With Starcraft 2 out of reach, RTS gamers will have to find alternatives for their fix. Enter Universe at War: Three unique sides, created by Petroglyph Studios (some ex-Westwood employees in their ranks), and the fact that the game will make use of DirectX10 rendering all point towards a game that will be remarkable and exciting to play. With so many other games released during the holidays, and the disaster that was the beta, lots of gamers were giving up on Universe at War. Luckily, for some, the beta just ignited a desire for the game that could not be quenched. Three different factions seemed to have formed on the official forums: The people who support the game, the developers, and the usual trolls and dissidents. Luckily, I stuck with the game till its release and I am happy to tell you the game delivers.

Universe at War follows three different factions (four if you count the human tutorial missions) as they battle for the control of Earth. The Masari are a spacefaring race that landed on Earth an eternity ago and have help spurn the imaginations of humans all around. Imagine a high tech race that looks to be low tech…just don’t underestimate them. The Hierarchy are are another spacefaring race that was saved from extinction by the Masari. Too bad that they decided to go on a rampage through the galaxy and annihilate or enslave all populated worlds. Imagine heavy metal music and huge walkers dominating the landscape. Sort of like War of the Worlds but without the weakness to disease. The Novus are a robotic race that were created by a humanoid race that was wiped out by the Hierarchy and are hellbent on destroying the Hierarchy, but are having a hard time accomplishing this goal. The humans are cannon fodder in this war, but align with the Novus during the campaign.

I was playing this game on a system that contained a Q6700, Intel 33 series motherboard, 8800GTX, and 3 gigs of ram. The test OS was Windows Vista Ultimate.

The graphics in the game are amazing. Running the game in DX10 mode is a pure joy to behold. Walkers crash through the landscapes and buildings crumble before them. The Novus amass their robotic reserves and attack a Masari settlement while the Masari switch to dark mode and are surrounded by glowing antimatter. All this with nary a slowdown. Playing the game in Direct X9 mode took away the swaying grass and some other minute details, but the game still looked gorgeous. Lets not forget the attention to detail that is present on the massive Hierarchy walkers: As panels are blown apart, the inner workings of said walker are uncovered to the enemy. Steam and klaxons start to sound warning the player of the imminent destruction of their most prized possession.

All this graphical prowess needs a pretty beefy system to play it though. Luckily, the game scales really well, and a player can always turn off some of the bells and whistles to be able to play the game on a lower end system. One other small niggle is the fact that some of the units are a tad bit rigid while moving around the map. Lets not forget that the camera doesn’t zoom out far enough to capture the whole glory of the Hierarchy walkers.

I just need to utter two words to sum up the awesome musical score is present in the game: Frank Klepacki. With the creation of musical masterpieces for both Dune 2 and the Command and Conquer series, Frank Klepacki knows his music. Just listen to Act on Instinct from the first Command and Conquer game to get a taste for his artistic style. Not only is the music pleasing to the ear, but the soundtrack is available as a free download from petroglyph. All I can say is that the music is still part of my music library to this day. I was actually listening to it while writing this review!

The voiceovers that are present in the game are acceptable and aren’t at all a sonic assault on the ears. The actors seem to show the right ranges of emotion to not make it seem like robots are voicing the characters. One of my favorite character’s voice has to be Mirabel and Viktor…I am really curious as to how they understand each other. The actual sounds in the game are also superbly performed. As mentioned previously, everything from the klaxons of the emergency sirens on a walker to the machine gun fire of the humans is recreated in a believable fashion. This game has to be heard to be experience…if only for the soundtrack.

As with most computer games, the controls are fully reconfigurable inside of the options menu. Teams can be assigned to buttons and there are shortcuts for certain commands. As always, the mouse and keyboard are the best duo for a RTS game bar none and I am curious to see how the 360 will handle the game on its hardware.

One caveat with the game is that the pathfinding AI sometimes has a mind of its own. Having to constantly click on a Hierarchy walker to get the silly thing to move out to a location can sometimes be a lesson in futility. Imagine a little finger poking a giant to go in the right direction and you have a slight idea of how it feels like. This fault isn’t really apparent with other units and it seems that the issue might exist due to the size of the walker relative to other units.

Now to the meat of this review: How does Universe at War play? In this section I believe it is fair to give a small part to each of the three main races due to how unique they are. No game has balanced three distinct races like this (unless you consider Starcraft and Warcraft 3) without causing a massive misbalance among the races.

