For years developers have tried to introduce a real-time strategy game that is compatible to anything other than PC. Developers run into the problem of not having enough controlling maneuvers or the buttons to make natural actions in the heat of battle. Enter developer Petroglyph Games and publisher Sega, making their attempt at the RTS genre with Universe at War: Earth Assault for the Xbox 360. It’s a good attempt in giving Xbox 360 gamers a decent RTS…if you don’t take into account the horrible frame rate issues and other imprecise aspects of gameplay.
I wasn’t sure what to expect when starting up Universe at War but from what I had seen and read, it sounded like it had the potential to be a great real-time strategy game. It started off with a story line and then introduced to you how to play the game. Then it gave you some missions where you could only create so many units and had one objective. Then another mission where you could only create so many units and had one objective…then another…then another! For what feels like the first half of your life, you are stuck in a sort of tutorial mode where you can only create so many units and then complete your objective. For those looking for a full-scale domination of your opponents, you’re going to have to play tutorial for a while.
However, I guess all those limited access missions allow you to understand the controls better for full-scale battles because there are some new, groundbreaking controls that the developers have come up with in order to make the Xbox 360 version control as well as the PC version (or close to it at least). They understood that you wouldn’t have the ability to switch screens all over the map and control your battles, your resources and your base all at the same time. So first off they made resource collecting an easier process. Your units find the resources and are smart enough to find more on their own when they run out. This means you can make a couple of resource storehouses and then let your units run independently, which is a great new addition. The developers also made it easier to move your screen to the other side of the map very quickly. By pulling the right trigger, your mini-map expands and can be navigated through easily to bring you to the aid of your troops, or back to your base to build more units.
In previous years I had been a BIG fan of Starcraft and when I first did research on Universe at War: Earth Assault, I thought it was going to be a lot like that. However I did wonder how Petroglyph Games was going to handle unit control. On PC, you have the bonus of being able to divide your units into squadrons and give each one a number that can be called upon instantly. UAW surprised me in this area. There is not a maximum amount of units that can be controlled at once. All you need to do is “paint” over your desired units and click to where you want them to go. This means moving your army is much easier. This was also a great addition to the game.
As for the gameplay, like most RTS games, you command your units to do your bidding. The enemy has captured something you need or is holding earth hostage and you need to rescue them. You will get to control one of three races (Novus, Hierarchy, and Masari) and each change the way you command and conquer but none really solve the real problems of playing the game. A frustrating detail about having a RTS game on a console is the imprecision of the thumbstick. This goes for any aspect of the game with any race. It is nearly impossible to move the reticule and precisely select individual army units of your own, let alone individual enemies. This is the lesser of the two evils when playing Universe at War. I would say that the most frustrating aspect of this game is the frame rate. The Xbox 360 has the capabilities to blow people’s minds but this game makes you feel like you’re trying to play online with a dial-up modem! Your units look like they’re stuttering while moving and even the reticule doesn’t function up to speed when trying to select units. The developers dropped the ball badly in that regard.
The frame rate problem wasn’t as bad when it came to online play for me (though I have had friends who said it stayed just as awful). Playing online gives you the option of playing in three multiplayer modes: Ranked, Player and Conquer the World. Seeing that there is literally no one in Conquer the World mode, it basically leaves you playing single skirmishes versus an opponent. These can be ranked or unranked and each comes with the potential to be great and exciting matches. The problem is actually finding people to play against. There are still very few people online playing UAW at the moment.
So, as to whether or not Petroglyph Games and Sega redefined console RTS games: not exactly. They took great new steps in understanding the control problems that gamers have and took those into account, which is great, but the fact that the frame rate speed looks more like a slide show than an actual game really makes the gameplay more frustrating than anything. If that’s not something that bothers you and you are okay with losing missions on account of imprecision, and you like playing online with the only four other people that are there, then Universe at War might be your game. If not, then allow PC to stick to the RTS games. It’s better for everyone.