Is the possession of 3 unique races enough to make old-fashioned gameplay enjoyable- just like with Starcraft in 1998?

User Rating: 7 | Universe at War: Earth Assault PC
Universe At War: earth Assault (UaW:EA) is the most recent release by Petroglyph- the makers of the interesting, but ultimately flawed Star Wars: Empire at War. At first glance, it may seem like Petroglyph has tried to be highly inventive and daring once again with UaW:EA. But this is only half true.

UaW:EA begs the question of whether or not interesting races are still enough alone to make old-fashioned gameplay relevant- just like what starcraft did back in the late 1990s. While Petroglyph has partially proven this can still be done with the Hierarchy race- UaW:EA ultimately shows that inventive races are not enough to drag old-fashioned gameplay very far- unless they are almost completely original, such as the Hierarchy.

The premise of UaW:EA is relatively familiar: aliens are invading earth and the humans are trying to drive them back. The twist: the Humans are NOT the main focus of the storyline here- far from it. In fact- we have very little to do with what goes on in UaW:EA. After being almost comepletely wiped out by the Hierarchy- a race comprised of the classic grey aliens we've all seen before, but with giant walkers that are almost as tall as our skyscrapers- Humanity lucks out as the Novus- a race of sentient robots who had their creators killed off by the hierarchy- arrive and start fighting the Hierarchy. The conflict becomes larger when later on- the Masari- ancient humanoid aliens who are seemingly the cause for some of our myths, such as Atlantis- wake up, and are not happy with what they see occuring on Earth.

As interesting as this conflict may seem on paper- the single player campaign of UaW:EA, is actually one of its weakest parts. simply put- the campaign of UaW:EA is for the most part- incredibly bland all around. The base storyline is very simplistic, though it does benefit from being more character-driven than anything else, as the majority of the characters of each race are actually interesting with their varied personalities and motivations. The cast is the only thing the campaign has going for it however- as the scenario design is not very good or interesting- and it only gets worse in the final chapter of the campaign.

UaW:EA fortunately offers a decent helping of other modes along with its campaign. On offer is the Conquer the World mode and skirmishes, both of which can be played online or off. The Conquer the World mode is the only aspect of Uaw:EA that shows any signs of influence from SW:EaW. The objective in the Conquer the World mode is simply to conquer the HQs of your opponents to defeat them, and thus conquer the world. Its basically a highly stremlined and simplified version of the similar mode in SW:EaW. As such, however, the mode doesn't suffer from any of the interface issues SW:EaW had, such as how you had to manage production on your planets and how you moved troops around, and is actually much more enjoyable to play. Those who liked this type of gameplay in SW:EaW however, will be disappointed with how simplistic the Conquer the World mode is in comparison.

Of course, there is then the skirmish mode which can be played both online and off. If you want to play online- you'll have to deal with Games for Windows live, which is unfortunately still a pain to deal with. Its pretty clear UaW:EA suffered from being one of the test dummies for Games for Windows- since the online community is quite small at this time.

As for playing offline- UaW:EA's AI is a tough one to critique... On one hand, UaW:EA's AI is quite good in that it will attack you from varying directions, use many of the abilities available in the game, and actually does know how to use each race to its advantage- to an extent. For example, the AI will use hit-and-run tactics with the Novus- will switch between light and dark mode with the Masari, and will send in standard combat units before its walkers as the Hierarchy.

On the other hand, UaW:EA's AI is lackluster in that- while it will attack you from varying directions, it tends to favor small strike groups of no more than 6 units that it sends piecemeal at you (Even the hard AI does this more often than not). The AI will do hit-and-run tactics, but it will use Field Inverters and other slow units to do this... Field Inverters- one of the slower units in the game- seriously AI?!? It will use most of the abilities available to it- but use them at bad times- such as wasting Mirabel's snipe ability on a weakened defiler unit...

All in all, UaW:EA's AI is certainly entertaining. It's not exactly a very good AI though...

So what's going to keep people playing these modes? Petroglyph hopes that the game's three unique races will be enough to keep you around- just like what Starcraft managed to do. But- this is about 10 years later... The RTS genre has evolved- which has lead to more varied gameplay in the form of games like World in Conflict, the Dawn of War series, and even Supreme Commander. So are UaW:EA's unique races enough to keep people's interest?

