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Crumbs. You spend years waiting for the next Starcraft, then just as Blizzard looks set to release the real deal, Petroglyph comes within shouting distance of delivering the next best thing. Note that bit ‘within shouting distance' because we'll be coming back to it in some miserable detail later on.
Still, before I start whining, let's look at what Petroglyph has got absolutely spot-on right. First, the setting. I'm getting thoroughly bored on far-future conflicts between hulking space marines and extra-terrestrial predators (unless we're talking Warhammer 40K Space Marines or the Zerg) and Universe at War hasn't gone down that well-trod route. Nor, as it first appears, is this a game where the plucky remnants of humanity fight on against alien aggressors, winning back the planet bit by bit.
As in the good three quarters of the Spielberg/Cruise War of the Worlds, we're all but hopeless when faced with hulking alien walkers and nasty alien death rays, and UAW soon sensibly relegates the human race to the role of bystander while the real conflict goes on between the invaders - the vaguely Zerg-like Hierarchy - and their enemy: the robotic Novus force. And just when you thought two non-human races were exciting, the game fields a third side; a bunch of lazy Atlantis/Mayan demigods who are annoyed by all the kerfuffle. All this stuff is introduced with a certain level of storytelling panache and even - shock - a splash of knowing wit. You'll sometimes find yourself laughing at UAW for all the wrong reasons, but occasionally for the right ones too.
What makes Universe at War so special is how different these races are. By this I don't just mean that they're different from each other - though goodness knows how many RTS games I've seen in which all that separates the playable factions are a handful of key units and cosmetic differences across the board. I mean that the races in Universe at War give you new styles of gameplay that you haven't seen a million times before. Take the Novus, for example. You start off thinking that they're just your basic anime-influenced robots, when they turn out to have an absolute killer feature. First you use their constructor units to create networks of ‘flow conduits' around the map. Build your infantry units, lasso a handful to select them, and by double clicking on a flow conduit you can send them anywhere you like on the network. Get one behind Hierarchy lines and you can bash them when and where they least expect it, and send reinforcements in at the blink of an eye. Throw in a fine range of units, each with their own special capabilities, some even more powerful hero units and some genuinely spectacular super weapons and you have one of the best RTS factions since Starcraft threw out the Protoss and the Zerg.