Version tested: Xbox 360
The first-person shooter, once legendary for its inferiority on consoles, is now firmly established as a cross-platform genre to be reckoned with. So much so, in fact, that any claim that mouse and keyboard are better than joypad is now down to personal preference rather than technical truth. Which just leaves real-time strategy as the last bastion of PC snobbery.
Shooters may have evolved on the mouse, but all it took was some rethinking for the principles to work on twin sticks. RTS, on the other hand, is designed for the mouse from the ground up, relying on precise clicks, menu navigation and fast map sweeps for its success. Things are starting to change, slowly, but Petroglyph's Universe at War - developed simultaneously for both PC and 360 - was supposed to be the game to really break through and open up the genre to consoles.
Sadly, the PC version didn't exactly blow us away - "simply too flawed to spend too much time on" trilled Rob, as he signed off with a disappointed 7/10. Wouldn't it be awesome to report that the 360 version of this game was not only superior to its PC sibling, but represented a strategy experience that finally makes RTS gameplay work on a joypad?
It would be awesome...
But it's not going to happen, is it? For one thing, Universe at War's 360 version - delayed by several months - has inherited most of the PC version's shortcomings: a weak and linear campaign mode, which does little to explore the potential of the different alien races, and a stiff camera that only allows a limited view of the battlefield, being chief among them. But this version then compounds those complaints with technical issues so severe that the game becomes borderline unplayable at times.
The good stuff first, though. Rather than try and copy the PC controls, Petroglyph has radically overhauled the way the game is played for the 360. The shoulder buttons and triggers are used to call up context-sensitive rotating menus, or to magnify the map for rapid movement. So, for instance, with no units selected you can call up a command menu that allows you to send build orders to any of your structures, from anywhere on the map.
With a unit selected, these menus become specific, allowing quick access to special attacks and abilities. And there's a clever quick-select system that allows you to scroll through all your unit types and select all the units of a certain type instantly. By pressing the Back button you can assign all the selected units to your own groupings, enabling you to create the sort of mixed platoons that would be a few CTRL-clicks away on the PC. It doesn't take too long for this system to become second nature. It's never as intuitive as the mouse, but it does a pretty fine job of mapping all the important functions to buttons and sticks without becoming bogged down. Hopefully some future game will take the core idea and develop it further.
For now, this clever notion is undermined by a clumsy selection tool, which "paints" the units you want rather than click-dragging them into service. It's no secret that dragging a box doesn't work terribly well on the joypad, so it does make sense to have a more intuitive console alternative. Here, you guide a large green circle over the troops you want, rather than boxing them in. What you gain in immediacy you lose in usefulness, as it's almost impossible to accurately pick out the troops you want. The selection area is fuzzy, leaving you with a broad stroke approach that works completely contrary to the genre - it's fine when dealing with handfuls of units, but on a busy screen, there's no way of knowing who'll be caught up in your enormous lime spotlight. Separating your units one by one, and spacing them really far apart so you can put them into useful groups is such a massive fiddle that you eventually end up using the all-or-nothing troop-select feature and just flinging everything you have into battle in bulk. It's indicative of the game's unsophisticated design that this is usually all you need to do anyway.
It's the technical side that really spoils the party though. The PC version suffered from some uninspiring visuals and occasional slowdown, but these minor hiccups have evolved into full-blown embarrassing eggy burps for the 360. The game is full of lo-res textures, with units depicted as crudely animated stick figures, devoid of any real detail. The cut-scenes are a travesty, with ballooned polygon humans and jerky aliens acting out the woeful story with all the grace of a 1996 PlayStation intro.
That's nothing compared to what happens during gameplay. With anything more than forty units moving on screen, the framerate drops. And by "drops", I mean "plummets screaming like a buffalo on a bungee". This is a considerable problem, since the unit cap allows for at least twice that number. In other words, operate at full capacity and get some battles going on (you know, the idea behind the whole game) and I swear the frame-rate hits single figures, with characters slooooowly cycling through their rudimentary animations as the engine struggles to keep up. Coupled with the skittish selection process, when the graphics splutter this alarmingly, simply ordering your troops around becomes virtually impossible. The nasty alien Hierarchy operate from enormous armoured walkers, which must be taken down by focusing your firepower on panels on the side. As you can imagine, highlighting and clicking on these small moving targets with a joystick is tricky enough at the best of times. When the game turns to treacle, you might as well leave them to it, make a cup of tea and come back when everything has settled down.
These appalling cock-ups only worsen when you add online into the equation, meaning that there's little point spending time on the multiplayer modes, despite some great ideas. The Conquer the Globe mode, for instance, allows you to take part in a persistent on-going campaign of push-and-pull combat across numerous world zones. Fantastic fun, at least if it wasn't blighted by crippling lag and fudged game speed. It's pretty obvious that any 360 player picking this up to play against PC owners using Games for Windows' much-trumpeted cross-platform play is going to be at a serious disadvantage.
For all the control innovations that come tantalisingly close to solving the riddle of joypad RTS play, Universe at War is constantly blighted by unforgivable slowdown that, at its worst, all but breaks the game. Concerns about the undercooked campaign and minor control issues are insignificant by comparison. It's pretty clear that the delay between PC and 360 releases was caused by a desperate need to coax the console game engine into a workable state and if this is the fixed version, I'd hate to see what it looked like four months ago. Console RTS fans may not have much to choose from, but we deserve better than this.
4 / 10