Universe at War: Earth Assault is this year's Rise of Nations: Rise of Legends. In other words, it's an attempt to deliver an old-school real-time strategy game that features three incredibly unique and distinct factions. And in that regard, Universe at War delivers because it does introduce three alien races, two of which feel like they haven't been seen before in RTS gaming. At the same time, Universe at War also sports some major flaws that hamper it quite a bit.
This is an alien invasion tale where, refreshingly, humanity takes a backseat. When a malevolent alien race known as the Hierarchy invades Earth to turn its inhabitants and belongings into raw material, all hope seems lost. Then, a crusading army of sentient machines called Novus arrives to battle the Hierarchy. Their fighting awakens a long-lost race that was hiding on Earth, the Masari. And, thus, the stage is set for an intergalactic war on Earth's surface.
The differences among the three factions are deep. The Novus build a network node that can encompass the map, which allows them to quickly shift forces around in the blink of an eye. The Hierarchy is like a destructive force of nature because their harvesters scour the map for raw materials while their lumbering walker war machines are like land battleships. Then there's the Masari, which might be the most conventional of the three because they center on the construction of a powerful base and defenses. However, the Masari have the most powerful and expensive units in the game. They can also alternate between two modes: light and dark. The former lets them move faster to inflict more damage, while the latter grounds all their air units to slow their enemies. When you drill down and get used to them, each faction has a lot to offer. For instance, if you're the Hierarchy, it's a lot of fun to just crush your enemies using walkers, but it's also fun watching those same walkers run headlong into your layered defenses if you're the Masari.
Universe at War's single-player campaign at first follows the traditional scripted campaigns of most RTS games. You begin as the Novus then move onto the Hierarchy as the game's tale of war and betrayal unfolds. When you pick up as the Masari in the third act, things change. Out goes the scripted storyline and in comes the global strategic metagame, which is like a big game of Risk. You decide which territory to invade next and then resolve the battles in real time. It's not a particularly deep strategic layer, but it does help shake up the formula a bit. When you're done with the campaign, there are various scenarios that let you play the global metagame different ways, or you can jump into regular skirmish mode against the system.
The game shines in the multiplayer realm, where a human opponent can exploit each faction's advantage to the maximum. The artificial intelligence in the single-player game can knock you around if you're not careful, but it generally doesn't vary tactics: a human does. Universe at War has the standard ranked and unranked skirmish modes that you'd expect; however, the game's most ambitious online feature is pretty neat. Conquer-the-world mode allows you to try to take over the world by yourself. You try to conquer the individual territories on the planet by battling someone in multiplayer. If you win, you seize that territory in your game. However, to partake in conquer the world, you have to have Games for Windows - Live Gold. This isn't an issue if you already have an Xbox Live Gold account and own an Xbox 360, but if you don't, then you'll have to pay up to become a Games for Windows - Live Gold member.
Universe at War suffers from some key issues. The most noticeable is the zoom level, which is almost nonexistent. If you can imagine playing a game with your face just inches from the screen, that's what Universe at War feels like at times. It's annoying to see a single Hierarchy walker fill up more than half the screen and realize that you can't pull the camera back any farther. It's such an artificial and painful limitation not being able to actually see the battlefield. The controls are also clumsy. If you try to click on a unit, at times, it won't register. Or if you try to double-click on a unit to select all of its type on the screen, it won't register at times.
Graphically, Universe at War has some pretty units, like the aforementioned walkers. They look almost organic in nature, with their glistening skin and bulbous curves. However, the rest of the game's visuals are a bit dated, from the blocky, polygonal look of many of the characters to the generally bland textures. The game does feature support for DirectX 10, but DX10 performance comes to an absolute crawl, even on a high-end PC that can run Crysis at maximum detail. This occurred even when all the graphical settings were dropped to the absolute lowest. Performance in DirectX 9, on the other hand, is excellent and smooth, even at the highest graphical settings. There's very little noticeable difference in image quality between the two.
Upon load, the game starts with a chilling and brutal cinematic scene that wouldn't be out of place in Spielberg's War of the Worlds movie. The scene shows human infantry brutally and mercilessly cut down by relentless, unstoppable alien war machines. Unfortunately, the tone of that scene is quickly lost because the game features corny dialogue that seems taken from a cartoon. The cigar-chewing human protagonist is all macho bravado. Meanwhile, the sentient machines of Novus sound like Data from Star Trek: The Next Generation trying to be cute, the Hierarchy leaders talk like they're dripping evil, and the Masari are haughty nobles. The music can be pretty engaging, but because each faction has its own distinct theme, the rest of the audio is also inconsistent. The background sound effects of civilians fleeing in terror are neat, until you realize they're the same for every single map. So whether you're battling in the Sahara or South America or Siberia, they all sound like Middle Americans.
Aside from the unique races, Universe at War doesn't really introduce anything new to the genre. If anything, this is a very traditional real-time strategy game in the vein of Command & Conquer. Given that Petroglyph was formed by many veterans of the original C&C, that's not too surprising. What's perplexing is that the game seems to miss a lot of the innovations that have rolled into the genre since C&C. These include newer concepts, such as the ability to zoom the camera back and see broad swaths of the battlefield. So while there's stuff to like in Universe at War, there's also stuff to dislike.
Editor's Note: This review previously contained incorrect information about the waypoint system in the game. GameSpot regrets the error.