Monday, January 07, 2008

Universe at War: Earth Assault Review

Universe at War: Earth Assault, developed by Petroglyph and published by Sega.
The Good: Three distinct races, well-designed and minimal user interface, both story-driven and global domination campaigns, units attack while moving
The Not So Good: Online campaign and ranked matches require $8/month Gold Live account, special abilities must be micromanaged, map size does not scale down for two-player global campaign battles, advanced unit behavior options are unavailable, some minor performace and pathfinding issues
What say you? Varied but well-balanced factions and a streamlined interface makes this a notable strategy game with ridiculous subscription limitations: 6/8

I’m not usually that big on doing previews or playing beta builds, mainly for time considerations (I get enough games to review let alone preview). I also prefer highlighting games you can actually buy instead of teasing you with subtle advertisements. I did get an invitation to the beta for Universe at War: Earth Assault, but never pursued it; betas are usually pretty boring unless you really like the game anyway. This real time strategy game comes to us from the same team that did Star Wars: Empire at War (I downloaded the demo but never got the game to review). This genre is one that is over-saturated on the PC to an extent, so new titles must provide some gameplay innovations to stack up favorable against the competition. Does Universe at War: Earth Assault?

Universe at War: Earth Assault holds its own in the graphics and sound departments. The level of detail for the units is very nice, showing some neat animations and distinct units across the board. The environments, however, are quite bland and are filled with a lot of empty space, instead of being believable Earth locations. The effects and explosions are also neat to look at, and watching units get attacked and slowly disintegrate is excellent. I also enjoy looking at the Earth in the global campaigns: the sunlight shifts and lights come on in realistic locations. Universe at War does deliver some random slowdowns in performance, although I was able to run the game at “very high” settings with only occasional drops in frame rate (this is in DX9 using XP, by they way). Universe at War features decent voice acting that compliments each of the three races well, in addition to pleasing background music that wasn’t too invasive. Overall, Universe at War: Earth Assault doesn’t disappoint in terms of presentation.

Universe at War features a good amount of single-player content. The game comes with three story-driven campaigns that are unlocked in order, covering each of the three main races in the game (humans are disposed of early on). The missions are generally “escort,” “destroy,” or “defend” type missions, which is fine. Objective locations are clearly marked on the minimap, and the objectives themselves are permanently displayed in the corner of the screen. Like most campaigns, the tutorial is integrated into the story and it’s done well, slowly introducing new concepts over time. Campaign missions can be quite difficult; you will receive occasional reinforcements in missions that lack base building, but some enemies have special abilities that can wipe out all of your units (except for your hero) in a single shot. One thing that’s missing is the research tree; each side in the game has three branches of four levels each. Gaining a new bonus simply costs resources (there is only one resource in the game) and you are restricted to six (out of 12) of the techs in multiplayer but the bonuses are missing from single player campaigns entirely. The research bonuses here are typically negligible anyway, however, so its absence is just a minor issue. Universe at War also comes with a set of global campaign scenarios featuring a real-time risk backdrop of taking over the world. You’ll construct support buildings (resource collectors, etc) at occupied territories and battles will automatically commence when territory is invaded. Sadly, the map size does not adjust for the one-on-one conflicts of global conquest mode: playing a two-person battle on a map desgined for eight players is not very fun. Still, having this two-pronged approach greatly increases the value of the game and the single-player action alone should keep you busy for a while. You can also play skirmish battles that feature the twenty-five provinces from the campaigns if you just want instant action with no overlying strategic layer. When you start a skirmish match, the sides are represented by icons with no tool-tips so you don't really know who you are controlling until you start the game. Brilliant! Nevertheless, I like what Universe at War offers for the single-player experience.

And that brings us to multiplayer, and it looks like it’s time for another rant. First off, Universe at War requires you to validate your CD key through the Live service and takes up 5 GB of hard drive space, yet you still need to place the DVD in the drive every time you play. I thought we were past this maddening distrust of the end user. Universe at War features pretty generic multiplayer options: either deathmatch or conquest (flag-capturing) matches on the twenty-five campaign maps (one for each Earth region, sans Canada and Russia). You can include DEFCON rules to speed up the game; this option grants an entire level of research to every player at specified time intervals. You can also play the global campaign mode online; Universe at War will find appropriate human opponents to fight against. The first thing you’ll probably notice is that the online campaign and ranked matches are disabled for people who lack a Gold (that’s $8/month) Games for Windows LIVE membership. And when the XBOX 360 version gets released, you’ll be able to play them, but, of course, only if you pay extra for it. It’s a stupid decision by the developer and publisher to get suckered in by Microsoft. Nobody’s going to buy the game just because it says “Games for Windows” on the box, and more people probably won’t buy the game because of the limited features available to non-subscription players. This is a message to all game companies: let Microsoft flounder in their failed Games for Windows initiative and don’t allow them to drag you down with them. I realize it’s only $8 a month, but cutting multiplayer features for absolutely no reason other than to make money for Microsoft is a despicable practice that I hope stops immediately. Rant mode off.

