Real-time strategy games on a console platform carry with them a mixed bag of feelings. On the one hand you appreciate a complex strategy game on your 360, but on the other you miss the precision of controls that traditionally only a mouse and keyboard can deliver. Gamers can be assured though, that with Petroglyph Studios (containing many Westwood Studio developers at the helm) they are in capable hands.
Universe at War takes place in a futuristic world with three factions: the Heirachy, the Novus and the Masari. The Heirachy have arrived from outer space in massive numbers to invade Earth with the goal of stripping the planet of resources and destroying all life currently inhabiting it. Their shear numbers overwhelm the planet's defences and just when all hope seems lost. a mysterious portal opens up and the forces of Novus emerge.
The Novus, sworn enemies of the Heirachy, are advanced machines with human-like intelligence and are highly technologically advanced (being robots and all). Their armies look sterile, consisting of mainly pearl white palettes and crisp lines that seem reminiscent of Neon Genesis Evangelion creations.
Finally, the third race that you can command are the ancient beings known as the Masari. Although they too want to rid the planet of the foreign invaders, the Masari want to cleanse the planet of all life including humans. These non-friendly personalities of ethnic cleaners and robots are a welcome change from the traditional good vs. bad guys, although it is unusual that you can't chose to be a human faction.
The three races offer a great variety of gameplay and strategy and most players will want to play through the game with at least two of them. Each side has their own unique advantages and weaknesses; for example, the Hierarchy specialise in a “more is better” approach by creating huge armies from powerful units that in a head-on battle would squash their opponents. However, Hierachy units are slow and specialized, requiring the user to position them with other units depending on their situation. For example, the Hierarchy possess huge Walker units who can deal huge amounts of damage but require other units to defend its clumsy mobility.
The Novus rely heavily on strategic attacks rather than brute force. Thanks to their advanced technology, they have created an extremely useful teleportation system that allows them to send large numbers of troops to any visible location on a map instantly. But individually, Novus units are weaker and will need to be watched carefully in every battle to ensure their attacks are maximised.
The Masari are on the opposite end of the tech scale, seeming almost primitive, and play like a race from Warcraft. Their major advantage is that they can produce resources from practically nothing. This allows them to create armies and bases with ease thanks to their seemingly unlimited funds. Their technological backwardness does give way to some impressive magic abilities which revolve around a Light and Dark system that affects your gameplay throughout. When in Light mode, your attacks are slightly less powerful but more useful, such as blinding enemies with a fog of war attack or reversing time to make your opponent’s units disappear (essentially “un-making” them). When in Dark mode, offence moves can be devastatingly powerful, such as opening giant black holes to suck in troops and destroying them instantly.
Like many games in the genre, Universe at War also includes special Hero units. Each side has three of these uber characters that have their own special abilities, including a leader of each who you want to keep alive at all costs. The Hierarchy are led by Kamal Re'x the Abductor, who with a name like that must give even Chuck Norris night-terrors. Kamal is a ruthless commander and also a powerful psychic who can create invisible walls and disrupt units with thought alone.
The Novus leader, known simply as The Founder, is the master of teleportation and can be used as a portal to summon troops instantly. The Founder is one of the fastest ground units in the game and he can also resurrect fallen troops from their remains anywhere in his vicinity.
Finally, the Masari all follow Lord Charos, a wizard-like chap who can unleash massive attacks at close range, essentially destroying all ground and aerial units around him. How you choose to use these leaders and your other two hero characters can definitely change the odds in your favour.
Graphically, the game starts off with a compelling introduction sequence and the in-game visuals are impressive. Unfortunately they are perhaps a tad too impressive, as when large confrontations start to happen the frame-rate drops considerably. As opposed to the PC version, Universe at War does tend to struggle with large numbers of units on screen at any one time. In order to limit this problem, the developers have placed a cap on the number of units you can have at any one time. Some people might consider this to be a cheap annoyance but having limited units just means you need to adapt your strategy.
For the slight glitches in the unit animations and the dodgey frame-rate drop, the game does try to make amends in the sound department. The vocal and sound effects in the game suit it perfectly. The only thing many people will feel the need to do is mute the music which is borderline on irritating after long periods of play.
The other strong point of Universe at War is the controls. As previously mentioned, console RTS games can be a painful affair without your trusty mouse. But Petroglyph Studios have done a great job with what they had. The camera is controlled by the left and right sticks, the left panning vertically or horizontally and the right stick adjusting the zoom. The shoulder buttons and triggers are context sensitive menus or to magnify the map for quick destination selection. The context sensitive menus really elevate the control system, giving you quick access to common tasks depending on which unit you have selected. Another genius feature is the “Select Idle Builder” option, where at the click of a button you can zoom in on a construction unit to get them building quickly. No more needing to pan around looking behind buildings to find lazy workers.
Although the single player campaign modes offer hours of play - especially if you're keen to try all three races - Universe at War also includes quick single player skirmish modes, allowing you to break into a quick battle with your own customised settings. But many people will be buying this game to try out the multiplayer gameplay, which - thanks to Xbox Live - is fairly comprehensive. One unique feature is the PC (using Live for Windows) vs. Xbox mode where the ultimate battle over which platform is best for RTS games can take place.
Universe at War is a welcomed addition to the genre on the Xbox 360 thanks to a thoughtful control system and interesting unit tally. However, there is definitely room for improvements in the graphics department and any straight-from-PC gamers will still need plenty of time to adjust to the gamepad clunkiness.