

    If anyone can make the genre work on a console, with no mouse and keyboard control then they can. Previously many developers have wrestled with the task of trying to fit a complex mouse and keyboard control scheme into the limited capabilities of a joypad but Petroglyph are confident that they’ve cracked it at last. Have they succeeded? Read on…

    Universe at War: Earth Assault takes place in the not too distant future. A massive space fleet, known as The Heirachy, have invaded earth and want to asset-strip the planet, kill everyone and destroy everything. The odds are insurmountable and just as the Heirachy unleash their most potent weapons, a shadowy portal opens and a mysterious race emerge to come to earth’s aid.

    The Novus, sentient machines and the sworn nemesis of the Heirachy plunge into battle coming to the rescue of the dwindling earth forces just in the nick of time.

    To further complicate matters, as the battle takes to the high seas another race, the ancient Masari, rise and enter the fray, also intent on cleansing the earth of all invaders – including the human race.

    Universe at War: Earth Assault

    With the scene set, the game begins with a tutorial showing you how to control various Novus units. Petroglyph have made bold claims that they have perfected the art of controlling a vast RTS army with the aid of the 360’s joypad, and in the tutorial you get to see just how intuitive the controls are.

    Having played several RTS games on 360, I find the biggest problem to be the bulk selection of units but Petroglyph have solved this by allowing you to hold down the “A” button, then move the left control stick over units to “paint” them and bind them to a particular control group. This group is then added to the list that you can cycle through using the shoulder buttons. You can quickly move legions of troops, units and support stuff around with relative ease though this method does tend to fall apart a bit when battles get hectic.

    The three core strategies at play in Universe at War are:

    Harvest – Grab as many resources as you can to gain more in-game credits to spend on units, troops and upgrades.

    Build / Defence – Put together a base as quickly as possible, and arm it to the teeth to repel any invaders.

    Explore / Attack – Roam the map, and destroy all opposing forces.

    This is a rather simplified way of covering UAW’s gameplay and there’s a lot more depth than that, so be prepared to lose hour after hour to this game because it’s as deep as Loch Ness.

    In the single player “campaign” mode, you can play through the storyline straight – taking control of the various in-game races at different times to see the storyline pan out. The three races in the game are so finely balanced with strengths and weaknesses ensuring that no single race is absolutely all-conquering and powerful. Not since Starcraft have I seen a balance so finely tuned so kudos to Petroglyph for doing so.

    Covering each race in more detail you can see this in action.

    The Heirachy – This alien race are all about producing the hardest hitting units in the game in the greatest numbers. Most of their core units are slow but have the advantage of customisation and tech development, particularly the huge Walkers in the game. The Heirachy have three “hero” units:

    Kamal Re’x the Abductor — Ruthless, determined and a powerful psychic, capable of disrupting ground units and sending infantry flying. He can also use his psychic waves against aerial units, shunting them out of operative range and creating invisible walls to block attacks.

    Orlok the Eternal — A veteran Hierarchy assault commander who can gather and use resources on the fly. Orlok is a vicious tactician preferring a heavy hand and ultimate force to the subtleties of stealth and strategy.

    Nufai the Skinwalker — A really nasty sneaky piece of work, Nufai can cause paranoia attacks in enemy units, causing them to start fighting each other.

    Turning our attention to Novus, they are a machine race with superior almost human-like AI. They are at the peak of their technological development and have the ability to create “flow networks” to navigate around vast maps with relative ease and speed.

    The Novus’ heroes are:

    The Founder – The leader of Novus, he can use various methods of attack using expert speed. He can also become a flow network node, allowing troops to quickly teleport straight to him. He also has the ability to resurrect any “dead” Novus remains in his vicinity.

    Mirabel and Viktor — Mirabel is the human-like clone of the last surviving member of the race that created the Novus. She controls Viktor, a power suit with several multi-layered combat modes. In battle, Mirabel and Viktor wield a pulse rifle and shoulder-mounted missile pods. The suit can hover for short distances, and can range its weapons against long-range opponents.

    Vertigo — An aerial commander built into the body of a stealth fighter. Vertigo can infect enemy units with a computer virus, allowing him to take control and use the enemy’s own weapons against them. Despite appearances, Vertigo is capable of inflicting massive damage on large enemy units.

    Finally the Masari are an ancient race capable of producing resources from practically nothing, giving them unlimited funds to create units and buildings. Their big disadvantage is the light / dark gameplay system, each side of which can only be used alternately with some serious caps to speed and movement affecting the Masari’s ability to build a huge force quickly.

    The Masari heroes are:

    Lord Charos – With the ability to create “the Blaze of Glory” in light mode, Charos can inflict a lot of damage on many units in his vicinity. In dark mode, he can summon the “Dark Vortex” to suck in and destroy both ground and aerial units in a powerful attack.

    Queen Altea – Altea can use magic to reverse time (destroying enemy units by effectively “un-making” them, a great tool to use when someone’s spent a lot of time putting together something powerful, though they are refunded any resources spent on that unit). In dark mode Altea can stop virtually all enemy superweapons.