Universe at War has an elegant and inconspicuous (the power of the thesaurus) user interface that allows access to all unit-producing buildings from anywhere on the map. You simply click the class of unit you want to build, and icons for each building and producible unit are provided. You can also access all the special abilities for every selected unit, which cuts down on the micromanagement required considerably. All movement orders are attack moves by default as well; units will engage but not stop on their way to the destination. There are a couple of issues with the controls, however. If you queue multiple buildings, the constructor units will forget about previously ordered structures and they must be manually instructed to renew assembly. Selecting all units only occasionally works (more often for units on the screen) for some reason. Pathfinding can also be an occasional problem, with some units getting lost or not using the most efficient trail to an objective. I would also like the game to zoom out more. Still, these are relatively minor issues in an otherwise great system.

One of the highlights of Universe at War: Earth Assault (using the full name makes my review longer) is the three distinct races in the game. Though most aspects of each of the game’s three races are conventional in nature, each side has its own innovations that alter gameplay strategies. All sides get a standard building tree that produce standard units (weak infantry, strong infantry, armored units, flying units, defensive turrets), but the changes have a significant impact on gameplay and overall strategy. The “theme” of each race is consistent throughout their design, from the changes in resource collection to army makeup to tactics. The Hierarchy relies on slow, powerful units and its walker, a moving (albeit slowly) unit producer/turret of fear. You can outfit a number of hard-points on the walkers with offensive weaponry, defensive armor, or other bonuses like increased production rates. This race gives a lot of flexibility to the player: will you use your walkers for offense or defense, or both? The robot-like Novus focus on lots of quickly-produced units and cloaked transportation points (called flow conduits) that allow for almost instantaneous travel between them. Unlike the Hierarchy that likes to pound you into oblivion, the Novus is more suited for quick, lightning-fast attacks. Lying somewhere in the middle is the Masari, a more traditional race that features light and dark energy modes intended for quick or slow attacks (presumably to counter the Novus and Hierarchy, respectively). The Masari also features architects that can focus their energy on a specific structure, increasing its effectiveness in a nod to Supreme Commander. All three races are designed well and work in the framework of the game. It’s nice to see multiple races that aren’t just carbon copies of each other with different skins.

In general, the AI of Universe at War is good: units will automatically engage nearby enemy units, although the detection radius is a little bit too small: while several units in the same formation will attack, some right next to them will not. The units don’t have “stance” settings to make them more aggressive (one of the disadvantages of such as streamlined interface). While the special abilities must be micromanaged, the interface makes it easy to do so once you have an entire group selected; units with the same special ability will be grouped together so you can queue up several in a row. Most of the special abilities are really cool and can turn the tide of battle quickly. Speaking of quickly, the gameplay of Universe at War is on the fast-paced side of the equation and the expedient manner helps offset the speed at which you can complete your base. The relatively limited number of buildings you have at your disposal limits your strategies a bit, but you are still given some wiggle room with your research tree (at least in multiplayer). It is impressive watching sides collide, and the unique nature of each of the races means conflicting strategies will almost always collide. The enemy AI is very aggressive at medium or higher difficulties, providing a very competent foe in skirmish and global campaign matches (maybe a little too competent for some). Despite the numerous innovations, Universe of War still plays out like a classic real time strategy game. So while the uniqueness of the game shines, the limitations, whether artificial or related to game design, bring this title back down to Earth.

Universe at War: Earth Assault certainly has some unique ideas, and because of that it’s a noteworthy strategy game. The Hierarchy’s walkers, the Novus’ fast massed movement, and the Masari’s compromise make for some interesting and surprisingly well-balanced battles. The game comes with a significant amount of single player action, with three story-driven campaigns and four global conquest scenarios. The interface is well designed and lets you access anything from anywhere. Veteran players might not like having reduced control over their units, though, as formations and stances are missing. The potential for multiplayer fun is definitely present, but sadly Universe at War got wooed into blocking most of the multiplayer features to people who aren’t willing to spend $8 a month on a LIVE Gold subscription. I know I’m not. Still, Universe at War is a fun and entertaining real time strategy game; if you don’t mind missing some multiplayer features then it’s certainly a recommended title.