Petroglyph's team of designers is no stranger to the real-time strategy genre. Most people know them from their work on last year's Star Wars: Empire At War, but many of the developers have years of experience in the genre, ranging back to the original Command and Conquer game, and Dune II games that were developed at Westwood in the 1990's. Now, though, they're bringing their experience into the next generation with Universe at War, an original RTS game that will come to both the PC and the Xbox 360.
You may know the basic storyline behind Universe At War from our previous coverage, but just in case: Earth has been invaded by a trio of alien races that intend to use it as the centerpiece of a more widespread war. Humanity is largely eradicated in the first days of the war, although some pockets of resistance manage to survive the warfare, and will even be playable during the first tutorial mission of the game. The bulk of the game, however, will revolve around the conflict between the three alien races and their attempts to erase the others from the surface of the Earth. Each of the races features unique units and abilities, and Petroglyph claims that they're more differentiated than any RTS has featured since the original StarCraft.
The two previously-revealed races are the Hierarchy and the Novus. The Hierarchy are the dominant race in the universe, and act as the galactic bullies, having previously defeated both of the other races in the ongoing war. It's a mostly robotic race, featuring lumbering fortresses that act as mobile bases and warships. The articulation on the graphics here is wonderful, with each leg creaking along individually as the war machines creep slowly along the landscape. The Hierarchy's special ability is the hardpoints on its gigantic walker units.
The second race is the Novus, a highly technical army that relies less on firepower than on trickery and guile. The Novus were almost wiped out by the Hierarchy in the past, and rely on their networking ability to survive. This faction's special ability is to download software patches for their units that unlock new abilities. You might want to patch your entire army to “overclock” them, which will boost their offensive abilities at the cost of defense, for instance. You can only have a couple of patches downloaded at any given time, however. Novus resource collectors will broadcast a signal to numerous other structures in the web of buildings that the Novus constructs, allowing units to travel from one structure to another instantly by breaking themselves down into nanite components and traveling along the network. Instant travel around the map has been seen in other RTS games before, but the graphical effect here is pretty neat. Many of the Novus units can also switch between different modes of use depending on the situation; we were shown a stationary railgun defensive structure that could be morphed into an energy shield when the Hierarchy heavy guns came stomping along.
The third and final race that Petroglyph revealed to us today is the Masari, a race of ancient space explorers that may have visited Earth in the past and influenced many of the mythic images that swim around in humanity's collective unconscious. Their units feature a number of structures that will seem familiar, consisting as they do of Aztec-style buildings, Egyptian pyramids, and the like. Many of the units resemble angels, dragons, and other iconic creatures that have popped up in mythologies and religions around the world. The Masari have the capability to shift their entire base and all associated units from light to dark at the switch of a button, the effects of which will depend on the unit and the map you're on. For example, some of the Masari's most powerful units can fly while their civilization is in light mode. If you flip to dark mode, they'll become grounded, but will gain an energy shield to protect them from damage. We're sure there's more behind this transformation than meets the eye, though.
In addition to the new race, Petroglyph also revealed the existence of hero units in the game. These hero units consist of remarkable individuals from each race that, while powerful in battle, aren't so overweeningly awesome that you feel the need to reload a saved game if they die. We did manage to see a couple of the heroes of the Masari, including their king and queen. Queen Alataer can use her calming influence to spread a sphere of peace in an area around her, causing all units to stop attacking, and also eliminating all missiles that are in the air, which is especially useful when combating enemy superweapons. The king is capable of issuing a small gravity field in the area around him, sucking up nearby units (even friendly ones), damaging them, and flinging them off into the air. Each race will have three hero units to play around with in the final game.
Universe At War is looking pretty exceptional at this point, so we're looking forward to its release on the PC this fall. It'll also come out early next year on the 360, with a twist: Petroglyph is planning for it to be the first third-party game to offer interoperability between the two versions, so that you'll be able to play against people on both platforms, regardless of the version that you own. We'll have more on this and other aspects of Universe at War as it comes closer to its release date, so stay tuned to GameSpot!