So here's the quandary I face in this review: on the one hand I've had some cracking skirmish and multiplayer games of Universe at War; on the other, the campaign in which aliens invade the Earth is rather aged and clunksome.
I can't genuinely recommend this ahead of the dumb delights of C&C3, nor is it comparable to the cold war retro-vision of World in Conflict.
Universe at War is a fragment of the Westwood-era RTS (indeed, its creators worked on many of those games) and so when filtered through our modern eyes it is at once thoroughly enjoyable and at the same time, well, a bit old hat. I want to recommend UaW, yet at the same time, I can't.
The campaign's sluggish start doesn't really help matters. The opening levels are almost entirely tutorial-led, 'go to X, blow up Y'-type objectives, and while this is to be expected, they feel like even the developers didn't want to bother with them. The initial experience is tedious, especially since the first couple of levels are played with human units - units that play no real role in the major body of the game.
I wanted to be tutored thoroughly in the extensive base-building, unit-evolving processes that the game does have to offer, but instead found myself at the mercy of the weak storyline and some babbled-out Earth-invasion cliché.
Eventually, a couple of hours into the game, I started to get access to the full range of extra-terrestrial conflict that's on offer: building the full bases, with all their super-weapons and high-end units - but this really doesn't come around fast enough.
Let's fill in some detail about those alien races. There are three alien factions, each with their own modus operandi. Petroglyph have clearly worked hard to create that 'asymmetric' faction structure that we all seem to have demanded since Starcraft.
Unfortunately for Universe at War, one of the factions is far more satisfying to play than the other two. Now, you might argue that it's just a matter of taste, but I'd argue it's just a matter of whose base is a giant radiation-spewing red behemoth summoned from the sky by a fiery glyph, and whose... isn't.
So, faction number one are the Novus. These are the iPod chic faction. Their bases are all blue lights and white panels, and some of their most potent tools are the pylons that allow some of their units to 'upload' and travel vast distances in an instant. This means you can quickly build a line out to resources and have your collection bots zip back and forth without having to worry much about defending them.
The Novus units rely on 'information' as one of their primary conceits, so there are hackers that can scramble and immobilise units, and there are 'patches' that can be applied across your army to counter a particular problem, such as radiation.
As with all the other factions, there are also some core hero units, such as a mecha piloted by a beautiful alien woman and a cloaking craft that can upload units before downloading them anywhere on the field. To give you a taste of the route the tech tree takes, the top weapons are a Black Hole bomb and an EMP blast. Once the tedious tutorial stuff is out of the way they're enormous fun to play.
But they're not as much fun as the Hierarchy. These alien conquistadores are the jocks of space: they drag in every conceivable UFO legend and then beef it up with steroids and a red paint job. These guys use a 'glyph burner' to call giant tripedal units down from orbit.
The glyphs are remarkably similar to crop circles, which further buys into the whole UFO mythos. Their air units are flying saucers, their scouts are 'greys', and their resource-collection beasts do very nasty things to cattle.