Universe at War: Earth Assault
19th Jul 2007 | 15:16
Universe at War: Earth Assault is a case of something old and something new, really. Alien invasion of Earth we've seen countless times before, but developer Petroglyph has a number of tricks for the RTS genre up its sleeve that we're hoping will be genuinely refereshing.
Watch out Supreme Commander, here comes creative director Adam Isgreen.
What was the impetus behind the creation/development of Universe at War?
Adam Isgreen: At the very start it was the desire to make a game all about an alien invasion of Earth. We have always been huge fans of X-Com and other classic invasion-centric games, and felt that it was about time to return to the invasion theme.
Maybe it's from living in Nevada and being close to Area 51, but aliens are always on our minds and a fertile space to let your imagination go crazy and come up with some truly interesting units and play mechanics.
Since one of the core tenets of our game from the start was uniquely playing factions, featuring various alien forces in a battle over the fate of Earth sounded like a neat way to get aliens, humans, and familiar locations all into one neat package, yet also explore some more interesting play mechanics with the factions.
Depth and customisation are key features of Universe at War. Why do you feel these are so important to the game and to the RTS genre as a whole?
Isgreen: Strategy games are thinking games, and we felt it was time to get back to making you think - not just about what units to build, but about what strategy you were going to go for in any particular battle.
We believe that players are becoming more mature with RTS games in general and that there's a desire for more diversity in strategy, even on a unit-by-unit basis.
Generally, units in RTS games are designed to do one thing for the lifetime operation of that unit and that's it. We wanted to expand on that and give units new vectors (ones that don't destroy their core role) that could be explored via customization. Those new vectors in combination with other staple units or other potential customisations open up new tactics that the player can exploit.
In what ways do these features manifest themselves in gameplay terms?
Isgreen: Our goal was to make a deep and customisable game. We wanted to give the players ways to change tactics on the fly and also leverage different strategies when playing. That desire led to the creation of two different systems - the research system and the Tactical Dynamics choice.
Research is the slower, longer-term solution to tactical planning. Although you can be a jack-of-all-trades by investing a bit into each of a faction's three tech trees, you're not going to get some of the very juicy high-end research suites that way.
Research is really a long-term plan that helps hone your strategy. If you know you're going for certain high-end tech, you'll build your early-game plan around that.
You can think of research like a road map. You choose your eventual goals and then plan and execute a strategy around those choices. And unlike other games, we let you "reboot," so to speak, and change your research selections so that you can alter your strategies.
Obviously, there is a cost in time and money, so it is still better to be prepared and not have to change research in the first place, but that extra flexibility gives players yet more tactical choices, and that was one of our primary goals.
Tactical Dynamics was the on-the-fly portion of this design. Since we were working with very different factions, we didn't want the dynamic to manifest itself in the same way from faction to faction, and fortunately we found ways to make each faction manifest Tactical Dynamics in a unique way that still fit that faction's play philosophy.
As it's an aliens-invade-Earth scenario, we're expecting something epic. What kind of scale are you aiming for with battles?
Isgreen: Massive enough to cause city-wide destruction, but not massive enough that you ever feel like you're controlling completely disposable forces. It was important to us to make the Hierarchy walkers feel like the massive battle stations they are, but also to ensure that you could see and visually understand anything that happened in the game.
We have many units that have special abilities, and since they can be very powerful when used correctly, we wanted to always maintain a view where the player could understand what was going on.
So if you're looking for a Supreme Commander-like zoom out mode, no, we're not the game that does that. Our battles are more intimate so you can always tell what's going on.
How are you breaking down the single-player campaign?
Isgreen: It's a linear experience, broken into four chapters: a tutorial chapter featuring the military forces of Earth, then a campaign game of six to nine missions for our three main factions - Novus, The Hierarchy, and The Masari. By the end of it all, it's a total of 22-25 missions.
Each faction has its own issues and dilemmas, and none of them emerge from the conflict unscathed. We also purposely kept the mission count down, since we wanted to create unique play experiences from what you'd get in multiplayer or skirmish. After 20 or so missions, it's pretty challenging to not make another "go here, destroy that" type of mission!
When approaching story, we took a lesson from some of the more recent inspiring television shows like Battlestar Galactica. Universe at War is a drama that you're taking part in, rather than just a random set of missions that follow a vague path (if there's one at all) that you're not in control of.
It's certainly a guided experience, but you make the choices in mission that set the next mission in motion, so the player is very connected to the story and the characters they control.
Does deformable terrain actually have a tactical effect on the battlefield? Will AI take advantage of ruins and use such as cover, for example?
Isgreen: To be honest, we don't have deformable terrain in the sense of massively changing the battlefield via destruction. It was a component of the game early on, but as we developed the game, it didn't fit the play mechanics we were going for.
However, our resource model encompasses just about everything on the maps (there are no resource 'piles' in Universe at War), allowing players to exploit tactics that they couldn't in the past, such as stripping an area of structures in order to prevent an enemy from harvesting it.
In that way, you can deform the battlefield and change a player's resource gathering via a "scorched earth" tactic. However, in the classic sense of cutting through mountains or flooding an area with water... that's something for Universe at War games down the road.
You spoke briefly about the Tactical Dynamics feature - could you elaborate on that feature, and how have you designed the interface to handle what sounds like a pretty tricky feature to operate for the player?
Isgreen: We here at Petroglyph play a lot of games, and one thing that we see a lot in competitive RTS games is the trend of losing before the game is anywhere near over. It's very hard for new players to grasp that in the first five minutes they've already lost a game that will last 30 more minutes before resolution.
