Famously, real-time strategy games and consoles have never really been comfortable with each other. Although a couple of RTS games have been released on the 360 - Command & Conquer 3 and Lord Of The Rings: Battle For Middle Earth II spring to mind - both of them, whilst enjoyable, still feel a bit odd. It's the sort of genre that feels more at home with a mouse than a joypad.
And so, with Universe At War, developer Petroglyph Games has decided to try its hand at disproving the theory that RTS games just don't feel right on consoles. So, mission accomplished? Not exactly...
The game itself is your standard RTS fare: put in charge of one "side" of a battle, you have to develop your resources and figure out an attack plan in order to defeat the other "side". It just so happens that in this case, with the exception of the very first level (where you're in control of a group of soldiers), each "side" is a race of beings from another planet. You know... just to make things interesting.
The first problem you encounter after firing up the game for the first time is the quality (or lack thereof) of the character models. We can appreciate that, with potentially hundreds of characters on screen at once in later levels, the amount of detail in each model is likely to be significantly lower than usual. But we're sure it wouldn't have killed the developers to create some high-quality character models for use in the various cutscenes throughout the game. As it is, they look awful: not so much like a bad 360 game, more like a good Dreamcast game. Yes, they're that bad.
More problematic are the controls. Simply put, they're clunky. This game was originally designed for the PC and it shows. Choosing a specific unit from a crowd is unbelievably frustrating as the cursor keeps snapping to other nearby units. Navigating the map, meanwhile, is invariably confusing and the intense battles can be infuriating when your analogue stick-aimed cursor doesn't quite go on to the enemy, meaning that instead of attacking it, you send your troops just walking towards it.
In fairness, hidden away under the numerous problems, there's actually quite a deep, solid game to be found here. Each faction has its own strengths and weaknesses, and most of the individual types of unit on each side has its own special abilities that can be called on at any time.
The voice acting is decent enough (though the script borders on comically bad at times), and the backgrounds are both detailed and atmospheric. There's a real sense of satisfaction when you take down a huge enemy walker and the online multiplayer can be quite fun as long as you have the patience to take part in lengthy sessions.
Must try harder
It's just a shame that the developers have hampered this game with so many frustrating elements. The 360 version of Universe At War finds itself in a difficult situation. It's unique and enjoyable enough for us to say that RTS fans will like it, but the fact is that the majority of RTS fans will already have a PC, in which case they'd be silly not to buy that version of the game instead.
It's a solid attempt at bringing this sort of game genre to the 360, but it still appears that, much like sleeping with a robot behind your partner's back, controlling an RTS with a joypad will always be a clunky affair.
Good effort, shame about the controls.
- RTS fans will lap it up
- Online multiplayer is good
- Wonky controls
- Can be frustrating
- Awful graphics