Universe at War and I have a history. Back in 2008, when the game was released, the curious gameplay footage and indecently good reviews from media outlets I generally trust significantly piqued my interest. However, I rarely buy video games at full price and decided to wait a few months. In the meantime chasms leading straight to hell seemed to have opened underneath the store rooms of electronics retailers near and far and swallowed any copy of this RTS left. At least that’s the only explanation I have for the fact that once I started looking for the game again, it was nowhere to be found. Over the next 18 months I kept the game in the back of my head, but it continued to stay hidden. No budget version appeared, no retailer made second attempts of selling leftover stock at a lower price. About two months ago I was on a trip to London, browsing through a mall near Leicester Square when an atypical box in the bottom row caught my attention between all the groups of identical titles surrounding it.
Surely you’ve already figured out what I was holding in my hands. I was surprised enough to have encountered a copy of Universe at War, but it only got stranger from there: The box wasn’t tagged. I was confident that whatever they’d charge me by this point I’d be willing to pay, so I presented the game to clerk. He seemed equally phased by my discovery and called over another clerk. They spent about a minute mumbling back and forth until one reached an audible conclusion: “Let’s just sell it to him”. The reason for their confusion was the fact that their system read the game to be worth a single penny, the second clerk told me and asked if I still wanted the game. “Sure” I said. “At this rate, who wouldn’t?”. I don’t know if the incredible price drop happened because the game had been deleted from their system when a single copy was still on the shelf, or if it was an error of some sort or just an insane sale. One thing’s for certain: Universe at War has been the best purchase of my life.
As the subheading suggests Universe at War is an RTS set on Earth and features an invasion from an extraterrestrial force, though it doesn’t really work out as they usually do. While the game initially has you control the human military, that part is really only meant to teach you the basic controls. After just two missions the alien invaders have already destroyed the white house, killed the president and very thoroughly ruined General Moore’s day. But just as he faces inevitable crushing defeat, a second alien force appears out of nowhere and begins firing at the first alien type. With humanity reduced to mere bystanders and our perspective thus changed, the game introduces us to the actual rivals in this conflict. Firstly there’s the Hierarchy, a malevolent force of warmongers that travel through the galaxy eradicating civilizations and transforming the leftovers into energy to fuel their next conquest. Secondly there’s Novus, a collective of sentient machines that has been fighting the Hierarchy ever since they killed their creators in one of their many mining operations. And last but not least there’s the Masari, the god-like mayan race that created the Hierarchy thousands of years ago and was forced to go into hiding when their creations revolted. This dynamic trio is Universe at War‘s biggest asset as factions haven’t been this diverse since Starcraft.
Novus, for instance, is built around speed. They’re significantly faster about constructing units and buildings and their economic system is by far the least complicated: Fairly clever drones automatically gather resources as soon as a recycling center is built. Novus also needs to connect any building to their flow generator via cloaked flow conduits to keep it working. This flow network can also be used by infantry and, if you research in that direction, even vehicles for quick transportation to other nodes. Between this cloaked quick travel method and their short warm-up phase, Novus is ideal for overpowering the enemy before he reaches full potential. And it’s a good thing too, since their units are a lot weaker than those of their competitors. But if you make clever use of hit and run tactics and their special abilities, they can put up quite a fight. As part of their mechanical nature, Novus can simultaneously run up to two patches to quickly adapt to changing situations. Those either grant moderate permanent advantages or powerful short-lived ones that need to be replaced quickly lest a dead patch take up a precious slot. Also, despite Novuses general weakness their Dervish Jets give them air-superiority against anyone except light Masari.
But if you’d rather crush your enemy in a full frontal assault, you needn’t look any further than the Hierarchy. This factions most notable feature is the fact that they almost completely lack buildings. All they’ve got is a command center for deploying builders, heroes and scouts, as well as some defensive structures. Instead of regular barracks they rely on three types of gigantic quadrupedal walkers that double as tanks. Each of those walkers sports several hardpoints that can be retrofitted with different modules to turn him into either a unit-spewing war factory or a deadly assault platform. Their main job, however, is to be fucking awesome. Forgive my outburst, but I’m inclined to respect a game that gives me full control of walking deathmachine the size of a ten-storey building. At this point it might sound as if walkers were improperly mighty, and indeed your opponent will be in deep, deep trouble when three of these babies knock on his door. Though as powerful as they are they have three large drawbacks. Firstly, they’re slow, so any rival with the common sense to keep track of where they are will likely be able to throw a decent army against your assault and still recover his forces by the time you actually reach his base. Secondly, they’re pretty expensive to begin with, and upgrading them into a decent barracks first, then repurposing them as a weapons platform is a costly procedure too. This is especially problematic since the Hierarchy’s economy relies entirely on Reaper Drones, which are not only weak and expensive, but also spend most of their time far away from your main base. A unforunate combination, at least if you’re them. And lastly building and upgrading a walker takes a good while, so if your foe actually survives the onslaught they’re likely in a good situation to take the party to you. So even these colossi of battle are a well-balanced part of the Universe at War equilibrium.
