First I will say that Universe At War: Earth Assault looks gorgeous at 1920 x 1200. The effects and textures look crisp and the framerate is quick! All around attention to terrain detail is first-rate. Likewise the industrial soundtrack rocks and sounds are generally the way you would expect them to be. Units, races, and gameplay mechanics are fairy clear-cut. If you played real-time strategies before, Universe At War will feel very similar.
In short you choose from one of three available alien races, all of whom are bent on conquering Earth. It’s a fun premise to play the evil, bad aliens. Remember Independence Day and War of the Worlds? Yeah, you play the aliens.
As the tagline states this is "the most customizable RTS ever made." Unfortunately I wasn’t able to ascertain this statement from the beta. Although SEGA and Petroglyph calls this a beta, in truth it felt closer to an interactive, multiplayer preview.
Most of the features highlighted from the Universe At War website are available in a limited fashion in this beta. And from what I understand others are available to LIVE Gold customers (a potential breaker that I’ll shed some light on).
Specifically what I did have access to was a couple 2-player multiplayer maps. I couldn’t play against bots so naturally the small number of available opponents did quick work of me.
I think the WTF award goes to Microsoft LIVE for forcing me to reluctantly signup with their service. The service is smooth on Xbox/360 but a pain on Windows. So the question I have is why would SEGA, or Petroglyph, use Microsoft LIVE over GameSpy? Did Microsoft pay them to use their service? I don’t know.
Which is why I believe Universe At War will be one of the catalyst titles for the forthcoming battle between free-to-compete services (Battle.net et all) and pay-to-compete (LIVE et all). Most competitive gamers want tournaments and detailed stats. If you play Universe At War Microsoft will say "fork over $8 a month for this." This tiny oversight will probably be downplayed in the packaging design. Some unsuspecting gamer won’t know until after the purchase and installation happens.
To make matters worse electronic outlets and e-tailers generally have no-return policies on opened games. Needless to say many are going to be frustrated and pissed at the prospect of forking over money to "the man" for a service that many PC gamers feel should be provided free-of-charge as part of the purchase price.
In other words Microsoft is hedging it bets that Windows gamers will probably fork over money to keep detailed stats and participate in tournaments via LIVE. If this model is successful other publishers (e.g. EA, Activision, perhaps Steam?) will certainly follow.
However setting aside the suck-hole that is LIVE (and my apologies for spending a large portion of this preview on it); the bottom-line is Universe At War feels and plays too much like StarCraft.
If this game had more originality then perhaps it would be worth the LIVE hassles but my honest opinion is that it’s not.
Of course the future isn’t set in stone. There’s seems to be a vocal plea among the community to remove LIVE support. Petroglyph could release the game with LIVE and limited GameSpy support, but given my history with betas that seems less likely to occur prior to launch.