    Prince Zessus – The most versatile Masari hero with expertise in both light and dark modes. Zessus can control the “fog of war” of a map, instantly rendering an enemy commander blind in that spot. He can also teleport units around the map using the engines of the Altatea, Queen Altea’s ship.

    Though you do get to control the humans in the game from time to time, there are really only two characters of worth and you don’t get to use humans as a race in their own right which is a bit of a shame. Randal Moore, the hero in the first level of the game who carries a minigun and can inflict some hefty damage with his primary weapon, and Sgt Woolard, a tank commander in control of “Thumper” – a triple barrelled battle tank that can pack a serious punch.

    For all the races in the game, strategic use of your heroes and their special abilities can turn the tide of war in an instant in your favour so practice plenty.

    Universe at War’s design is very user friendly from the outset. As well as the aforementioned control methods bringing a deft touch to the proceedings, navigating your way around the huge maps is intuitive and easy. You can move units around just by pressing the A button to highlight a unit, then pressing it again on your destination. For large distances however, you can zoom in using the in-game minimap and click on a location there to send a legion of units off across the war-torn landscape. With the Novus you can even build up a flow network, producing a teleportation grid which becomes one of the NOvus’ strengths during any game.

    Movement of the camera systems is simple enough with the left stick panning vertically and horizontally and the right stick used for rotation and zoom in / out. Most control systems are context-sensitive so when you highlight particular units, other options will be open to you. For instance, highlight a unit capable of building production and you will see what level of tech you’ve unlocked and how to start construction. This may feel like hand-holding but believe me, it’s a nice touch when things get busy and you haven’t quite mastered every control system in the game.

    One control design feature I liked straight away was the ability to “find an idle builder” – so you can zoom straight in and get a team of construction units to put together any buildings for your base in double-quick time.

    Unit graphics are quite nicely designed, something that’s reasurring to see because unit design can quite literally make or break a real time strategy title. If I had to pick a favourite race, the Novus’ clean white lines and Japanese mecha leanings definitely appealed to me the most.

    The game engine is quite capable of rendering a high number of units, though there appears to be a cap on occasions, perhaps to keep performance levels zipping along nicely or perhaps to ensure that players don’t just fall back on the age-old RTS staple of building a “tank rush” and overpowering the enemy by sheer numbers alone. This does make you think a lot harder about how to spend your resources and what to build, so perhaps it’s for the best.

    Sound design is good with some high-quality voice acting and spot effects. I had to reach for the “music off” setting more orless straight away though as the in-game soundtrack rapidly descended into squawk-rawk territory.

    Aside from the single player campaign, there is a skirmish mode so you can custom design your own confrontations and get some much needed practice in. In Annihilation mode, the aim is simple – destroy the opposing enemy combat units. In Conquer mode you’ve got to take out their bases, construction units and any heroes to achieve ultimate victory.

    Things get a lot more interesting in multiplayer over Live. Not only can you scrap against or ally with 3 other human players, you can also settle that age-old argument over which is the better system for RTS games, console or PC as Live for Windows players on PC can face off against 360-owning opponents. Again this is a really neat touch but one where control-pad wielding commanders might come unstuck quickly when starting out.

    Also in multiplayer, “Conquer the World” mode allows you to track your overall progress in a “persistent war” state. After selecting a faction you can start to chip away at your global map, grabbing territories and improving your experience and standing. You can even attempt the same territory with a different faction, this will still count towards your overall level of command.

    Conquer the World mode starts to get really tricky once you’ve grabbed every territory with one faction. Regions are reset and next time around if you are careless enough to lose a battle, you’ll also lose a territory you’ve previously taken over.

    Command medals and Live achievements can be won in this mode so it’s a worthy addition and extends the life of the game considerably.

    Sticking with multiplayer a while longer, you can create custom matches yourself as a host. Any progress won here won’t count towards your online rank however, but previous achievements and medals can be used.

    Ranked matches will pit you against a commander with similar skills to your own. Again achievements and medals can be won here and persistent league tables will allow you to measure your progress against the world’s best Universe at War players.

    I’ve purposely left my favourite multiplayer mode till last. Defcon mode is specifically designed to give you a short, punchy campaign played in a limited time frame. With each click of the “Defcon” timer level, your research and tech tree grows saving all that messing around researching and levelling up your units. Eventually all 12 research suites are unlocked at Defcon 1 level so you can build pretty much every unit in the game. It’s fast, frantic and perfect for players who don’t have hours and hours to spend on a multiplayer match.

    Overall, Petroglyph have proved that console-based RTS games can work successfully. PC owners might not think that there’s much to crow about but for 360 owners this is a genuine step forward.

    Some players might be put off by the sheer amount of time you need to devote to the game to get the most from it, but there’s plenty of speedy fun to be had in skirmish mode and online if you don’t fancy the long haul of chipping away at the campaign mode.

    Score: 8/10

    About The Author