The Good: Cool graphics; three races have VERY unique units; funny, campy storyline The Bad: Short, poorly designed single player campaign; camera is way to close to the battlefield; inflexible enemy AI The Ugly: $50/year for multiplayer
My friends, there’s a war going on, and I’m not talking about Universe at War. Allow me to explain. In the beginning, when the Earth was cooling and the mantle was thin, and pretty much no one had internet connections, RTS games came with a lengthy involved single player campaign, and one of the key pieces of a game was how good the enemy AI was. Companies spent big bucks trying to produce a computer opponent that could give players a serious challenge, one that would not be easily predictable in its behavior, and one that would not have to cheat to win (beginning the game with extra units, getting units for cheaper cost, etc). Fast forward a couple of years, and a few people had internet connections, and the companies were still trying to make a good computer AI, but some games, almost as an afterthought, started to stick in multiplayer capability. It was often glitchy (as people’s exhibit A, I offer the crashapolooza that was C&C multiplayer), but lo and behold, people had finally found an opponent that was a challenge: another person! Companies saw this and said to themselves “Hallelujah! We can improve the multiplayer experience, and spend less time worrying about computer opponents.” Come to today, and some games have gone all the way over, offering a perfunctory single player experience with a superior multiplayer one, the most recent game that I reviewed in this vein being World in Conflict. Though some multiplayer services are far superior to others, I’ve for the most part had no problem with this, until Microsoft got into the game. See, for some reason I can’t comprehend, the brainless zombies that are the typical console players see no problem with buying a game, and then paying to play it. I may well be fighting a losing battle here, but I do. Gears of War (which I reviewed like a month ago) which essentially required Microsoft Live Gold membership for multiplayer at $50/year, was kind of a downer, but at least you could make the weak argument that you more or less got an entire single-player game (albeit a gut wrenchingly mediocre one) for your money, and maybe someone who was really into it could shell out a few bucks to get more mediocre entertainment online with multiplayer. I didn’t like the idea of paying more for multiplayer, something that up until now has been free for PC gamers, but since I didn’t much like Gears of War I didn’t worry about it, I wasn’t going to pay it. Which brings me to Universe at War.
The single player campaign of UaW is almost like a UaW demo or tutorial. It gives you a quick taste of what the game might be like; some of the games key features like the research tree and unit upgrades only appearing at the very end of the campaign. You can mess around a little bit against the mostly incapable AI in skirmish matches, but if you really want to experience the promise that is UaW you’ve got to go online and that requires – can I have a drum roll please, or perhaps more appropriately the sound of an orchestra pit full of proctologists snapping on rubber gloves – Microsoft Live Gold at $50/year. You almost haven’t bought a game at all. You’ve bought the idea of a game, the framework for a game; you’ve bought a picture of a house in a magazine but shown up with your U-Haul full of your furniture and stuff to find an empty lot. There could be a swell house standing in this very spot, a sign says, and you could be living in it, but that’s going to cost you more.
Which is a shame, because UaW is really a nice house, er, game. We humans are living a peaceful existence on our little Earth when a race called the Hierarchy come a knocking. The Hierarchy have this crazy idea that if you liquefy anything hard enough it will turn into fuel, an idea that up until now has more or less only been held by ethanol manufacturers. They plan to grind us, our homes, the cows, everything into mush to feed their fuel needs, and given their technological advantage we’re pretty much helpless to stop it. Enter the Novus, a race of machines who have been at war with the Hierarchy essentially forever, who plan to make Earth their last battlefield. So these two races are hammering on each other, and we’re caught in the middle, when an ancient race, one that has been living under our oceans for centuries, arises to join the battle. It’s a three-way battle royale, and all the humans can do is try not get caught in the tank treads. Those are of course metaphorical tank treads as the game has almost no analog to a tank except maybe a hovercraft that fires an antimatter beam. That’s the key thing I really like about this game: three races, none of them typically even humanoid.
