niverse at War has more in common with StarCraft than with Petroglyph’s previous effort, Star Wars: Empire at War. This micro-management heavy real-time strategy title pits three factions of aliens against each other in a war over a devastated Earth, and succeeds far more often than it fails. A few UI blunders are all that hold this back from being a classic.
At first glance, this title has everything a triple-A RTS needs. The factions play very differently, a huge mix of units makes for extremely varied strategic options, and the carnage is fast and furious. Whether you’re commanding the Novus’ legions of highly mobile robots, the Hierarchy’s towering walkers, or the Masari’s tree-hugging idealists, building up your forces and conquering the world is a blast. Each side has enough units with their own sets of powers and disadvantages to ensure that players can get quite creative in devising methods of domination. Zerging with air units still feels cheap, but that’s nothing new to the RTS genre.
Like Blizzard’s RTSs or Command & Conquer, Universe at War requires a hands-on approach to command. Adept focus-firing, forcing enemies into bad unit matchups, resource harassment, and the like will carry the day more often than out-gathering your opponent – especially given the particularly binding population cap.
Unfortunately, the interface trips up grand plans of conquest with annoying regularity. Unit pathfinding fails occasionally, requiring players to waste time manually disentangling groups of units. The keybindings are terrible; you’re forced to mouse everything since it’s nearly impossible to fire special abilities via keyboard input (try quickly hitting ctrl-H in the thick of battle, I dare you). The inability to queue orders is maddening for RTS vets, and walker hardpoints are incredibly difficult to reliably click when the icons are rotating and occluding each other with the walker’s movement.
Despite these issues, playing through the single-player story-driven campaign or fighting a real-time global campaign is fun. Multiplayer is somewhat bare-bones, but the matches themselves are entertaining enough. It’s also worth noting that some bugs forced us into mission restarts, but the Universe at War experience is definitely recommended for bored strategy gamers.