Remembering a forgotten RTS gem: Universe at War: Earth Assault

By Brandon Casteel 16 Jul 2020 0

In 2006, Petroglyph Games released their first title, Star Wars: Empire at War, to widespread acclaim. The new studio, who were notable for having among their founders ex-Westwood Entertainment alum, had developed what is still considered to be one of the best Star Wars RTS titles to ever release.

Their next game, released at the end of 2007, was a cross-platform real time strategy game for both the Xbox 360 and PC called Universe at War: Earth Assault. Published by Sega through Games for Windows Live, the title was fraught with persistent issues related to patching, and players were required to be signed up for Windows Live in order to participate on the ladder. It was also rushed to launch, with a planned Human faction scrapped.
But in many ways I feel that Universe at War has often been overlooked. It's a clever game with many unique and interesting systems, and some of the most diverse asymmetric faction design in any RTS ever released, full stop.

This article originally appeared on Wayward Strategy. It has been reposted here with permission although edits have been made to conform with Strategy Gamer’s style & needs.

Universe at War Factions

When starting to describe Universe at War, the first thing that you must come to terms with is that there's no easy comparison, mechanically, for other games.

Let's start with a bit of broad strokes though. Command & Conquer and Red Alert are famous for having a bit of camp in their premise, or at least in their cutscenes. Universe at War takes this camp to 11 by basing the game's story and factions firmly in B movie sci-fi tropes.

Universe at war combat

Hierarchy

Presented as the game's primary antagonists, the Hierarchy are stereotypical 'invading aliens' with a hint of UFO, a dash of Grey Aliens, and a generous dollop of War of the Worlds. They call in units and structures by carving crop circle style glyphs. They utilize stompy Reaper Drones for gaining resources. These drones 'beam' resources up to the mothership, and cows and humans on the map give a massive resource boost when harvested. They have a UFO unit that utilizes Foos to attack enemies or heal allies.

And then, of course, there are the Walkers. Almost no game across the RTS genre allows a player to march their base across the map and use it to crush the enemy base under foot. But that's how we roll in Universe at War.

universe at war walkers

The Hierarchy's Walkers are one of the most memorable and iconic parts of the game. Part siege weapon and part unit factory, Walkers can crush enemy buildings (and units). They ignore terrain... or rather, can navigate any terrain, including water and cliffs.

They order their units in batches, which are teleported onto the battlefield next to their parent. Each Walker contains a number of 'hard points' where modules (structures, basically) can be attached. Additional weapons, unit unlocks, range extenders, unit cost reducers, armor. There are plenty of hard points that can be applied to each walker.

Hierarchy players can only have three Walkers active at a time but boy are they fun to use and nasty to face off against. Each Walker does not have a single health bar: each leg has its own health (killing a leg causes the Walker to move more slowly), and each Walker has 3 or 4 hard points on their 'head' that must be killed in a certain order in order to drop the Walker for good. For instance, the Assembly Walker has 2 large 'arms' that must be killed, followed by the module inside each arm, then the core (and the module inside the core) before it dies for good.

Novus

The Novus stand in stark contrast to the Hierarchy. Fragile (yet powerful) - the Novus build their base as a distributed network across as much of the map as they're able.

The Novus make use of a power system called Flow. Flow is generated from a limited number of Flow Generators, which distribute power to all Novus buildings by a network of Conduits. There's no power limit like in Command & Conquer, and unlike the Protoss in StarCraft Conduits must be connected to each other and ultimately back to at least one generator via the Conduit network.

universe at war novus conduit

Additionally, Novus infantry are able to 'fast travel' through the network (and an upgrade exists to allow any unit to have this capability) meaning they're able to exert presence and harassment almost anywhere on the map.

Novus units and structures are individually fairly fragile, but every weapon in their arsenal is a pain in the butt thanks to a variety of powerful active abilities. From Antimatter tanks that deal additional damage to already-hit targets, to Hackers that can shut down groups of enemy mechanical units, to Corruptors that spread a virus which provides the Novus player vision and slows affected units (and can be upgraded to spread itself). They have units that can create copies of themselves, turrets that shoot enemy attacks back, and the most devastating superweapons.

Novus rely on quickly reinforcing their army, nasty special abilities, and being able to apply serious force anywhere on the map relatively quickly. More than any other faction, the Novus are able to harass their opponent early and constantly with infantry, light vehicles, and air units.

Late game Novus on resource-rich maps can spread across the whole map and rebuild lost infrastructure as fast as it's lost, making clearing a good player off the map a chore, to say the least.

Unviverse at War Novus Concept Art

Lastly, they use a system called Patching to customize their army. They can have up to 2 Patches active at a time, and these can do things like: stun enemy units infected by their Virus, reduce incoming damage from various damage types like fire or radiation, increase the mining speed and capacity of their harvester units, and a variety of other effects. Some Patches are permanent until switched out, while others last a set duration before expiring. Patching is probably the weakest point in Novus design. It feels similar to the Masari's Mode Switching (see below) though it doesn't often feel satisfying or punchy or smart to apply a patch. There are a few exceptions to this, of course, but too often it's kind of underwhelming.

