Many of the developers at Petroglyph got their start at the now-shuttered Westwood Studios, the birthplace of Command & Conquer, the seminal real-time strategy game that helped to introduce the world to the popular formula of building huge bases and armies to crush your opponents. Therefore, it's not too surprising to find Command & Conquer influences in Universe at War: Earth Assault, the upcoming game from Petroglyph and publisher Sega that deals with an alien war raging on Earth. We had a chance to play a work-in-progress version of the game to check out how this war of the worlds is shaping up. Please note, the following contains slight spoilers to the story.
The single-player game in Universe at War is notable because there's a single-player campaign, as well as single-player scenarios. The campaign lets you follow the game's story, while the scenarios let you alternate between a global real-time strategic mode and real-time battles. The global view divides the world into large territories. You must capture a territory by defeating enemy forces in it. Once a territory is under your control, you can build different facilities in it. For instance, you can dedicate a territory to resource gathering, which provides you funds to purchase additional structures and units. Or you might dedicate a territory to unit production, which will let you churn out new units there. This is similar to other overarching strategic modes in other games, though Universe at War differs from most by having this all take part in real time, not in turns.
There's a variety of scenarios that ship with the game, and you can use them with any of the three alien factions. One lets you start with a single territory and you work your way up from there. Another begins with all the world's territories split evenly among the three factions. That way, you don't have to spend a lot of time building an empire before the battles begin. Perhaps the most challenging scenario has your territories isolated from one another, and you must try to stave off defeat while trying to reconnect your forces.
If you want more of a linear and structured experience, then there's the single-player campaign. Considering that the game focuses on three distinct alien factions, it's a bit surprising that the first missions of Universe at War let you play as the poor "sentients" who are already living on the planet. The prologue kicks off with the alien Hierarchy, a malevolent race that strips planets bare, invading Earth. The opening mission takes place in Washington, D.C. where the Hierarchy have overrun the defenses and are turning civilians, as well as everything else, into raw material. You play as Colonel Moore, a chaingun-wielding tough guy trying to rescue the president from the White House in a classic RTS mission where you have to guide a small group of units around the map, taking out all bad guys that get in your way.
At your disposal are conventional military units, such as infantry, rocket infantry, humvees, tanks, and Apache helicopters. You're up against "lost ones," which are the Hierarchy's infantry unit; grunts, which are tank-sized behemoths; and detection droids, which are spindly tripod war machines, as you battle through to the White House to save the president. The bad news is that he's wounded, so the second mission is to escort his ambulance through the streets of Washington D.C. to a nearby military fort. Unfortunately, the Hierarchy have brought a walker to the party, a gigantic mobile fortress that walks around on legs. While you're given a barracks and factory to churn out fresh units, there's pretty much no way that you can take the walker down.
Just when things look absolutely bleak for the humans, though, the tide turns. Portals open in thin air and an army of sentient robots emerges to engage the Walker. These robots are the Novus, a machine race that is dedicated to the destruction of the Hierarchy to avenge their organic creators. While the Novus are all machines, they did clone Mirabel, one of their creators. Mirabel serves as a hero unit for Novus and she flies around in Viktor, a giant mech. Interestingly, Mirabel looks human, and when she sees the sentients, she wants to make contact with them. However, Mirabel is overruled by her superiors and sent on another mission. Thus, the prologue for Universe at War ends and the Novus story begins.
The Novus campaign will send you around the world in pursuit of a variety of missions. After helping out the humans, you'll head off to the Middle East to protect resource centers. There, you'll need to build an army of Ohm bots, the Novus' basic infantry, to defeat walkers. The only way to take down walkers is to focus on each of their "hard points" on their hulls, where they have weapons and special attachments. Once those are destroyed, the walker is vulnerable. Mirabel and Viktor can help in this, thanks to their missile barrage and sniper abilities. While the Viktor mech looks like it was taken out of Japanese anime, the majority of Novus' units look completely original and like high-tech modern art. They can be deadly, though. Dervish fighters can spin and whirl in place, sending waves of energy that can damage or destroy enemies. There are also the blades, which are beefed-up infantry units that can slice apart ground foes.
It's about the fifth mission in where Universe at War starts to open up and the initial handholding that you got from the game to ease you into it ends. Like many RTS games, this is essentially a game about resource management. You have so many tasks to accomplish, but a relatively limited amount of resources to accomplish them with, which means you have to figure out how to prioritize. Vertigo, a Novus hero unit, has to retrieve the pieces of a galactic portal that the Novus needs before the Hierarchy gets them. At the same time, enemy units are pushing onto your base, which means you have to dedicate units to defense. The Hierarchy walkers are busy tearing up the countryside, including the conduits that are used by Novus units to transport around the map quickly. Oh, and you also need to destroy a Hierarchy base that's holding onto one of those galactic portal pieces. There's a lot of tension in this mission and it simply feels like you have too much to do.
The interface makes your job a bit easier by offering a nice way to eliminate a lot of the micromanagement normally found in RTS games. A handful of buttons at the bottom of the screen lets you access all of your production facilities, so you can designate rally points and build queues without having to repeatedly move the camera from your base to the front lines.
Playing as the Novus is a fun experience when you discover how to use all of the faction's mobility to your advantage. At the same time, you're going to need it to defeat the lumbering forces of the Hierarchy. It's a sobering realization when you figure out that Hierarchy walkers are heading toward your base; you need to throw everything at them to stop them. It'll also be interesting to see how the game plays out when the shoe is on the other foot and you get to control the Hierarchy or the Masari, the third alien faction. They both play quite differently from the Novus, so you'll need to adapt your thinking considerably. Based on what we've seen so far, Universe at War will deliver a lot of interesting new twists on the standard real-time strategy game. It's going to ship next month.