Wouldn't you know it? You pop down the shops for five minutes to get some milk, forget to shut the bathroom window and when you get back - bing! Alien invasion. Again. This time it's the Hierarchy, a race of intergalactic liquidators who have decided that Everything Must Go, starting with the White House and ending with the very last scrap of life on Earth. Politely intervening on our behalf come the Novus, shiny protectors of all that is good and decent and, helpfully, armed to the teeth with stonking great weapons. The stage is set, then, for a cosmic showdown between two ancient races while humanity tries not to get trampled underfoot. Actually, make that three ancient races, because that enormous saucer-thingy that just rose up out of the ocean wasn't made in Japan...
Universe at War: Earth Assault is an RTS from Petroglyph, best known for making the rather good Star Wars: Empire at War games. The PC isn't exactly lacking in real-time strategy, so every new entry into the genre has to bring something new to the table if it wants to get its head above water. Petroglyph obviously know what they're doing, as UaW proves to be one of the most enduringly fun RTS's we've got our hands on in quite a while.
The obligatory campaign mode is as good a place to start as any. There's a short prelude of human vs Hierarchy fisticuffs, before getting properly under way with the player in control of the Novus. There's a terrific pre-rendered movie at the beginning - well worth popping back to once you've put a few hours into the game - and then things unspool in the traditional briefing-cutscene-battle sequence. The story could easily be summarised on the back of a matchbox and is as generic as they come, but it serves well enough to link the various missions together.
Each mission introduces further units and technology and, pleasingly, avoids the bogged-down grind that often kicks in towards the latter part of RTS campaigns. Just as the Novus are beginning to feel a little played out, control switches to the Hierarchy and then later to the mysterious Masari. It's a simple trick to keep you interested, but it's very satisfying to take charge of the enemy super-weapons that have been kicking your arse for the past few hours. While most of the missions are of the 'go there - destroy that' variety, they're mostly fun and feature a swanky new gadget or two to deploy on the battlefield.
The differences between the three races are great enough that taking control of a new race feels somewhat like playing a new(-ish) game. The Novus are all about speed and swift attack, the Hierarchy feature massive, lumbering walkers and the Masari are able to switch between Light and Dark mode, effectively swapping power and range for armour and enemy slowing abilities. Each race is fun to play, and offers enough strategic options that you won't feel strait-jacketed into playing in a specific manner, though certain races favour certain playing styles. The Hierarchy were ultimately our favourite, with their gleefully destructive habits recalling the cackling Martians in Tim Burton's Mars Attacks! movie. They also have the undeniably cool Walkers - huge, ambling weapons platforms that carve swathes of destruction and chaos wherever they go.
Each race has three Hero units that pop up at different times in the campaign. These super-units can really affect the tide of battle though you'll need to keep a close eye on them. If a Hero unit dies, you'll lose the mission. In fact, most of our failed missions were due to losing a Hero, rather than any greater strategic failing, which might indicate that there's a bit too much importance placed on Hero units. They don't ruin the balance of the game though, and being able to blow the arm off a Walker with one shot from a Novus hero never stopped being a joy.
By the time you've conquered the campaign, you'll be well and truly ready for the various skirmish options on offer. Interestingly, skirmish mode uses a small research tree that gives skirmish games an added degree of flexibility. There aren't any new units to be had, but by summoning up a particular hero unit and abilities, you can fine-tune how you play with a particular race. There's also a Scenario mode that gives you a global, Risk-like view of the world and lets you battle for domination across the various territories. This shows up first in the Masari chapters of the campaign, but it's good to be able to revisit it. It's well done and adds a little light grand strategy to the game.
The game is very much focused on combat over resource gathering, which is always welcome. Each race goes about resource gathering a different way, but it's not something you'll have to pay too much attention to - we can't remember ever really struggling to pay the bills. Generally speaking, UaW is an unfussy game that lets you get on with cracking heads and blowing stuff up, while still offering a lot of flexibility and depth.
There are a few little interface snags we came across, such as rally points not always staying put or double-clicking on a unit not consistently selecting every other identical unit. We missed not being able to alter the aggressiveness of units - it's not uncommon to see a fragile, half-assembled army go ploughing into enemy lines in hot pursuit of a single enemy scout. Also, the campaign game menu makes it unnervingly easy to reset the campaign with one click by giving you the options to Continue Campaign, Play Novus, Play Hierarchy and so on. If you choose Play Novus instead of Continue Campaign, you'll be right back at the beginning. Not a big deal if you've made a separate save at some point, but if not... oops! Some sort of idiot-proofing would be handy. We suffered a few game crashes and corrupted save files as well, so multiple, redundant saves were necessary for peace of mind. We're not sure if another patch is in the works, but the game definitely needs a final polish.
The first real problem we had with UaW came with multiplayer. The game uses Games for Windows Live for all its online multiplayer options and we just could not get it work. At all. Despite setting up a brand new profile - twice - and following instructions to the letter, we were always greeted with a message that we were using an account that was not 'Live-enabled' and therefore all multiplayer options and achievements were unavailable. No amount of shuffling through endless unhelpful help and support pages shed any light on the problem. It's true that the recent Xbox Live troubles also affected Games for Windows Live - particularly when creating new accounts - so it's possible it was just bad luck on our part. However, the fact remains that multiplayer required far more effort to set up than any other game we've played recently, and still didn't work.
It's also worth noting that multiplayer ranked matches and Conquer the World mode are reserved for players who've payed for Live Gold membership. If you already have an Xbox Live Gold account, you'll be fine. If not, there's still a big question mark over the value of a Games for Windows Live Gold account. A free month's membership comes with the game, though every attempt we made to redeem it was met with a red 'cannot be redeemed' notice. No explanation why it couldn't be redeemed, just those obnoxious little red letters glaring on the screen. Suffice to say that the greatest challenge in the game didn't come from rapacious, star-hopping space invaders, but the patience-snapping frustration of Games for Windows Live.
It's unfortunate that a game as solid and entertaining as UaW has been blighted with such problems - it's like asking the girl of your dreams out on a date, only to find she's obligated to bring her dribbling, odd-smelling second cousin with her. We're inclined to be charitable, though, as it doesn't seem as if too many people had our problems and there's no reason to assume that multiplayer would be anything less than tremendous. Your mileage, as they say, may vary.
Universe at War certainly looks a treat when it's firing on all cylinders. It ran smoothly on our mid-range system, though there was some perceptible slowdown when a lot of units were on screen. Special mention has to go the the Hierarchy Walkers, who not only look magnificent but are very well animated. The game can almost be recommended simply because you get to play with these beasties. Fantastic stuff. The look of everything else falls largely into the 'accomplished but familiar' category. Shiny silver robots, anyone?
Despite of a number of irritating, hopefully patchable interface problems, Universe at War: Earth Assault is an RTS that deserves attention. It'll stay on our system for a good few weeks yet and we'll no doubt keep banging our head on the impenetrable surface of Games for Windows Live until it cracks, or we do. If you have no interest in multiplayer, then UaW is definitely worth a look. Sure, it's cheesy, cliched and doesn't really bring much innovation to the genre, but it's challenging in just the right way, it looks good and is simply a lot of fun.