Oh, each race has a couple of varieties of foot soldier wielding some weapon, and those are humanoid, but that’s where the similarity ends. The Novus have a flying crystal that fires laser beams and shield generator units that are also rail guns, while the Hierarchy has UFO-looking things that drop balls of plasma, striders that fire toxic radiation deathrays, and enormous walkers that are like a melding of battleship and unit factory all in one. The development house really put on their thinking caps for this one and come up with many units unlike anything I’ve seen anywhere else, and the three races couldn’t be more dissimilar. The Hierarchy put all their eggs in one basket, concentrating their forces in their enormous walker units. The Novus have smaller, lighter forces but they can travel anywhere almost instantaneously by converting themselves into energy and using a series of repeater towers like telephone poles. The Masari has units somewhere between the two that can covert between light mode (fast with high damage weapons) and dark mode (slow, with heavy armor). The catch there is that all the Masari units must be all the same type at any given time, which requires a whole different combat strategy. I think right off the chocks that there is significant imbalance between the races. The Hierarchy walkers are too slow are too unresponsive, and have a limited number of hardpoints that can mount weapons that must be mixed between air and ground defense, as the two don’t overlap at all. If a walker is set up for mostly ground defense, a medium sized air force can come in and clean off the air defense hardpoints quickly, and then pick a walker apart at their leisure. The walker can convert hardpoint defenses from ground to air or manufacture air combat units, but both take too long. The Masari units overall seem weak for their price. I expect with a few patches this will all work itself out.
The single player campaign is told as a blended storyline, allowing you to experience each race and their units. The story is told through hero units for each side which appear in the missions themselves. By and large I found the hero units unimpressive, though they are stronger than the regular units with some special weapons abilities. Needless to say if you get one of them killed, you lose the mission. The missions are very heavily, scripted is the wrong word, but perhaps laid out is better. Each mission is almost like a puzzle meant to highlight the capabilities of a particular unit. Use this unit in this way to win this mission kind of a thing, with other units maybe not even available to you in your build tree. If you try and solve the mission any other way often you lose – they’re that heavily laid out. If you do manage to do something unexpected, the computer AI is completely unable to adapt. In one mission I built all air units, but I don’t think the mission was designed for them (though they weren’t blocked in the build tree). When I hit the enemy he had no air combat or air defense at all. One jet could and did destroy most of his forces without resistance.
The graphics overall are good but not great, with neat little animated units doing their thing, but the camera is way too close to the battlefield, and the zoom out function doesn’t take you very far out at all. A single Hierarchy walker fills like half the screen, and controlling a large force is almost impossible as they can’t all appear on the screen at once. I can’t imagine this problem wasn’t commented on in beta testing and it’s a mystery that such a glaring problem actually made it into production. The new weapons have cool new sound effects – I wasn’t disappointed there at all. The thundering steps of the walkers really pounded through my subwoofer.
Some of the things I kind of take for granted in RTS games now are strangely absent. The build queues are very shallow. There are no unit veteran improvements. You cannot set unit aggression levels. There are no commands to guard this unit or protect this spot. There are no unit formations. From those standpoints, UaW feels a lot like Warcraft 3 and other older RTS games.
Multiplayer (free multiplayer) doesn’t give you access to ranked matches, and so far I’ve never gone online and seen more than 10 games in play at the free level. One game variant called Conquer the World, which involves fighting your way across the planet Risk-style while conquering individual territories with the RTS, isn’t even available at the free level (you get to experience a little of this variant during the Masari campaign). Also, specific awards and bonuses for victory are reserved for the Gold-level members. The free multiplayer is really another crippled demo/taste of the house UaW that you could buy.
If it had free no-holds-barred multiplayer, UaW would be a very good game. They fix the camera issue and balance it out a little, it maybe moves up to 90%+ realm: a great game, but not as it is now. People at Microsoft Live will probably say that the $50/year buys you access to a whole host of multiplayer games. Maybe so, but so far all I’ve personally run across (and I play a LOT of games) is Gears of War, which I don’t like, and UaW, so at least at this time they’re asking for $50/year for one game that I actually want to play, and I’ve already paid (well, I’m reviewing it, so I haven’t paid for my copy) $39.99 or whatever to buy it. Maybe if Microsoft Live did $50 for a lifetime membership, or maybe $50 for say 100 hours of play without an expiration period, I might be able to go with that, but they want $50/year, $4.17 every month whether I play the game or not? As a friend of mine often says, “Good luck with that.” If you want me, I’ll be playing World In Conflict.