It's a theme popular in movies: Aliens invade the planet with awesome, unstoppable technology, only to be thwarted by the plucky determination of the human defenders. That's so not going to be the case with Universe at War: Earth Assault, a strategy game where three alien factions bring their conflict to Earth, and where the humans, for the most part, try to avoid getting vaporized, liquidated, and crushed. We got our first good look at the game in action at Sega's spring press event, along with a glimpse of two of the three playable alien factions, and it looks pretty interesting.
The game is set in 2012. Humanity discovers it's not alone in the cosmos the unpleasant way, when an interstellar war comes to Earth. While there will be human characters in the game, as well as a tutorial that lets you play as humans, the campaign will have you playing from the perspective of three alien factions. That's mainly because the theme of humans-overcoming-the-odds has been done to death at this point. The game will ship with a single-player campaign, an open-ended world conquest campaign, and multiplayer.
Universe at War is being developed by Petroglyph, the developer behind last year's Star Wars: Empire at War. Therefore, Universe at War builds on many concepts in Empire at War. The big revelation is that the game will have a strategic layer to it, much like Empire at War's galactic map. Only in this case, the strategic layer is a 3D model of the globe, with the landmass divided into provinces. It's inspired by the classic strategy game X-Com in that you can rotate the globe around to inspect different areas of the map and then move armies to invade provinces. The globe also models the day/night cycle, which is important, because when you fight a battle is as important as where you fight it. Nighttime and darkness will have a tactical effect on the battle.
The demonstration was a skirmish battle showing just how different the alien factions are from one another. The Hierarchy is the huge, lumbering alien faction seen in the early screenshots, the one with the units that look like weird giant lobster/crab hybrids. The second alien race that we saw was entirely new. The Novus is a sentient machine race that's much smaller than the Hierarchy and that has a slim and sleek graphical look.
The Hierarchy doesn't build structures. Instead, the race carves glyphs into the ground that look a lot like crop circles and calls down from orbit the huge, lumbering walkers, which are sort of like mobile bases. Walkers can traverse almost any kind of terrain and are incredibly powerful, though they are also very, very slow. Each walker has numerous hard points that can be customized on the fly with weapons or other structures that can boost production. Walkers also dispatch reapers, smaller units that go around and convert almost everything on the map into resources. This includes picking up and processing cars, houses, trees, cows, humans, and more. The point is that instead of having a group of resource piles that fix you in one location for the entirety of the game, you'll need to constantly keep your units and resource gatherers moving across the map. Think of it like locusts slowly chewing up the map.
In comparison, the Novus take advantage of their networked state to quickly sprawl all over a map. The Novus construct various buildings that are networked together. Novus units can ride those networks to quickly move from one point to another. The goal is that since the Hierarchy walkers are so powerful, it's inevitable that they'll eventually stomp their way into and crush a Novus base. However, the Novus can spread their base so quickly that they can keep expanding away from the walkers. The behavior was described as a bit like cockroaches that keep fleeing from danger. However, the Novus can also defend themselves. We saw a redirection tower that can intercept incoming weapon fire and redirect it. Other Novus units fired barrages of missiles at Hierarchy units.
Each alien faction will have three unique research vectors, but the trick is that you won't be able to research every technology in each game. This forces you to determine what strategy you want to pursue and then select the technologies that will assist you in that regard. The example given was that the Hierarchy could focus on mutagenic research, which boosts their radiation effects, as well as on assault technologies and on quantum research, which affects their production. Petroglyph wasn't ready to discuss the third alien faction in the game, because it recently underwent a visual overhaul. Universe at War does look a lot better in action than it does in many of the early screenshots. There's something ominous about seeing a walker lumbering onscreen, firing blasts of energy at a sprawling Novus base.
The other big news regarding Universe at War is that the game will also head to the Xbox 360 early next year (the PC version is set to ship around Christmas). The Xbox 360 version will have a different user interface, but it should keep much of the PC content intact, including the ability to play a multilayer world conquest game over Xbox Live.
Petroglyph proved that it could deliver an original real-time strategy game with Star Wars: Empire at War. The interesting thing is that with Universe at War, the company is building on the concepts and features it introduced in its earlier game while at the same time introducing a thoroughly original approach to the alien invasion genre. It should be exciting to see where this all ends up.