Games Overviews Petroglyph games

Historical RTS: Universe at War Earth Assault

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 a number who had previously worked for Westwood Entertainment, had developed what is still considered to be one of the best Star Wars RTS titles to ever come out. Empire at War, in fact, was re-released on Steam fairly recently with included multiplayer.

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.

In many ways and in spite of the negative tone of the paragraph above, 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.

(You can join the community on Discord if you want to play with other people)

What are we working with? Hierarchy

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 and 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.

The game’s 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 games across the whole of RTS allow a player to march their base across the map and use it to crush the enemy base under foot. But that’s how Walkers work in Universe at War.

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 a good number of hard points that can be applied to each walker.

Hierarchy players can only have 3 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.

In Universe at War, the first time you see a Hierarchy Walker, it’s terrifying. Once you learn how to deal with them, they end up being more annoying to kill than anything. Which leads me to talk about the next 2 factions.

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 and 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.

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 in short order.

See the source image

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 superweapon in the game.

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.

Lastly, Novus 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 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.

Speaking of the Masari, however, let’s take it over to them:

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, holing up and making their portions of the game map a virtually impregnable fortress.

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 the Novus and Hierarchy are able to.

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.

The Novus and Masari are superficially similar, as I already mentioned. They each have some of the same buildings, and Patches bear a similar user experience to Light Mode and Dark Mode. It might have felt a little better to have a little differentiation between each faction’s structures and mechanism for its special features (especially given how radically different the Hierarchy are with their walkers and hardpoints). But in practice they’re radically different. Masari Architects and Novus Power are vastly different systems that require a very different mindset to use (and play against).

Masari can build turrets anywhere, and tend to clump their bases up for defense purposes. Their early game units are fairly weak and bad at aggression. Novus, by contrast, must constantly expand their Flow network, and are often safer if they spread their structures all over the map. They have some very strong early game units suitable for early aggression.

Let’s look at some of the other things about the game, now.

Other systems: Heroes, Research, and more

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.

As a 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.

Changing topics slightly, I’d like to talk about how players gain income. I already mentioned the Hierarchy and Masari’s harvesting model, but I’d like to highlight how different each faction’s priorities are from the others in this game. The Hierarchy are able to get quick bursts of income from organic life on the maps (humans and cows) and tend to seek these out as a priority on maps containing them. As mentioned above, Masari are self-sufficient with their Matter Engines. In fact, very rare for RTS, Masari resource costs and income are approximately 10x lower than costs and income for the other 2 factions. It’s just a decimal shift but it does definitely feel a little different.

What’s so special?

It’s a fair question to ask: what’s so special about this console/PC hybrid RTS from more than a decade ago? After all, it wasn’t much played and didn’t survive for a very long time thanks to being tied to Games for Windows Live and requiring its Gold subscription in order to pay for multiplayer.

To me, UAW stands out in a number of ways. As I’ve spent the bulk of this article pointing out, 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.

See the source image

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.

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.

Even with over 2000 words I feel I’ve only scratched the surface. The game features a freeform territory takeover game mode (different modes for both single player and in multiplayer), and a full length campaign for each faction. The game worked really well cross-platform too, with high ranking players coming from the Xbox 360 side of the house.

Thanks for reading. Hopefully, I can get a couple of commentated replays up on my YouTube channel in the near future.

5 comments

  1. Honestly, there is very little I would add.
    If any thing, let’s see…
    “UaW is a stellar example of asymmetric design and has some of the coolest factions I’ve… No, got that…
    Research tree with crazy thematic upgrades that you can mix and match… No, that’s obviously there…
    Aha! I know! More! I want another one! An expansion, a spiritual successor! Giant friking walkers with explody laser beams on their friking heads!
    Maybe once you’re done with SCRAP mod you can think about making something like that 🙂
    Great article.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Just had a thought; Did the stereotypical nature of UaW’s factions help it have such out there gameplay? Since the factions embodied their tropes to a T, it could’ve made it easier to grok how they worked, like that the Masari had two modes and flying units in only one mode.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. First of all: great blog post, glad I found it. UAW certainly was an unique foray into radically asymmetric RTS design, but I really had a very weak impression of the game after beating it, I’m not sure why. I seem to remember lethality being snoozingly low but I could be wrong?

    Also, a trivia but you might find it interesting: petroglyph’s next game, Grey Goo, shamelessly ripped off the faction design of an old eastern european RTS Earth 2160. They thought they could get away with it and they did! Maybe 100 person in anglosphere played Earth 2160. But grey goo bombed horribly so I guess justice prevailed?

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Beyond the similarities of the Eurasian Union and humans having connected buildings, the UCS having hubs with the Beta and the Goo being fully mobile like the Martians, how did Grey Goo rip off Earth 2160? Considering the former had set units, while the latter had a massive amount of weapons and items to design them from, isn’t it more likely that Petroglyph came upon similar ideas coincidentally? Fully mobile factions have been a thing in rts since TA Kingdoms, and partially mobile since StarCraft. Power buildings also were around since StarCraft and it seems to be a pretty simple idea to take a power radius and shrink it so the buildings have to be touching. UaW’s Novus had similar ideas, with conduits requiring a flow generator connected by more conduits to function. Are game designers not allowed to include individual mechanics reminiscent of other games, even in products that are highly different? Is UaW a copy of Perimeter, since the latter has power buildings that need to connect back to a power generator to function, even though Novus adds on tons of utility to their buildings?

    Like

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