Universe at War: Earth Assault Review
Written : Friday, March 07, 2008
By: Alan Pettit (GT: The Pants Party)
Note: This review is based on the PC version. I am unaware of what, if any, changes will be made for the console version.
Universe at War: Earth Assault is a Real-Time Strategy (RTS) game developed by relative newcomer Petroglyph and published by veteran Sega. Petroglyph may be a new name, with only the RTS Star Wars: Empire at War under their belt before this one, but the men behind it are no strangers to the video game industry and RTS titles in general. Most of the company is comprised of former Westwood Studios employees, the makers of most Command & Conquer games before EA bought up the rights.
Real-Time Strategy is a fairly straight-forward genre. Take two or more opposing factions, give them a heated backstory and a reason to fight, then unleash them upon each other. Make the factions similar enough that no matter which you choose, you can follow a building pattern, but unique enough that you'll actually have to learn their building tree and unit types to be good at using them. Universe at War really doesn't take any chances to advance the genre, but it does a fairly decent job of using that pattern to make a fun game.
Sure does look bleak for Humanity...
The campaign mode plays out much like a bad B-movie. You begin with a Prologue, controlling Human forces and focusing on a tough-as-nails General, smoking a cigar and carrying a giant chain-gun like it was a plastic pistol. Your mission is to safeguard the President and protect the Capitol Building, though this quickly seems an impossible feat against the giant, robotic alien forces invading the Earth. You don't actually play this part like normal RTS means; no building or strategy takes place. You are given a set number of troops to complete your goal and you must make do. At your darkest hour, a second robotic alien race steps in to fight off the first, though they show no affection toward the Humans.
This second alien race is the next portion of the campaign. Called the Novus, this alien race is a self-sustaining robotic life-form that was created long ago by Sentients and its main focus is fighting the first alien race called the Hierarchy. There is only one Sentient left among them, a woman named Mirabel. Once she sees the Humans, she immediately begins feeling things she never knew, mainly empathy. She feels the need not only to fight off the other aliens, but also to protect the Humans, something her robotic brethren do not understand. During their campaign, you get your first actual RTS action.
Novus buildings are created by basically beaming them in from nowhere. Your Constructors focus on a single point, then a building begins to form around it. To gather resources, you must build a recycling center, which then spawns small robots than break down inorganic material on the battlefield and transfer it into funds. The Novus strategy is focused mainly on the sheer number of forces it can throw at its opponents. In addition to quick build times and low costs, many units have special abilities to either replicate themselves for a period of time (after which the replicates will simply cease to exist) or to create swarms of smaller robots to aid in attacks. In addition to this, Novus units can "flow" across pylons created by the Constructors and move across the battlefield in mere seconds, as well as apply "patches" to your units to give them extra abilities. Hiding flow conduits near enemy positions creates a very good "hit and run" type attack strategy.
After a short time playing as the Novus, you switch to the "bad guys" in the game and begin controlling the Hierarchy. These aliens have no other drive than to conquer and destroy. Their commander is a machine by the name of Orlok the Eternal and their leader is being named Kam'al Rex. During the course of this campaign, Orlok begins to fear that their way of life is coming to an end due to the Human resistance and continued Novus opposition, as well as the re-emergence of a third faction: the Masari, who I will elaborate on in just a bit. Because of all this, it is apparent to him that a change of ways is necessary, though his boss disagrees and he soon finds himself with very few followers, segregated from his species.
Hierarchy buildings are sort of "called in" from space, using Glyph Carvers to... carve glyphs. Much like crop circles, this shows your forces where to land. To gather resources, a small walker is created that travels the battlefield, breaking down both organic and inorganic materials to transfer into funds. Rather than setting up a traditional base, most Hierarchy buildings are mobile battlestations that can also deploy troops. Hierarchy strategy is very heavy-handed; throwing these Walkers at an opponent’s base and continuing to deploy troops from inside their defenses is their best offensive strategy, while creating a number of turrets to protect their main base (called the Arrival Site) will be about all you need on defense. These Walkers contain various "hard points" that can be upgraded to reduce building costs, speed up build times or even place stronger armor and weapons on the Walker to make it an even better siege structure.
From here, you take control of a third faction called the Masari. This faction is an ancient race that very much resembles humanity. Their culture also resembles that of ancient Native American cultures, mostly because they are what influenced those cultures. Many centuries ago however, they were forced to enter a stasis inside their mothership, which then sank into the Atlantic Ocean. During the battles between the Novus and Hierarchy, they are awoken and resume their hatred of the Hierarchy, who betrayed them many millennia ago. During their campaign you control Zessus, a half Masari half Human Prince of the Masari people.
Better not get crushed by that Walker!
Much like the Novus, Masari buildings are created out of thin air. To garner resources for them, you must simply create something called a Matter Engine, which then pulls energy out of the "Ether" and converts it into funds. Since they are the only sentient race in the game, the Masari units are all built and piloted by their forces. If their machines are destroyed, the pilots can still shoot a firearm until they are also killed. This faction also features a "Light" and "Dark" mode, which is basically a distinction between attacking and defending, respectively. In Light mode, attack power and speed increase, while in Dark mode a protective shield covers all units which must be destroyed before actually harming the unit itself.
