IGN Review of Universe at War: Earth Assault
On the surface, Universe at War: Earth Assault is your standard base laying, resource harvesting, unit building affair. But what Petroglyph has done is to take that basic framework and use it to create a game with three wildly unique but finely balanced factions that each offer a level of real-time customization that gives players a chance to really adapt to the changing circumstances on the battlefield. Unfortunately, the game's campaign doesn't do justice to the overall design while a number of sticky interface and performance problems add to the frustrations.
In brief, Universe at War tells the story of an alien invasion of Earth, our timely rescue by an otherworldly benefactor and the eventual arrival of a third group of aliens who have been awakened by the whole mess. Of course, any one who's paid any attention to anything vaguely resembling science fiction has seen all of this before. We have the requisite giant multi-legged walkers, the flying anthropomorphic anime robots, and, of course, the ancient mystics who were long thought dead. It has a real paint-by-numbers feel that hides any of Petroglyph's original ideas behind a thick coating of overused cliches. We might be more likely to accept it all if we were more convinced that Petroglyph intended the whole thing to come off as kitsch rather than homage. Unfortunately, the jury is still out on that one.
The one really nice thing about the story is that Petroglyph pushes humanity to the side pretty quickly. We've about had our fill of games where the plucky humans fight back against cruel invading aliens so having a game where the real fight is among different groups of aliens who are merely using humanity as a backdrop is a welcome change of pace. Of course, we'll see what happens come expansion time.
Now, with all that said, the actual gameplay concepts behind each of the races are amazing, not just in their individual strengths but in the fact that they each feel like they might have come from completely different games. Better still, each faction has some far-reaching universal powers that they can adjust on the fly to give their forces an edge in one particular area or another.
The Novus are a high-tech but fragile force that relies on an amazingly interesting system of energy towers that give them a level of mobility that I don't think we've ever seen in any other game. Being able to move large forces around in a matter of a few seconds gives them the opportunity to strike virtually anywhere on the map with lots and lots of inexpensive units. Their resource gathering units are so numerous and agile that it's hard to strike at their economy in the field, meaning you'll have to actually hit them at their base to keep them from continually swarming you.
The Hierarchy are pretty much the opposite. They're much slower but they have the distinct advantage of lacking a sizable base infrastructure. Instead, their force revolves around self-sufficient resource gathers (who aren't too terrible in defending themselves) and massive walkers that can be upgraded with hardpoints either for powerful direct fire weapons or for unit production. The Hierarchy player is basically working with three mobile bases that act as siege weapons and barracks at the same time. Marching them right up to the edge of an enemy base and pumping out fresh troops while their guns are pounding the base defenders is one of the most fun moments you'll have in the game.
Finally, there's the Masari. These ancient, godlike people are soon drawn in to the conflict between the Novus and the Hierarchy and they bring their very own, very unique play style to the mix. Their resource collection efforts are actually centered at their base, giving them a chance to consolidate their power until they can really let loose with their late game powers and heroes. Their builders can actually be tasked on different buildings to improve their functionality, giving the Masari a tremendous versatility. If you want a slight edge in resource production, unit training, or research speed all you have to do is shuffle your architects around. The Masari can also shift the focus of their entire strategy by switching back and forth between Light and Dark mode depending on whether or not they need to put more of a premium on speed over protection. The chance to drastically change the overall abilities and strengths of the army make them a hard foe to counter.
Since each of the factions here has such unique strengths there's a lot of variety. Do you use the Hierarchy's Science Walker as a mobile air defense platform or do you install mind control devices on it? And if you do, can you be sure that your Masari opponent won't counter by using Seers to find out what your units are doing and adjust their own strategies accordingly. Toss in three unique heroes for each side and their own unique abilities and you've got a lot of options. Fortunately, it all seems relatively well balanced. We're sure that as more and more data comes in from online matches that Petroglyph will have to tweak values here and there, but it doesn't seem that there's any obvious deficiency or advantage that can be exploited.
It's sad then to see that so little of these options are put to good use in the campaign. We complain a lot about how games are sometimes stripped of complexity for the sake of appealing to a wider audience, and it really seems like that's the case with the Universe at War campaign. The flexibility of the units is restricted solely for the sake of fitting within the narrow and overly scripted missions. The research tree itself, which is a big part of customizing your army to fight they way you want it to fight is completely missing from the campaign. The depressing possibility here is that players might try out the single player experience and give up on the game entirely, never realizing that the skirmish and multiplayer options are really where the game design starts to come alive.
