You may not know Petroglyph by name, but it should be enough to say that they broke the Star Wars real-time strategy curse with Empire at War. From that we know they have the core fundamentals of the genre down, and that they're gifted at making unique units even with the most overused sci-fi license in gaming. So what can they do when set loose on their own?
Let's get one thing straight: The universe may in fact be at war, but you'll only be waging battles on planet Earth. Thankfully, there are a lot of places on this blue marble that aliens can find to blow up. In the first ten minutes the invading Hierarchy (you know they're evil because their units are red) blow up almost every building in Washington, DC. Hmm... maybe they're not so bad after all.
Like every RTS game released in the last several years it takes humans to challenge your tactical and strategic thinking.
Of course it wouldn't be a post-Starcraft real-time strategy if there weren't two other races rolling in right behind the Hierarchy looking for a fight: the nimble high-tech Novus, and the ancient-mystic themed Masari. Interestingly the human race takes a backseat in Universe at War. Making only the occasional appearances and generally just scurrying about under your feet like ants.
Sadly the developers chose to paint the three alien races in overused sci-fi conventions. The Novus, who wouldn't look out of place in an Apple store, are a silvery homage to all things anime. The not so subtle Hierarchy borrows more than a handful of War of the Worlds' tripod horrors. This is to say nothing of how passé the Masari's "ancient godlike race" is post-Chronicles of Riddick.
Whether this comes across to you as terribly generic and predictable depends on how you view the game: a delightful tribute to campy sci-fi movies, or lazy paint-by-the-numbers story telling. That is if you can get past the first mission the game forces you to trudge through. Right-clicking in a straight line for five minutes is not my idea of how to start a campaign.
All across the pre-release literature and even on the box itself are promises of three wholly unique and varied races, but the single-player mode only doles out snippets of their full tech tree. Between tight maps and highly-scripted gameplay you may get to explore their abilities, but I doubt it. Later in the game the campaigns merge and evolve into a Rome: Total War slash Risk style global battle for supremacy where there is a chance for some actual strategy.
To make it far enough into the single-player campaign to see this global battle you'll first have to battle the clunky user interface. There are stabs at making advances in the genre such as the ability to cue up units from multiple factories without having to scroll back to base, but for every step forward there's a giant text box that pops up in your face that won't close. I will give Petrogyph major brownie points for making the heads-up display smaller than the usual 1/3 of the screen.
Once in the global battle the limits in the AI (including path-finding) start to make themselves known. Difficulty here will depend on how good you are at micromanaging. Thankfully, the battles never approach the scale Supreme Commander. The number of unit abilities, super weapons, and hero units (along with the focus on smaller more managed battles) may be a little too nuanced for the computer AI to handle, but it makes for a great multiplayer experience.
Before I talk about multiplayer I should first mention how utterly terrible Games for Windows LIVE is for people who purchase this game. The Conquer the World Risk-styled territory mode is only available to Gold members; which in turn means that medals unlocked in this mode (which unlock in-game unit abilities) are only for Gold members. So while you can buy the game and play (some) modes (unranked) online you'll only be getting a fraction of the full experience unless you sign up for LIVE.
Removed from the constraints of telling a story the brilliance of the three races finally shines. Rock-paper-scissor RTS gameplay mechanics are solid even with human players attempting to exploit any balance issues. Like every RTS game released in the last several years it takes humans to challenge your tactical and strategic thinking. At least until a developer takes computer AI to the next level.
As long as developers continue to chase after "jaw dropping" graphics we'll have to continue to be content with ho-hum AI players. Performance on my "lower end medium" PC was more than acceptable. But the visuals failed to wow on a higher end PC. Part of the blame lies at the generic art, but I personally blame the inability to zoom out more than 30 feet above the action. I encountered no crashes, and no bugs worth noting.
Part of me feels for the designers who poured their efforts in crafting three races that have numerous unique elements in how they play, only to have the depth of the Hierarchy, Novus, and Masari chopped in pieces for a boring over-scripted single-player campaign and then kept out of players hands in multiplayer modes because Microsoft is trying to push PC users to buy into Games for Windows LIVE. That said, shared pain doesn't translate into a free pass. Your gaming dollars would be better spent on other games in the RTS genre.