Obviously aside from those main differences, each faction does have its own various units that each then have their own special functions, but none are truly all that interesting. To be honest, most units have too many functions which go largely unused during the campaign and only very skilled players could be troubled to use online. The micromanagement is sometimes a bit overwhelming and you might find yourself looking for the simpler strategies, such as amassing Peacebrings with the Masari, something I have not lost a mission with yet.
Aside from simply making units, each faction also has three different research branches which will increase various abilities, such as stealth detection or build speeds, as well as a “super weapon” which can be unleashed upon an enemy base, instantly destroying many units and structures. The various Hero units seen throughout the campaign can also be used during any of the other game modes, including online. However, unlike my favorite RTS, Warcraft 3, these hero units are relatively weak and get overwhelmed by a small group of smaller units fairly easily.
Speaking of online play, by the time I got the game (early February) it had been out for about two months and the online was already completely abandoned. I tried on successive nights to find a match for an hour each time to no avail. Once I finally did find someone to play with from the game's forum, it still took over five minutes to connect and was considerably more laggy than it should have been, considering we were the only two people in a ranked match at the time. This person was in the UK (while I am in the US) and I have since found someone else in the US to play with much better results. Because of this, I am very concerned to see how the cross-platform play will work out when the game comes out for the 360 later this month. However, much of the desolate online presence could be due to the fact that most PC gamers boycott the Live service, considering they never had to pay to play online before Microsoft incorporated this system into some of their PC games.
The Masari always won first prize at the Garden Show.
In addition to quick matches against random opponents, you can also work on the “Conquer the World” mode via Xbox Live play. In this mode, you have a map of the world, broken up into smaller territories (25 in total) that can be fought over with each race separately (so 75 in all). The goal is obviously to take over each territory by beating an opponent who also needs that territory. The only problem with this mode is that when you take over a territory, you can really never lose it. You could fight there again and lose and all you’ll do is give the other person credit for a win on their end. However, once you have taken over all 25 territories, you can then reset the land and turn on a harder version. With this mode on, losing a battle will then force you to give up a territory you control. This is where the true players will be tested.
The controls on the PC version are excellent and very standard for an RTS game, but I can't comment much on how the console version will work. I did plug in my controller and play the PC version with it, but it still used the PC control scheme, which actually made it harder for me to play. I have read reports and seen some screenshots of how the console port will handle, and it does look promising. People who have had a go at the console version have called the controls "slick" and "smooth" so I can imagine Petroglyph did their homework and made it work for 360 users.
As far as graphics and the soundtrack are concerned, they are both fairly poor. The graphics are done using Petroglyph’s own engine called Alamo. The actual gameplay is smooth and looks decent, but the cut scenes tend to be a bit underwhelming. The worst are actually some of the first you are subjected to during the campaign. The Human forces, especially the General you control during the Prologue are simply awful. I’m guessing this is because they are only in the game for such a short period of time, but it is a bad introduction to the game. After that, the cut scenes get slightly better, but definitely not something we’ve come to expect from games these days. The soundtrack is comprised of mostly robotic voices and a over-done Human voices, which aren’t great but aren’t awful either. The sound effects are all pretty good though.
The achievements in this one do feature a few focused on the cross-platform play, much like Shadowrun. Clearly I have not received these yet, seeing as the 360 version isn’t even out. There are a number of online achievements, focused on winning streaks with each race and doing various tasks during the Conquer the World mode matches, such as playing only in Light or Dark mode with the Masari or using certain research branches with the Hierarchy. There are also quite a few Skirmish achievements, for beating medium or hard AI opponents, sometimes two and three at a time. One cool thing about unlocking the achievements is doing so also gives you a medal in your medal chest which can be applied for use during Skirmish or Online play, increasing your abilities. Clever use of these can really turn the battle in your favor. Aside from gamerscore or lame art galleries, no game has really rewarded people for unlocking achievements.
The voice acting isn't awful but it also isn't good; the music and sound effects do a pretty decent job though. Considering there is very little story, the voice acting doesn't rear its ugly head all that often.
Poor cutscenes are again somewhat scarce, but those should really be a highlight and not a negative point. The terrains are all identical, even from the American Midwest to the middle of Africa, clearly something that should have been taken into account.
The PC version plays like a dream, but I can only assume it will lose some of the quick response time necessary for an RTS game during its port to the 360. The framerate does lag at times, hindering the flow of the game, and the units are so convoluted with extra abilities, many people new to the RTS genre will feel overwhelmed.
A very generic entry into an already overpopulated genre. Maybe I'm just an old-school Blizzard fanboy, but the weak story, boring factions and overall uninspired gameplay make this a middle of the road release at best.
The mix between campaign, skirmish and online play is pretty good. Some achievements focus on using certain units and special abilities, while some (like harvesting cows) are a bit of fun, but also quite tedious. The added bonus of getting medals to increase your abilities during skirmish and online play is a very welcome addition to the already excellent boost of gamerscore.
Overall I'd have to say this is a pretty generic game. I've always loved the RTS genre, and it is still one of the few things that gets me back on the PC after getting hooked on gamerscore. However, there aren't really any innovations here and I didn't like the story or fall in love with any of the races, so this one definitely won't be a mainstay of the RTS genre like Command and Conquer or Warcraft/Starcraft have been over the years.