Nevertheless, there are still some issues with AI and the overall interface. Pathfinding is hit or miss and we've had quite a few missions ruined when our own units moved towards objectives completely independent of our command or, in one memorable and frustrating case, actually left an objective they were supposed to be guarding. We're not sure if this is a problem with the AI or with certain triggers but whatever the case, our units aren't always doing exactly what we tell them to do. Trying to assign group numbers is also a hit or miss affair. Sometimes assigning a number simply deselects the entire group, and using the SHIFT key to collect distinct groups merely binds them altogether permanently as part of the last group selected. Fortunately, the unit cap is relatively low here, so you can almost always work around these issues, but it's simple stuff that should have been fixed before the game was released.
Moving past the campaign, there are some intriguing Risk-style scenarios where players compete in a three-way fight for control of the entire Earth. (Well, everything except Canada. Sorry, Charlie.) Even at the strategic level, things play out in real time, with players being forced to determine whether or not to spend their resources to augment their leaders' armies, fortify their home territories, spy on enemies, or invest in greater resource production for the future. The different territories all have their own unique maps, which is great at first but can become tiresome if you have to fight back and forth for control of the same area. These maps are all available for one-off skirmishes as well for players who don't have the patience for the larger strategic game.
On the online front, there's a clear difference between the Gold and Silver Live! memberships. The issue of course, is that PC gamers are used to getting their online content for free and aren't convinced yet that the rewards of the Live! infrastructure are worth their Gold level membership fees. Frankly, neither are we. That's why more and more developers are being encouraged to reserve certain online features for Gold level access. It's a bitter pill for PC gamers who are used to getting everything for free but rather than debating the philosophy of the approach, the important question for us here is whether or not it's worth an extra fifty bucks to get access to the Gold level stuff in Universe at War.
In this case, the rankings and global matchmaking of the Conquer the World version really don't seem to justify the cost. Of course, the idea is that Gold membership adds to the value of all your PC games, but even then the argument is a bit thin. In any case, there simply aren't enough people playing online yet to make it worth your while. The online matches are fun but you're better off finding your own opponents and scheduling matches in advance. That will certainly change as the service (and this game in particular) become more popular but for right now, we say skip it.
Gamers who are familiar with Petroglyph's Empire at War will be happy to see that the visuals are much better in this game. The textures are much cleaner and blend together more naturally here, and the entire layout of the levels seems a lot more realistic. There are still bridges and ridges and all the other geographic features that you'd expect from an RTS, but here they're all laid out in a way that makes seem more like natural parts of the environment than walls thrown up by the designers.
The units are nicely detailed as well with clear visual styling and smooth animations. Personally, I think the Masari are a little bland compared with the other two races, and I would love it if the Hierachy and Novus used more than just red or silver but the units are as original as can be expected given the predictable nature of the overall concept. In other words, Mirabel still looks like every other Robotech rip-off, but at least it's a good-looking rip off.
It's the effects that really win us over. Watching as the Reaper drones smash down from out of the sky, or seeing the Novus zip around as blue surges of energy really adds some life and originality to the visual side of the game. The super weapon effects are even better. Some might like watching fire rain down on enemies but, for my money, there's nothing cooler than the swirling distortion of the Novus black hole weapon.
Universe at War's default graphics settings reveal the complete uselessness of DX10. After playing through more than a handful of missions where the slightest effect or grouping of units dropped our framerate down into the four or five per second zone, we switched off the DX10 effects and discovered that the game ran very smoothly, even with (nearly) all the other sliders bumped up to the highest level of detail. Petroglyph's advice to limit shadow detail and turn down anti-aliasing improved the performance even more.
We had liked the original music that was used for Tyber Zaan in the recent Forces of Corruption expansion pack and we're happy to say that the music in Universe at War is just as good. Personally, I'm a little sick of hard rock as a sci-fi backdrop but that's just me. The music here is still quite good and definitely adds to the action. The voice acting definitely takes a bit away from the drama and as we said at the beginning still leaves open the question of whether this is supposed to be tongue-in-cheek or not. Sound effects are generally good but you really need to turn things up to get those giant robots to sound like you'd expect them to when they're stomping around the USA.
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