We felt that this wasn't a very fun way to play, and that's where the Tactical Dynamic feature was born. It's an avenue to allow you to correct mistakes - to a point. The dynamics won't suddenly make you capable of doing other functions you couldn't before, but it can save you in a pinch if you weren't doing a good job scouting or covering your bases tactics-wise.
The UI for each faction's Tactical Dynamic is easily accessible on the main UI, since we knew it would be a widely used part of the game if we delivered on its concept.
Right next to your build tabs, there's a blueprint button for the Hierarchy walkers, two slots for the Novus patches, and the solitary light / dark button for the Masari. Simply clicking on the appropriate button opens the UI component for the faction... unless you're the Masari, in which case you just click the button and switch modes.
As for the other two, Novus' patching is really straight-forward - pick one and it goes into effect, pushing out old patches if necessary - while the Hierarchy's hardpoint system displays a ring around the appropriate socket you want to customize with your available choices.
Like many parts of our game, there's learning involved with what works well in combination, but our tooltips provide a wealth of information on light / dark differences as well as each patch and hardpoint, so you can make educated decisions even if it's your first time playing.
Everyone likes kick-ass units and structures. What are a few of your personal favourites?
Isgreen: My personal favourites? Wow. Since I have different favourites for different reasons, I'm just going to rattle some off and why I like them:
- Masari Sky Lord: I'm certain we could make an entire Panzer Dragoon-like game centred just on this one unit. It's a wonderful design that emphasises just about every element we wanted in the Masari overall. It has ties to ancient myths, looks incredibly powerful... and it's piloted by the best female warriors the Masari has. It oozes cool. It feels like it could go toe-to-toe with just about anything the other factions could throw at it... which it can in the game too. Perhaps I'll pitch that Panzer-like idea to Sega... hmm....
- Masari hero Charos: One of his abilities allows him to create a whirlwind of destruction, tossing aside units, trees, and infantry alike. He can wade into a combat and immediately turn the tide against a much larger force. What's not to like when you see your enemies being tossed around like a leaf in a gust of wind?
- Novus Blade Trooper: I love this unit. In the fiction, it is a new unit Novus specifically designed to counter the Hierarchy Grunt. It uses energy blades to slice at targets, can jet-boost rapidly to targets (and over water), can duplicate itself at will, and can black-out portions of the screen, so your enemies can't even see you cutting them apart. With research, it can even cloak itself, moving invisibly. Although walkers are immune to them (aside from attacking the legs), they're great units and can be used in multiple strategies.
- Hierarchy hero Kamal Re'x: I think the love for this unit comes from the sheer number of uses Kamal has. He can swat at enemy aircraft, damaging them and sending them flying away from his location. He can abduct both friendly and enemy units, sending them directly up to the Hierarchy collection ships for resources. His ground attack can knock infantry aside and hit multiple targets. Lastly, his force wall can prevent enemy movement and block all weapons fire from hitting Hierarchy units. There's nothing worse than Kamal standing under a walker, shielding in front of it so it can pound your base into oblivion and take no damage in return.
How 'persistent' is the online world in Universe at War multiplayer? Is it a finite campaign with players retaining achievements? How does it work?
Isgreen: Our "Conquer the World" mode uses the globe like a persistent tracking system for your accomplishments. You progress through each territory and are matched up against people fighting for that same territory. Conquer it and you keep it. Lose the battle and you lose the territory too.
As you get better, the stakes go up. If you manage to conquer a globe, that's worth a certain rank and achievement and the globe can be reset. Or you can go for streaks in conquering the same territories, as the game tracks your progress in each individually.
There's a lot of bragging rights associated with multiple wins in individual territories, especially after you've ranked up a few times.
Achievement-wise, since the game is using Live Anywhere (XP and Vista), your achievements are tracked, and each unlocks a medal, which can give you a tactical benefit in multiplayer. Each player can have up to three medals in play at any one time.
For example, the "bovine defender" medal the Hierarchy earns for the "collecting 300 cows achievement" will give you a +50% resource bonus for every cow collected if you use it in multiplay. There are 15 medals for each faction (they're not all the same, either), so there's lots of fun "tweaks" you can make on your multiplayer experience.
If you want to be a purist, you can turn them off in multiplayer and they're off by default in tournaments and DEFCON.
Presumably you're including the vanilla multiplayer types too - and what's DEFCON?
Isgreen: Yes. Multiplayer free-for-all and team-based play is supported - with or without AI - and with varying victory conditions. We've also got this great speed-game mode called DEFCON, where instead of researching any tech, there's a timer counting down each DEFCON level (starting at 5, descending to 1), which changes every few minutes.
Every player gets every tech available to them in the next tier each time DEFCON drops a level. After eight minutes everyone has every tech available to them, breaking the normal rule of only being able to choose 6 out of the total 12 suites of tech at any one time. Superweapons are active, and it's a madhouse of a game at that point.
I think it's ideal for tournaments and internet café play, where there aren't as many permutations to deal with and you can focus on some very aggressive and interesting strategies when you leverage the DEFCON countdown. Most games in DEFCON mode games we've played don't last past 12 minutes.
The subtitle (and main title) of the game of course suggests that the assault on Earth is by no means the end of the story - or series. Are you already kicking around ideas for follow-ups and, if so, anything you can tell us about storyline direction for those?
Isgreen: We certainly are. At this point, if you looked at the first Universe at War game as the initial chapter in an ongoing saga, there are at least two more chapters of material we've got fleshed out... and a whole bunch of directions we can go in after that.
I can't really speak in detail on any of it, but you're correct that the title doesn't just say "earth at war", does it?