If you really like RTS games Universe at War might be worth a punt when it comes down in price a bit
Rightly or wrongly, the PC is currently taking a back-seat as far as gaming is concerned. Look back a few years and, despite the convenience of consoles, the PC still had a few footholds in certain genres where the consoles surely didn’t stand a chance. Fast-forward to the modern day and we’re all perfectly happy playing Call of Duty 4 with a joypad, thanks for asking, and the PC is finding itself backed further and further into the corner. There is one area in which the PC is still the king, however – the real-time strategy game. And Universe at War on the 360 does very little to change that.
Still, a bit of background before we start laying into it. Universe at War is an RTS set in the present day, where two groups of aliens (one good, one bad) have descended to Earth in order to fight over it. Not too original, but it’s got massive robots and lasers in it, so we’ll let them off the hook. The game itself is very much in the Command & Conquer mould. You build bases, those bases produce units, those units roll over the enemy and flatten them. Rinse and repeat. It was developed simulaneously for the 360 and the PC, and enables players on both systems to play against one another, using Microsoft’s cross-platform Live framework. Put simply, there were a lot of hopes pinned on the game. Console owners do want to play RTS games too, it’s just that no-one’s come up with a decent way of allowing them to do that yet. And it looked like Universe at War was the one to buck the trend and show people how it could be done. Unfortunately, the end product merely offers up a few helpful suggestions, rather than giving us any real answers.
It probably goes without saying that the bulk of the problems are a result of the control system. Other genres have had the necessary rethink to make them work on a joypad, but the RTS still relies heavily on the keyboard and mouse, largely due to the fact that it unavoidably involves clicking on a load of little men on the screen, and scrolling all over the map to keep an eye on things, and co-ordinate your base expansion, attacks, unit production and so on. Universe at War does have a number of nice ideas to help joypad users – for a start, menus for controlling unit production, upgrades and units’ special abilities can be accessed from the shoulder buttons no matter where the camera is currently pointing. But when it comes down to the incredibly frequent tasks of selecting units and ordering them around, everything starts to fall over. The cursor, controlled with the left analogue stick, does ‘snap’ to nearby units in order to help you select them, and the game does allow you to set the degree to which this occurs, but it’s still unbelieveably fiddly to actually select specific units from a crowd. There’s also the ‘painting’ system. In PC RTS titles, you’ll click and drag the mouse to select a box-shaped area of units, but we already know this doesn’t really work with a joypad. Instead, you hold the A button and are given a green circle to move around the screen that ‘paints’ units for selection. More often than not, though, you’ll just up using the ‘select all on-screen troops’ button and flinging everyone into battle. The weird thing is that this usually works, which is a plus for the controls, but a pretty heavy minus for a game that’s meant to be about strategy.
Then there’s the slowdown. Get more than 40ish units on-screen (that’s about half the amount you’re allowed to build), and the game slows to a crawl. Not good, especially if you’re playing online against a PC player who has no such problem and can control his units properly because he’s got a mouse and keyboard. Add some unit pathfinding issues into the mix, and you’re onto a real winner.
UNIVERSE AT WAR: EARTH ASSAULT VERDICT
The trouble with Universe at War is that, while it wasn’t exactly terrible on the PC, the 360 version needed to be an improvement in order to merit your 40 quid. But what we have is the same game with a bunch of technical issues added, and a duff control system that makes it a bit of a chore to play. If you really like RTS games and you have, for some reason, found yourself with a 360 but not a decent PC, Universe at War might be worth a punt when it comes down in price a bit. The rest of us will keep waiting for that RTS that’s actually designed just for consoles from the ground-up.
TOP GAME MOMENT
When the US President’s ambulance got itself stuck between a building and some burnt-out cars and refused to move, thus forcing me to restart the mission. Cheers!