- Review Price: £24.99
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.
And it turns out that UAW is just getting started, Playing as The Hierarchy is a hoot, not just because they look a bit like the even nastier cousins of Spielberg’s Martians, but because their whole structure is based on vast, customisable walkers. Tool your various walkers up with armour plating, plasma cannons, ant-aircraft arc cannons and various unit-production pods, and you can then enjoy a quiet stroll towards the enemy base while you prepare to unleash hell on their front doorstep. “Call that a tank rush?” UAW seems to be asking other RTS games. “This, my friend, is a tank rush.”
Inevitably our third faction – the Masari – isn’t quite as strong as its rivals, mainly because its mechanics aren’t so obviously brilliant, and because their offensive and defensive capabilities take longer to build up and get a handle on. All the same, I can’t think of another straight RTS game since StarCraft – including Rise of Legends or Lord of the Rings: Battle for Middle Earth 2 – that has produced such an interesting selection of playable factions. What’s more, with the possible exception of the initially weak Masari, they’re surprisingly well balanced to boot.
The result, in the single-player Scenario and Skirmish modes, is an RTS game bursting with tactical potential and strategic depth. If you love getting to grips with a wide range of units, playing with different combinations and discovering new options, attacks and counter-attacks to try, then you’ll find yourself in your element with UAW. The only thing that might get in your way is the complexity of the various systems and mechanics, and the rather mountainous learning curve you face before you master them.
You see, the main single-player campaign isn’t actually that good an introduction to the game. It’s boring, badly balanced, packed with irritating difficulty spikes and very heavily orchestrated. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing – Call of Duty 4, World in Conflict and Uncharted: Drake’s Fortune are all heavily orchestrated games within their genres, and all were among last year’s best games. However, Universe at War seems badly orchestrated, and stuffed with some of the most laughable, ugly-looking in-game cut-scenes I’ve seen in years. By the time you’ve reached the end of the prelude, in which a low-rent Duke Nukem leads the President to safety, you’ll be begging for the return of Command and Conquer’s cheesy full motion video. Had the budget run out by this point?
To compound things, the campaign doesn’t actually cover much of the groundwork required by the Scenario and Skirmish modes, removing the technology research tree altogether. The result is that players are left with a dilemma: do you suffer through the campaign trying to glean what information you can, or do you just go straight to the more enjoyable game modes and suffer weeks of humiliation while you learn the ropes?
Even then there are some real issues that affect enjoyment. One – bugginess and instability – will hopefully be fixed with future patches, but at the moment it’s hard to love a game that crashes suddenly mid-mission or just every time you load a saved game. Another – patchy AI – was a bugbear with Petroglyphs previous game, Star Wars: Empire at War, and makes an unwelcome return here. The enemy AI can be challenging, and your own can pull off some impressive responses, but in this day and age there’s nothing more depressing than to see key facilities ripped apart by a handful of enemies because the morons you left in defence are standing with their backs to the impending destruction. Worse, most campaign missions rely on the survival of your hero units. Why, then, is it so much work to keep them from throwing themselves into every battle when their health is getting dangerously close to zero? We play these games to command and (ahem) conquer, not nursemaid and nanny the talent through.
Even visually UAW can’t quite get things right. On the one hand, the design and animation of the units is brilliant and the effort that has gone into creating good looking environments is tangible. On the other the game can stutter on even the fastest machines, the Direct X 10 mode is packaging tickbox stuff rather than any sort of revelation, and some of the textures are woefully bland. The camera, meanwhile, is a disaster. No game that features huge mobile units or fast-moving armies should suffer from a camera that feels tethered far too close to the ground. An extra level of zoom out would have made UAW that little bit more enjoyable.
Finally, we come to an increasingly common source of annoyance: Microsoft’s Games for Windows Live subscription service. You can play UAW online without it, but this is a game that boasts online leaderboards, persistent rankings and a whole host of features that only Gold subscribers will get to enjoy. People don’t like paying for features that other strategy games give them as standard, and while the ubiquity of Live on the Xbox 360 platform makes it a must for console owners, we’re unlikely to get to that stage on the Windows version any time soon. When a game has this much online potential, plumping for the Microsoft service seems like an unwise decision, and one that is sure to restrict the audience long-term.
All this negative stuff doesn’t make me angry so much as sad, because Universe at War is only a decent campaign and a few niggles away from being a stone cold classic RTS. Instead, it’s another nearly-ran, not fit to stand up to Company of Heroes and World in Conflict, let alone upcoming releases like the new Dawn of War expansion or the (hopefully) glorious second coming of StarCraft itself. I truly hope that Petroglyph brings out the expansion packs and patches needed and turns this situation around, because UAW has an awful lot going for it, and I’d hate to see that potential thrown away.
A flawed RTS that’s only steps away from greatness. With better content, improved stability and a few good tweaks this would be brilliant. As it is, it’s hard to recommend without some major reservations.
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