Masari

Superficially, the Masari faction bears some resemblance to the Novus. They, unlike the Hierarchy, feature an economy that's base-driven with the same Infantry/Vehicle/Air unit factories the Novus have.

However, that's about as far as the comparisons go. Not mobile in the same way as either the Hierarchy or the Novus, the Masari are defensive specialists, holding up and making their portions of the game map a virtually impregnable fortress.

universe at war masari base

First off, the Masari do not mine resources from the map as do the Novus or Hierarchy. Instead, they build Matter Engines that generate resources over time, endlessly. On some maps this lets the Masari hold out indefinitely against their foes, waiting patiently until every other source of income on the map is gone before crushing the remnants of their opponents with their armies.

Matter Engines themselves aren't particularly vulnerable either. They violently explode when destroyed, which will kill almost any unit standing anywhere near them. Anything that kills a Matter Engine will itself almost assuredly die.

Masari use a unit called the Architect extensively. It produces structures, heals units, and most importantly can be used to power up any Masari structure. Architects can improve the resource production of Matter Engines, the build speed of their Portal unit creation structures, improve research and upgrade speeds for their other structures, and attack speed for turrets. Managing a player's Architects is a very non-trivial part of playing Masari intelligently.

Masari units are sturdy, but mostly slow. Very few of them have active abilities. The Masari army is powerful, with high health and high damage, but isn't able to control the battlefield in the same way as Novus and Hierarchy.

universe at war masari units

The Masari faction can switch itself, in its entirety, between Light Matter mode and Dark Matter mode. In Dark Matter mode, units gain a regenerating force field and their attacks slow enemy units. Additionally, their units move faster and all of their air units revert to ground units. Many units gain different attacks in Dark Matter mode, and their abilities may change as well. In Light mode, units see farther and have greater range, including a 'burning' effect which causes damage over time to enemy units.

The Masari's heaviest unit, the Peacebringer, is almost able to stand toe to toe with a Hierarchy Walker itself, with 3 guns and massive health as well as a laser it can use to attack air units.

Universe at War Research & Heroes

One of the other systems that is fairly unique to Universe at War is how it handles research.

Research in UAW is bundled, for each faction, into 12 research packages, available via a menu in the bottom corner of the screen. Those 12 bundles are arranged into 3 tech paths, with 4 upgrade bundles each. In each path, the lower-tier research must be acquired before a higher-tier upgrade can be selected. And finally, players can only have 6 total bundles unlocked from the 12.

So, if a player is Novus and they research all 4 Nanotech upgrades, they can only have 1 Computing and 1 Flow research as well, or 2 bundles from either Computing or from Flow. At any time, a player can remove one of their bundles and then select another one for a fee.

The tradeoffs presented by this research tree are quite interesting, and I think an expanded version would be phenomenal for any RTS to use instead of a more traditional, structure based research system. In the case of this game, it's often that one research path or another is better against a specific faction.

universe at war hero concept art

For instance, the Masari's Dark Mode tech path might serve the Masari better against the Hierarchy than the Novus, leading to more Masari players to take the same tech over and over again against the same foes. This system could definitely be improved upon, but the core of the system provides interesting decisions for the player, and ultimately, their opponent.

Along with Research comes Heroes. Heroes in Universe at War are not like heroes in WarCraft 3: they're basically super units. Typically, once killed, they do not respawn and cannot be re-purchased. Hero balance and power is pretty widely variable: there are definitely tiers of usefulness that the heroes fall into. Each hero is unlocked with Tier 2 of a tech branch.

A forgotten gem of RTS

Universe at War stands out in a number of ways. As has been highlighted, each faction is very unique: this game is one of the pinnacles of asymmetrical design in the genre. The unit designs (both in terms of art and gameplay), especially for the Novus, are some of the best you'll see outside of Blizzard's and Westwood's classic RTS titles.

Units tend to be satisfyingly chunky, which allows for tactical gameplay that still feels skill-based even with the smaller number of units. It has a good mix of support powers/superweapons, and one of my favorite research systems in the genre (though its sister game Grey Goo has one that might be better).

It might have been rough around the edges and in need of some polish (and perhaps an expansion or a sequel) but it was a bold effort at creating a new formula and had a ton of promise.

Sadly, Universe at War is now very hard to find. It was sold on Steam for a while, but when GFWL was shut down it was removed from that platform. There is a community on Discord working on a fan balance patch and on a mod with the Human faction fully implemented, who are also trying to petition Sega and Petroglyph to rework the game to work on Steam without the GFWL restriction.

Brandon is the brain behind the Wayward Strategy blog and he's also working on a Starcraft 2 Mod called 'Scrapmod'.

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