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.