The answer: 1/3 yes, 2/3s no. The star of UaW:EA's show is unquestionably the Hierarchy faction- thanks to their highly unique gameplay. The hierarchy don't build up a static base like other standard RTS factions do. Instead, the Hierarchy's 'base' focuses around their humungous walkers, which also handle most of their unit production. In short- the Hierarchy main base is completely mobile, and highly useful in direct combat situations. The hierarchy's walkers are also customizable with a high variety of sub-systems- including additional weapons, systems that increase the efficiency of the walker's weapons, and much more- that can be installed on their hardpoints. This all combines to make the Hierarchy one of the most unique factions I've ever seen in an RTS- and if you enjoy playing them, they are definitely reason enough to stick around.

Unfortunately, Petroglyph clearly ran out of steam quite quickly with the other two factions, which- while unique in their own right- can't hold a candle to the Hierarchy in terms of interest and uniqueness, because they stick much more to standard RTS conventions than the Hierarchy do.

The novus are a highly mobile faction that focus on hit-and-run tactics, since most of their units cannot stand toe-to-toe with the other faction's units terribly well. In order to do this effectively- the Novus rely on the 'flow network', which powers their buildings and allows Novus units to quickly travel through the network lines. The Novus can also apply a variety of 'patches' during a game to give their units a variety of bonuses, such as protection against radiation or heat damage. While the patches and flow network give the Novus a variety of interesting tactics to use, their actual playstyle doesn't stray too far from standard RTS conventions.

And then there's the Masari- who are the worst offenders in terms of sticking to RTS conventions. If your familiar with other RTS titles- you'll feel right at home with the Masari, as they stick to standard RTS conventions very closely. The only real trick the Masari have is the fact that they can switch between a light mode, and a dark mode. These modes change the attack capabilities and other statistics of the Masari's units- with the light mode focusing on offense, and the dark mode focusing on defense. The changes these modes make include forcing air units to land while in dark mode, and increasing every unit's line of sight when in light mode. Other than that though- the Masari are really just a standard RTS faction.

Its a pity that Petroglyph couldn't pull off what it did with the Hierarchy for the game's other two factions. The end result: only 1/3 of UaW:EA's races keep the game relevant with its old-fashioned gameplay. Does UaW:EA make up for this with a well-designed interface? Kind of, since UaW:EA's interface is actually relatively decent with how it allows you to handle unit production on the fly. However, there are some issues here. For starters, unless all of the units your using have abilities- UaW:EA doesn't bother to show you what exactly you have selected- which is a baffling ommission. There's also no idle worker button... All in all, UaW:EA's interface isn't as good as say- C&C 3's, or even Starcraft's interfaces.

Graphically, UaW:EA has a high amount of detail for an RTS title. Just like in SW:EaW, the game includes a cinematic camera- and its definitely worth using here, since UaW:EA's units look very good- even up close. UaW:EA's units are definitely the best aspect of the graphics thanks to their high detail and well-done animation (even though it can be glitchy at times with certain units- particularly the Hierarchy's reaper drone), especially for the hierarchy's walkers. The environments and particle effects aren't quite as impressive as UaW:EA's units, but they are decent as well.

Sound wise, UaW:EA also fares relatively well. The music fits perfectly for each faction- as the Hierarchy have rock music, the Novus have techno music, and the Masari have more ancient-civilization type music. The voice acting on the other-hand, is much more variable in quality, though there is much more good than bad here (The problem is actually more often the dialogue- which isn't particularly well written).

In the end, UaW:EA is 1/4 fresh and unique, 3/4 blatantly old-fashioned. With how the RTS genre has evolved, unique races just aren't quite enough to keep a game with old-fashioned gameplay relevant in comparison to other, fresher RTS titles. While the Hierarchy partially salvage UaW:EA's situation- the other two races fail to pick up the slack the Hierarchy isn't able to handle. If you still enjoy old-fashioned RTS gameplay in the vein of starcraft however, you will probably enjoy UaW:EA, despite its boring campaign and slightly flawed interface. And even if you don't enjoy this old-fashioned gameplay, you might still want to check UaW:EA out- if only because of the Hierarchy faction.

The Hierarchy faction is one of the most unique factions to be seen in the entire genre- and is incredibly fun to play with.
Entertaining AI.
Good graphics.
Conquer the World mode avoids most- if not all- of the issues SW:EaW had.
Campaign has some entertaining characters.

The Novus and Masari stick a bit too closely to RTS conventions for comfort- and thus do not help make the game's old-fashioned gameplay relevant like the Hierarchy do.
Boring map design for both the campaign and skirmish maps.
AI quality is commonly questionable.
Games For Windows live is used for multiplayer- and its still a pain.