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.
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