In the beginning, there was Command & Conquer. Sure, you can talk about Dune II and Herzog Zwei but if you're looking for the definitive, original RTS game that really set the genre alight, there's only one contender: Command & Conquer. Westwood studios took a fresh, emerging genre and polished it into one of the most memorable videogame experiences of all time.
So when you hear that a studio formed by ex-Westwood people (who fled when EA took over, back in 2003) is releasing an RTS in the Command & Conquer vein, with big budget backing and hot on the heels (relatively speaking) of their impressive debut game "Star Wars: Empire at War", your ears prick up.
Universe at War, whilst based on Earth, doesn't put you in charge of humans - well, not for long at least. During the prologue portion of the single player campaign, you get to charge around with typical gung-ho humans but this really only serves to lay down the backdrop of the game. Before very long you discover, Aliens vs. Predator style, that humans aren't up to much. They're squishy, poorly armed and well out of their depth - thank God the Novus, eternal enemies of the invading Heirarchy, turn up in the nick of time to act as our defenders.
The Novus, it turns out, are a robotic life form. Their original creators were wiped out in a Heirarchy attack, aeons ago, which resulted in their reprogramming themselves ("set phasers for eternal vengeance!") and chasing the Heirarchy around the universe, defending the oppressed from the awesome might of the Heirarchy (more on that in a moment). Featuring a heavy focus on the white end of the colour spectrum, these electronic warriors have some nifty advantages - notably the ability to move rapidly through conduits on (and around) their bases, which allows large forces to move around the map very quickly.
Introduced later in campaign mode, the Masari (whilst alien to us) aren't really alien at all - they've been asleep in the oceans of earth, no doubt the result of a massive bender the likes of which only students in Dunedin will have any real experience of. Not only are they angry at the interloping Heirarchy, they're kinda pissed at the humans for treating the earth the way they have.
The Masari have an interesting mechanic, whereby you can switch their units between modes - either concentrating on high firepower (at the cost of defence) or high survivability, which takes their highest damage dealing weapons out of play. Tactically interesting, the Masari play very differently to the other races in combat as a result. Otherwise their general play structure is fairly typical - build bases, build defences, crank out units.
The real bad guys of the tale are introduced right at the start - the Heirarchy. Their motivation is complete, universal conquest. If it lives and it's not Heirarchy, it's an enemy and needs to be eliminated - no matter where in the Universe it's currently hiding beneath a rock. The Heirarchy are impressive indeed, with formidable weapons and units (the first time you see one of their gigantic, almost screen-sized walkers will stick with you forever). Their tactic is brute force - if you're playing any other race (as you will be for most of the campaign), don't even think about playing their game against them. When it comes to force, these guys bring a nuclear missile to a paintgun game.
From a general gameplay point of view, Universe at War bears a lot of similarities to Command & Conquer. Whilst obviously not a game in that venerable series (where's the Nod? There's no Tiberium! - etc), you'd be forgiven for thinking this was C&C's bastard love child. Everything from the feel (and sound!) of the interface to behaviour and pure Rock / Paper / Scissors nature of the arms race oooozes Command & Conquer. That's no bad thing and fans of the series, whilst waiting for the expansion to C&C3, would do much worse than checking it out. But when it comes to reinventing the wheel, there's not much innovation here - considerably less, even, than Petroglyph's previous games, Empire at War and its expansion.
Sure, each race does feel different to play (more so than anything since Warcraft III, perhaps) but you'll probably only want to play two of those races and then, only in skirmish or multiplayer. The single player campaign is a so-so affair, with forced scenarios (here's a handful of units, go wipeout three enemy bases-type stuff) more often than fun base-building stuff and most of the (massive!) tech trees for the races are off limits until multiplayer or skirmish play. That's not a huge issue, unless you want to see how the story plays out, as most of the fun in these games is in skirmish or multiplayer anyway - there's no difference here.
The story and presentation of same is pretty good. The races and their motivations, whilst stock Sci-Fi, are refreshing in the genre and it's fun seeing aliens that are so devastatingly powerful that we literally don't stand a chance against them. The animation of humanoid units is only average, however, which whilst not normally an issue from the camera's "thousand foot" perspective, is brought into glaringly obvious detail with the occasional cutscene, in which the camera zooms riiiiight in for a closeup. Graphically too, the game could have done with a level of detail (or LOD) system (where higher detail objects are swapped in when the camera is up close) as the game looks fine to good from a distance but loses much of that shine when anything is particularly close. Otherwise the graphics and animation hold up well, fitting the game's setting perfectly.
The box for Universe at War states that Windows Vista is a minimum requirement. It's not. Sure, you can only get the DirectX 10 effects under Vista, but everything else (including Live multiplayer) is available under Windows Xp. Multiplayer is restricted to Live, so if you're not signed up for this yet and want to play Universe at War online, get ready to get onboard the Live train. That said, on Windows (unlike on Xbox 360), Silver accounts (Live is tiered into Silver and Gold, Silver accounts are free whilst Gold requires a monthly fee) can play multiplayer games. If you've got a 360 and a Live account associated with that, you can use it here with full benefits (no need to pay any more for a Gold account if you already have one).
One quirk which is worthy of a mention is that the campaign game sets you up to accidentally lose your progress. There's never any kind of "save your game!" suggestion (no big deal) and the game doesn't auto save your progress as you complete missions and progress through the story. Combine those two facts with the fact that failing a mission presents a screen with "try again?" and "quit" as its only options, with "quit" not warning you that you'll lose your progress and you might accidentally find yourself at the start of the game again, having to complete all the tutorial missions and all of the missions you had played since your last save. Why is there no "save & quit" option on this screen? You'll only be burned by it once but that doesn't stop it being a frustrating oversight.
So, should you buy it? If you're a Command & Conquer fan, looking for more of the same whilst you wait for the Kane's Wrath expansion pack, you could do much worse - in fact, there's no other game out there that feels as much like Command & Conquer as this does. If you're new to the RTS genre and want something to cut your teeth on, again, there are much worse games. Just be warned that the single player campaign, thanks largely to its forced limited units design, can be pretty seriously hard. If you're into multiplayer RTS games, again, you could do much worse. Which ultimately sums this game up - you could do much worse. The only real problem is that, in a few cases at least (including Empire at War), you could do better.
Universe is a good game that deserves serious consideration by RTS fans that are looking for a new game that doesn't stray too far from the Command & Conquer mould.