The Masari are the perfect choice for anybody feeling at home in Supreme Commander. They’re the only race that can infinitely, though slowly, generate resources through specific buildings, and just like in Gas Powered Games strategy giant micromanaging your builders is crucial for them. Architects, as they’re called, can not only speed up unit production, resource production and research, but also strengthen defensive structures and even speed up the countdown on the Masari’s superweapon building. Masari units are very powerful, but also very expensive and take a while to build. What this effectively means is that while your builders are busy constructing the base or speeding up crucial research a you’ll be unable to get enough troops out at a decent pace. But once all your workers are free to speed up unit production, you’ll be a near unstoppable force. A group of eight Peacebringer tanks will tear up even a walker in less than a minute. This might make it a bad idea to tackle the Masari headlong, but there are ways around that. Since their resource-collectors generate huge explosions when destroyed, Masari bases are typically vulnerable to dirty tricks. The Masari can also switch between light and dark mode, radically altering their troops visuals and abilities. Generally speaking it’s an offense versus defense choice: Light mode allows your troops to deal more damage attack from a longer range whereas dark mode trades in range and damage for an increased attack speed and a regenerative layer of protection called Dark Matter Armor that’ll slowly form around your units and buildings while in this mode. Also, flying units are grounded for some reason. Theoretically this ability could allow you to quickly adapt, but since research tends to benefit either light or dark mode and the superweapon countdown is reset with each switch (They’re different attacks in the two modes), it’s really more of an exclusive choice. And if you have any sense that choice is light mode. Seriously, no flying units? Lame.
Between the three completely different factions and their respective campaigns, the human tutorial, turn-based world domination mode, the patch system, the walkers, light and dark mode and the minimalistic tech tree, Universe at War is loaded with features, but surprisingly enough the game balances these well enough. It uses the entirety of all three campaigns to slowly teach you each new trick and most get enough coverage. The patch system and the Masari basics could have used more of introduction, though the game works well enough without them. What’s more important is that no individual faction is overpowered but instead they feel like different approaches to the same problem, whether it’s Novus’ speed, the Hierarchy’s heavy hitting or the Masari’s long buildup. Ultimately it’s all about picking the one that suits your personal style. Even though that would make the Masari the perfect choice for me, I keep coming back to those shiny white robots, the Novus.
The reason for this is that the trychotomy reaches further than mere mechanical levels. Granted, it’s not unusual for games to feature different on-screen menus for different factions, but Universe at War tries fill its trio with personality even past that. The soundtrack features widely different styles for the three of them: Electronic beats for Novus, bass-heavy rock tunes for the Hierarchy and orchestral sounds for the Masari. And while this might seem like a little thing at first, the voice acting on the unit responses is really, really good. The Hierarchy is handled a bit minimalistically in this department, since most of their units can only communicate through grunts and garbles, but the Masari get relatively deep musings delivered with a constant “I am better than you” undertone that suits their role as supposed gods and Novus gets emotionally neutral statements from machines eager to perform their task. Maybe it’s just me, but something about those bots’ clinical and efficient attitude towards what is essentially a relentless crusade for good captivated me. Especially the way Ohm Robots embrace their role as cannon fodder and will gladly latch onto enemy vehicles and detonate. At any rate it’s nice to have a robotic collective that doesn’t end up playing the villain.
While most areas of the game showcase this degree of polish, some are a little rough around the edges. Controls in particular are an area that could have used additional work. There’s something rather murky and indirect about the on-screen menus and unit selection and even though it’s never flat-out enough to be an actual issue, it’s no match for the precision of games like Warcraft 3 or C&C 3. Especially using special abilities is a dodgy affair, doubly so if it requires you to target a specific unit rather than an area. Also, the game is rather picky about what constitutes a level surface. And while both Novuses and the Hierarchy’s campaign feature relatively well characterized leading figures, namely Mirabel and Orlok the Eternal, the Masari lack memorable faces. The reason for this is the fact that their campaign doubles as the tutorial for turn-based global conquest mode, meaning it trades traditional story structure for a sequence of identical skirmish matches. All we get in terms of scripted story missions are an introductory battle and the final showdown, and previously established characters hog a lot of screentime in both of those. But as sad as the lack of adequate storytelling is, it’s still second to the actual execution of the campaign. For sake of linearity it locks the Hierarchy into a state of can’t-fight-back, allowing you to effortlessly roll all over them once you realise that they’ll never stand a chance if you simply stuff your starting regiment with flying units and pick on them from above.
It’s one of the few examples of imbalance, like the fact that choosing a large amount of starting credits takes away most of Novus’ advantages and might turn the Hierarchy into the quickest hitter among the three. Such missteps are inevitable when dealing with such bizarre combinations, and with Universe at War they are few and far between. They’re far from dealbreakers and they certainly weren’t enough to stop me from plowing through the campaign in a joyous trance, and it’s been a long time since that has happened to me in an RTS. At the end of the day, something has to be said for a game that allows you to crush opposition under the heel of your giant Habitat Walker.
Bottom Line: Universe at War is very competent on a mechanical level and feels like a breeze of fresh air in the world of conventionally balanced RTS design. The game richly deserves you attention, though I must warn you that you might not be able to enjoy multiplayer for the mere reason that it uses Windows Live. Say what you want about those kind of services, they have drawbacks. And if Steam‘s drawbacks add up to something like the common influenza, Windows Live would be a raging syphillis infection.