I'm going to step outside of the reviewer's box here, because I've read some conflicting things about Universe at War from various places. I want to take a moment to re-iterate that this is my opinion and no one else's, fine, here we go. I'm starting with the bad things here, because if you're like me you're really interested in what's wrong with the game from the start, it's why you skip to the end of reviews to see if there's any game-breaking bugs or balance issues with it.
The not so good, the bad and the ugly of the game:
It's got a particular generic story, if you like the predictable antagonist, evil aliens and gung-ho humans sideline then you're going to be right at home with this one. You need Windows Live Gold (or an Xbox360 Gold membership) to be able to play online. If you're just in it for the single player and skirmish, forget I said that. There are problems with the AI and pathfinding, this seems to be the bane of most RTS games though and even the best AI needs a tweak or helping hand now and then.
The most gear-grinding annoying thing about UaW is that you don't have the tech tree or anything remotely interesting in campaign, it's all scripted and the whole thing feels vanilla compared to the extremely sharp and likeable skirmish/multiplayer, which we'll shuffle onto in a moment. The campaign is generic, its clichéd and it's got about as much atmosphere as the retelling of: I know what you had for breakfast, dinner, tea, supper, last summer.
The music is decent enough as is the voice acting. The sound effects are ok, nothing really stands out there, but it's all good since you're playing an RTS and not listening to a finely honed masterpiece by someone like Vivaldi.
So gripes aside?
This is where I get to talk about why I actually like the game, putting my gripes about the generic pretty boring campaign on one side for a moment and concentrating on the various things that make UaW a refreshing change in terms of RTS games that have come before it. Firstly:
Factions, the 3 factions in UaW are relatively unique and they're pretty well balanced. Yeah, that's right. Balanced! There's probably some new tweaks needed to fine tune them based on player feedback but you have to be careful with that, since most players are inherently selfish and always want their favourite faction to be more powerful than the others.
The UaW factions work so well because they have a feel to them that's unique, most other RTS games (barring Dawn of War etc) have the same units repacked with little or no unique personality between them. These three could have actually been taken from three separate titles and packaged into one game, the way they move, the way they look and the way they play sets them apart from each other. Also, no stinking humans as playable factions! It's about time we had a fight between alien races with our gung-ho humans caught in the middle!
So you have the:
Novus: they owe a lot to anime and Robotech in particular, high tech force, fragile and they're able to move inexpensive units around the battlefield using a complex array of energy towers. They're hard to learn to use correctly but they have some nice special abilities and their heroes are pretty good. The Novus' resource gatherers make it hard to actually damage the faction's economy in the field since they're quick and agile.
Hierarchy: Inspired much by War of the Worlds? I think so, they have no base structure. They move around with giant war machines that can be upgraded with weapons, mind-control devices, and numerous armour plates and so on. Their resource gatherers remind me of the harvesters from War of the Worlds too. This isn't a bad thing because the Hierarchy are an excellent race for dominating the battlefield with sheer oppressive alien firepower and might. They're perfect for the player who wants to stomp over things and watch civilian houses burn in an orgy of destruction. They also make excellent siege platforms and you can basically march your base into the edge of the enemy base and hammer them with advanced weapons, whilst your alien troops swarm their defenders.
Masari: These are another odd faction, ideally suited for a turtle or base defence kind of player. Able to build up resources at their base, their builders can improve or change the functionality of the buildings and change unit production speed etc. They are a strange god-like race that's able to shift between Light and Dark modes depending if they want speed or protection. They're a good faction if you want to keep your opponents guessing and if you enjoy being able to send out skirmishers to keep your enemies busy whilst you build up to some powerful late-game units.
If you've played Empire at War from the same developers, you'll soon come to grips with their Risk-style strategy mode. If you're not a fan of that, you can play the maps in Skirmish or MP so it's not a problem. You'll have to get Gold if you really want to play all the content though, since some of it is restricted from base silver members. Something that's bound to upset the PC gaming community greatly and I'm not convinced the price of the membership is worth it just for this game.
Apart from the great gameplay and unique factions, UaW has some pretty sharp visuals. All the units have a unique look that complements the factions they belong to. With the Novus being your anime, quick, agile robot style faction and the Hierarchy having more than a little in common with the tripod style walkers from War of the Worlds, even down to the design of some of the units and the power they can unleash.
There are numerous rivers, bridges and buildings in the game and the level designers have placed them in an intelligent manner. You can see the level of detail in the textures is definitely an improvement over the studios earlier work and they've made a lot of advancements in their graphical style compared to the Empire at War game + sequel.
The use of light and shadow in the game is great, the maps are pretty well designed and there are quite a few options you can alter when setting up a skirmish or mp game. I'd make sure you turn of Dx10 at the moment though, it really is a cloggy mess and it causes frame-rate drops when a lot of special effects happen at once. I feel this is more Microsoft's fault than the developers however. Once you turn up the Dx9 effects and sliders, the game looks just as good in that mode, you soon forget about the cruddy Dx10.
I've a lot of love for the OTT effects in the game and the superweapons are pretty great. I'm not going to spoil a thing for you though, you're going to have to play it yourselves to see the units, the weapons, the effects and the game.