Thursday, 13 December 2012

Universe at War: Game Design Review

Universe at War by Petroglyph (a studio made from ex-Westwood studio employees) was an RTS released several years ago to mediocre reviews overshadowed by other games of the day such as Command and Conquer and Company of Heroes. Having the played the game, I'm going to got through and discuss what I loved about the game and where the game fails.

What I liked:

Each side has distinct and very unique gameplay- One reviewer commented that there's enough gameplay to fill three different games and he's right! Each side plays extremely differently and nearly all units have one or more abilities to bring into play.

For example the Hierachy has Walkers instead of buildings with hardpoints making them highly customisable. The Novus have the ability to 'flow' to any other node in the network extremely rapidly and a very flexible patch system that provides bonuses to all your units. The Masari generate their own resources and have the ability to switch between Light and Dark modes each with its own benefits. Even today, it's hard to find an RTS that combines such very different and innovative ideas in a single game!

Highly customisable abilities and tech trees- You can only research 6 slots out of the full tech tree which has a total of twelve slots but you can also take back research as well and develop it in another direction if need be. Also each side has different ways of customising their units to meet battlefield conditions such as patches for the Novus and walker hardpoints for the Hierachy. I really enjoyed the flexible tactics system of each side which allow on the fly customisation and wished more games would create games like this.

Artistically distinct with plenty of awesome moments- Both gameplay wise, the game is both artistically and graphically distinct. There's nothing quite like watching a walker fully equipped with weapons approaching an enemy base firing artillary shells from afar while your troops move along  it. There's nothing quite like watching Novus units zip quickly across the network appearing where they are required en masse. There's nothing quite like watching your Masari enter the fray with Dark Armour constantly healing or watching them in Light mode attacking and burning enemies even as the enemies try to retreat. The unique designs on every unit and building mean that you'll never mistake this game for any other.

Quick Move uses double clicking- Double clicking means 'priority move' or 'priority attack'. No need to clutter up the interface with a button for move or attack or having to hold down control or alternate keys. I think more games should consider this.

Easily accessible ability icons- Regardless of which units you select, all their abilities are displayed at the bottom allowing you to quickly select them. Just as importantly, if you want one unit to use the ability, you click once. If you want several units to use the same ability, you click the same ability as many times as needed.

What I disliked:
So where did the game go wrong? I think it suffers from what I term 'consolitis'. Developing for the console forced a number of gameplay decisions to adapt the game more easily for gamepad and the Xbox.

Global map isn't fun and very basic- Considering Empire at War by Petroglyph had sectors that granted bonuses etc and both space and planetary battles, the global map in Universe at War comes across as sparse. You can build a few buildings that provide some bonuses or the ability to produce units but that's about it really.

Campaign is short and not that fun- The campaign soon falls into mediocrity. There weren't enough exciting moments or plot twists and the campaign is very linear. This is particularly grating in the Masari campaign which gives you control over the global map enshewing any cut scenes when the global mode isn't very fun or complicated. Its actually possible to win nearly all the missions in the Masari campaign by having your flyers attack the enemy headquarters straight away as they rarely have flying or anti-flying units.

Healing/repair system needs revamp- Each side has their own way of healing things. For the Hierachy, they can repair infantry using radiation which is spawned by defilers while repairing vehicles and walker hardpoints by using the repair mode of Foo fighters/saiucers. For the Novus they can repair by ordering their constructor units to repair infantry, vehicles. For the Masari architects they can repair by ordering their architect to heal units and structure or by placing the architect in a sentry. Placing the architect in the sentry allows the sentry to heal all units around it.

However,  the idle builder units don't automaticaly heal damaged units near them so you have manually ask for repairs taking you away from the action. Also, for the Hierachy, there is no way to repair walker parts once destroyed and you have to order in a new walker instead. I assume this is for gameplay balance but I found it rather annoying.

Novus network nodes are hard to queue- Considering expanding your network is crucial for Novus' survival, there doesn't really seem to be a queuing function to build these. When extending your network, you have to wait for one to finish building before building the next one. It would have been better if the player could automatically queue them up so the player can focus on other things.

Limited Population- The maximum population caps is set at 90 per side which is very small considering some of the more powerful units can take up 7 units! It's clear from the beginning of the game that Universe at War is meant to be a fairly intimate game relying on unit abilities rather than numbers. The previous game by Petroglyph Empire at War had infantry squads to partially compensate for this but they decided quite deliberately to remove squads like that in this game.

Queuing units is limited- Along with the reduced population cap, queuing units is limited to only five per buliding if you're the Novus and Masari. For the Hierachy, up to 3 units are teleported in instantly so you can queue up to 12 at once. It's a rather strange limitation.

Slow start- Like most other RTSes, each game starts of with you having to build the equivalent of barracks and factories.

I personally found the Hierachy start really slow and a bit too open for attack. More so than required, leaving them open to rushing in my opinion. First they have to carve a glyph, then wait for the glyph to call the actual unit in such as walkers or reaper. If the glyph is destroyed during that time, the summoning of the unit fails. Why not have you start off with a Habitat or Assembly walker automatically? It might solve the problem of Masari flyers rushing the Hierachy as mentioned above.

Lack of explanations for advanced controls- Things like queuing waypoints etc and force move are in the game, but I think could use a bit more explanation how they work.

Size of the game- For a game which has giant hierachy walkers, it's a surprisingly intimate game as mentioned above. You control relatively small squads of units with a variety of powers. I wonder if it might have been better off as a Supreme Commander like game where you amass huge armies and units and attack.

This is particularly obvious for the Hierachy which has 3 walker slots in total and the only way to get more
walkers is to sell one or wait for one to get destroyed. I think some medium sized walkers would have been helpful instead.

Hierachy grunts don't automatically guard or follow your walker- Any units created from the Hierachy walkers just stand there rather than following the Walker that spawned it. There doesn't seem to be a option to have the Hierachy units move to a specified point either or automatically guard.

Oceania is completely ignored - Unfortunately neither Australia or New Zealand are part of the game. I can't believe they included the himelays etc but can't even create a map for Australia!

Overall, Universe at War is a very unique game. Despite its usability flaws as covered, I think it really pushes the envelop for RTS. It's hard to understand why it didn't suceed as well as Empire at War, Command and Conquer 3 or even Supreme Commander 2! Perhaps the problem was that is was too unique, too unfamiliar and certain aspects weren't quite polished enough as mentioned above. The small scale and console orientated development being I believe, the prime culprits. Considering you can get this game for less than US$10 it would a real shame if you didn't at least try it!

Universe at War Troubleshooting:
I found myself unable to play Universe at War because it would crash before starting when installing the latest patch. My crash was because I needed to get the latest Games for Windows Live

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