Doom doo-doo-doom doo-doom doom!
I pine for Mystery Science Theater 3000. Relatively little on TV inspires me, but that show was absolutely amazing. The way it simultaneously ridiculed and glorified cheesy old sci-fi and horror films struck a chord with me.
[image1]And the same chord has been struck by the cold, robotic fingers of Universe at War: Earth Assault. The campy, almost whimsical variations in unit designs makes the game come across as part tribute of and part farce upon numerous classic invader alien stereotypes. Giant walking alien machines? Check! Animoo-styled robots? Check! Aliens with inexplicable superpowers and a lot of cheesy demi-Jedi philosophy? Check! (All it needs now is the Zerg…)
Unlike most games that feature aliens, Universe at War does not have the human inhabitants of Earth as a playable faction. Though they do get the limelight in the first two single-player missions and do keep cropping back up throughout the story, the humans are out. But it’s oddly refreshing to have humanity play a screaming background to the machinations of advanced aliens; it’s definitely not the normal spin. The three factions are the Hierarchy, a primarily evil bunch of planet-conquering folks driven by a sort of space-Darwinism; the Novus, an army of autonomous robots fighting a guerilla war against the Hierarchy; and the Masari, a group of aliens with nearly god-like powers who’ve been playing deity with humanity while hiding in the ocean.
Universe at War is a fairly good-looking game, though it does not set any new trends. The giant walking robots of the Hierarchy are the definite stars of the show, commanding large amounts of screen presence, and attention from your forces. These bad boys crawl up cliffs, squash farm houses under their mighty machine feet, and discharge super-heated plasma over most things that move. Other units look up to snuff with those in other strategy games, but they pale before the walking awesome of the Hierarchy.
Voice acting and sound fall squarely in the campy section, with some stunningly over-the-top performances as well as some moments that just drip cheese. It’s hard not to get a chuckle out of the interactions of the Hierarchy commanders, or to reminisce (in my case, with mixed feelings) about Neon Genesis Evangelion while playing the Novus.
[image2]All that aside, however, Universe at War has some bumps to it. For one thing, the first time I booted the game up, the mouse didn’t want to work. Another time, a Hierarchy walker somehow became invulnerable mid-mission, forcing me to jump to an earlier save. These bugs are fortunately far apart, but they’re very obvious and annoying when they happen.
In terms of the gameplay, Universe at War has some good, some bad, and some different. After you’ve gotten over the initial entertainment of looking through the different factions, they begin to feel like one-trick ponies - a relative lack of units and each unit serving a very precise function leave the game feeling shallow. Though there are some interesting options, and the game does expand considerably when you get out of the single-player and start playing the multiplayer, the races still lend themselves to very exacting, limited play styles.
The Novus are the rushers of the game, geared towards getting lots of units up in short order and swarming foes. Their fast transport network - similar in principle to Star Trek Armada’s warp speed for starships - helps distinguish them as the swift faction to play. The Hierarchy have some preposterously powerful units, and their bases are their walkers - having a slow-moving, but powerful, self-regenerating army is their major tactic. Meanwhile, the Masari play like the Soviets from Command and Conquer: Red Alert; they build base defenses early, giving time to create up some intensely powerful units, and then cutting straight for the opponent’s main force.
While this is fine for a time, it does begin to feel a little cut and dry as the game wears on. A collection of nice ideas help detract from this failing, but don’t actually solve the problem. When compared to the tactical variety of good old Starcraft, Universe at War begins to look flat.
[image3]In multiplayer, the potential grows more. Using a world domination map that gave me chilling memories of Empire Earth III, Universe at War creates a somewhat new method of multi-play. Each user has his own world domination map, and you select places to attack; you’re then matched up against another player and duke it out. Assuming you win, you earn the territory. For certain accomplishments, you earn medals which present you a variety of small benefits; by walking into a fight with medals, you carry those benefits in with you. Each player can bring five medals to a fight, and all players start with five, so no one gets automatically hosed just for being new to it.
Universe at War shows a lot of promise. As a first entry to a brand new series, there’s a lot to like on display. It’s not likely to draw in folks that weren’t already RTS fans, but it’s a solid presentation that’s worth a look. Four out of five wise-cracking robots approve!