Lets begin by covering the Hierarchy, one of my personal favorite races. Instead of plopping down a static base and producing units, the Hierarchy make use of mobile walkers that act as both production and assault vehicles. This doesn’t mean that the Hierarchy do not have static buildings, as they do have a landing zone that needs to be protected at all costs. The walkers themselves can be upgraded to fulfill either a production mode or an assault role. Marching a walker into an enemy base definitely causes turmoil. The Hierarchy use mobile mini-walkers to collect resources to send to the mothership orbiting above. The resource collection rate is dependent on the amount of raw material is littered around on the map, be it wrecks of units or pre-placed space junk. One funny fact is that cows actually provide the highest amount of pure resource income.

The Novus are a robotic race that depend on sheer numbers and a flow network to travel quickly around the map. Their base structures are static compared to the Hierarchy but the method of travel that is used by the Novus makes them unique. The flow both powers structures and acts as a transport vessel. The Novus units can actually travel along the flow lines as digital signals and be deployed where needed, or if you are crafty, behind enemy lines. The Novus use recycling centers and little hover robots to gather their resources. They, as the Hierarchy does, rely on resources that are littered around the map or left behind after destroying units. Sadly, the Novus cannot harvest the cows for their immense resource bonus. Another special feature of the Novus is the ability to apply “patches” to their overall strategy.

The Masari are a little harder to describe. Imagine Inca outfits with superior technology thrown in for good measure and you have an idea of how a traditional Masari warrior looks like. The Masari themselves rely strictly on traditional base building but with one unique difference: They do not collect resources but, rather, they are created by matter reactors. The more reactors are constructed, the higher the income rate of the Masari. The reactors are also highly volatile, creating a small nuclear explosion upon death. Before the latest patch, Masari players were constructing massive amounts of reactors at choke points to keep Hierarchy players from running over them. This is not possible anymore as only a limited number can be constructed.

Each of the races have three leaders to choose from, adding some much needed firepower to their armies. Each have special abilities that can turn the tide of the battle. For example, one of the hero units for the Masari allows a temporary bubble of “peace” to overcome an area. This allows the player to muster a force and bring them to the fight before the tranquility wears off. One of the Hierarchy heroes allows for enemy forces to be beamed up to the mothership and turned into resources. Just be careful, they cannot hold their own and other units will be needed for support.

Another feature of the game pertains to the research tree that is integrated into the gameplay of each of the races. You only have a certain amount of research points to spend, so every battle will be unique as not all technological upgrades are available every game. The player will have to tailor their game style to the research that they conduct. Only the skirmish mode called DefCon allows for all of the research to be available as upgrades become available over time.

The single player campaign in Universe of War is ripped straight from a B class science fiction movie. Interestingly enough, the humans only play a small role in the game. The invasion of Earth shows the humans slaughtered by the invading Hierarchy with the Novus dropping in an attempt to save them. The Masari join in the fight later and twists and turns are present throughout the campaign. Some of it is expected, while others even suprised myself. The skirmish modes are the usual fare, save one mode, so don’t expect something special. One unique skirmish mode is the conquer the world campaign. This skirmish mode allows for both base building inside and outside of battles. Each battle saves the state of the base at the current location, making it much harder to take back an area that has been conquered. You can pretty much compare this feature with the conquer the planet campaign that was present in Dawn of War: Dark Crusade, only much more polished.

The multiplayer portion game itself plays the same way as single player skirmish but is hampered and enhanced by one factor: Games For Windows Live. In my opinion, the implementation of Games Live was a boon to the online shooter Shadowrun. With the ability to play against other players that own a 360, it was fun showing them who the superior gamers are (Just fanning the flames a bit with that statement.) The silver membership is free, allowing the player to play against other PC gamers. Only the gold membership, that comes with an inclusive membership fee, will allow you to unlock achievements (medals that add powers to different races) and play cross-platform. Some people are disgusted by the fact that a gold membership is needed to unlock some of the features that are included in all online games. Look at Steam to see it done right. Only if people see the value in Live on the PC will it take off. Currently, games with this feature are somewhat crippled.

Once the singleplayer campaign is finished, offline skirmish mode will keep the player occupied for quiete some time as the conquer the world campaign take a while to complete. Some people might be put off by the gold membership fee and Windows Live, but the option to use the free silver membership is always there. Sadly, there is no other way to play online, and this might hamper the longevity of the game. If you don’t mind the annual Live membership and the price of the game, Universe at War has a lot going for it. Once the 360 version of the game is released, PC gamers will be able to draw upon a larger pool of players. Until then, it is hard to tell if it is worth the purchase.

One class act that was performed by Frank Klepacki was the release of the of the official game soundtrack to the public. I loved the music he created for Command and Conquer and Dune 2 and him releasing the soundtrack to the public will get the game some more needed attention.