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Universe at War: Earth Assault

Jon Blyth joins the first wave of casualties...

Petroglyph have already stacked up a whole bunch of goodwill, by creating a Star Wars RTS that wasn't a forgettable mess. So it's with a positive predisposition that we step up to their new offering. Universe At War: Earth Assault takes place in 2012, on planet Earth where three factions have decided to scrap among themselves.

Humanity - pretty much a non-participant in the strategic elements of this cosmic scuffle - has been reduced to the status of an annoying-to-harvest crop. We thought we'd be a faction. Instead, we're a resource.

Petroglyph are very keen on their storytelling - when your scripting team come from the FMV-fuelled background of C&C, you'd expect nothing less. So, the single-player game will be a linear set of missions. That means there's a trade-off in the free-roaming nature of the game, in the single-player at least. But it also gives Petroglyph the chance to tell their story. "Each campaign will have its own conflicts and resolutions... And losses," says Petroglyph's design visionary Adam Isgreen, with an unseemly relish. "Don't get too attached to everyone, some of our characters won't be coming back."

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The story includes some moments that encourage its developers to get carried away. While trying to avoid breaking their self-imposed restrictions on what they can talk about, Isgreen gets excited when discussing the destruction of Washington, not to mention the scenes borrowing from King Kong.

"They're trying to take the ship down in the ruined city, the humans have thrown ropes all over it and it's wrenching its limbs around, fighting for its life, causing destruction and chaos..." When you can get that breathless while avoiding saying too much, you know you've got a good story - or a very excitable gentleman on your hands.

Well, at least they're killing each other, as well as us. Let's look at the Hierarchy, the one faction of the three that Petroglyph are talking about. Even talking about individual units causes Isgreen to wax daft.

"They're like grandma behind the wheel of an oversized diesel truck," he says, referring to the way you point the Brute at the enemy and tell it to charge. "It's in every way similar to an out-of-control tank." Then there's the Foo Fighter, a healing flying saucer with three glowing orbs that detach like... Well, orb-detachment similes fail me. However, it's the Defiler who looks most fun; using radioactive ooze to melt foes and mutate fallen troops.

"One thing we really like about the mutated slaves is that they chase down other civilians or infantry, and turn them into slaves as well. Things get out of hand very quickly if you're not keeping an eye on the situation," explains Isgreen, while presumably smacking his lips.

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Watching the game in action, you get the immediate sensation that 'action' is the right word. For a PC-only strategy game, it has more than a whiff of the arcade about it. Earth Assault is about action. It could be something as simple as the italicised letters in the minimalist interface.

Petroglyph call it 'UI-on-demand', and from what we've seen, the amount of playing screen lost to menus, buttons, unit info and mini-maps is close to zero. Managing to lose the clutter without losing the depth of gameplay - cutting back without cutting back - is their cleverest trick, and seems to mark a current trend. Mad Doc are doing a similar thing with their forthcoming Empire Earth III.

The neatness of the display ties in with the Tactical Dynamics system. Want to customise your mobile Hierarchy units mid-battle? Go ahead. Select the glowing hardpoints on your mobile units, and all the options will appear in a fussless daisy, depending on which branch of your tech tree you've decided to develop. That's the twist; all RTS games force you into elaborate games of scissors, paper, stone. But now you can look at your opponent's hand and change your mind.

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