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Exclusive First Universe at War: Earth Assault Details

Petroglyph's new futuristic persistent RTS makes near-future Earth the battlefield and humanity a casualty of war.

by IGN Staff


US, February 1, 2007 - The makers of last year's box office hit, Star Wars: Empire at War have told IGN about their next title set in a near-future fictional universe of their own making. Universe at War: Earth Assault is the first game in a series these guys are hoping to extend into the future. While the title would indicate a massive planet to planet brawl, this first game focuses the action on Earth amongst a human population unprepared for the throttling they're about to receive.


Petroglyph is taking the persistent gameplay developed for Empire at War and refining it to create a much smoother and deep gameplay experience. Design Director Adam Isgreen , Producer Ted Morris, and Lead Designer Steve Copeland all took time to help answer some of the questions we had about their futuristic RTS. Not all of our questions were able to be answered at this time, but there's a wealth of information below that should get most RTS gamers ready to tackle this one as soon as they can. Read on, check out the first three screens, and look for more info on Universe at War: Earth Assault as soon as we can get it.




IGNPC: Glad to hear you guys are working on another persistent RTS. What's the deal with the setting and fiction this time around? How much of the universe is at war?


Adam Isgreen: At the beginning of the first chapter, "Earth Assault", the universe is primed for a war, but there's a problem. The Hierarchy, our heavy-handed alien faction, hasn't had any real competition in terms of combat prowess in a long, long time. They've been rolling over every other race they've encountered in this part of the galaxy for centuries, usually to the point of complete genocide. Some other races however have fled or survived through different means, and would love a chance to get even… but we're getting ahead of ourselves a bit here!


This first game centers around the conflict that erupts on Earth in 2012. The Hierarchy has landed on Earth with the intent to strip-mine the precious and organic material on the planet… and we mean everything organic. Humanity had a little bit of warning from their observatories and scientists, but clearly didn't believe that they'd be fighting against an alien force. They're disorganized and bickering amongst themselves as they try to present a unified military front. Frankly, they're also completely out-classed. The Hierarchy do this for a living, and they're good at it. Humanity isn't without its drive however, and they fight back with all they've got, but it's a hopeless battle in the long run if they don't get help. Fortunately for them, there are others who get involved.


Earth is the catalyst that will launch the factions you'll meet in Universe at War into a colossal battle across the stars. We've taken great care in making some very unique factions with their own motivations that make for some very compelling game play experiences and storytelling possibilities.



IGNPC: Is it centered on several planets or just Earth? What's so special about Earth anyway? Are humans part of the big war or just drawn into the fight?


Ted Morris: Just Earth for now - but as Adam mentioned, the war has been raging for centuries on a variety of planets. The full title of the game is "Universe at War: Earth Assault," and it is here that the various races collide - with humans caught squarely in the middle.


In the grand scheme, Earth really isn't any more special than the other worlds that have been "harvested" by the Alien Hierarchy. What makes it special to us is that we live here! Humans can't even begin to compete on the level of destruction that occurs in the game. After being initially drawn into the fight, it becomes quickly obvious that humanity, as a race, is pretty much screwed. So, while humans do play a role in the game, most of the ones you see will be running for their lives. There are a few notable exceptions that play a critical role in the story campaign however.



IGNPC: Can you describe the different factions and what kinds of technology they'll be using to trash our home? How do humans compare in the fight? Are we even capable of fighting against the alien invaders on their own or do we need help?


Adam Isgreen: I can describe one faction - the others you'll just have to wait to hear more about!


So for now, we'll talk about "those damn aliens" as the humans call them, or the name you come to eventually know them as, The Hierarchy. As mentioned before, the Hierarchy is our big, heavy, walker-utilizing faction that has come to Earth to strip-mine its organic content. They're a vicious, back-stabbing caste-driven race that thinks nothing of the species they wipe out in pursuit of the necessary materials to further fuel their aggressive desires.


The Hierarchy utilizes massive walkers on the worlds they travel to. These machines are highly customizable, able to fill roles for support, combat, and production, depending on the individual need and situation. They're so tough, they're dropped directly from orbit onto the battlefield! Utilizing a sophisticated teleport system, these walkers can teleport new components into and out of various sockets on their legs and bodies right in the middle of missions, without having to recall themselves for refitting. What this means for the player is that walkers are completely customizable to a number of different roles and able to switch up on the fly, so that if one configuration isn't working for your tactics, you can change it up.


However, since these walkers are also your links to getting units down onto the ground, as a player you have to carefully balance adding components that enhance production versus those that allow you to fight or defend. The Hierarchy player will spend a good deal of time scouting for information as to what the enemy is up to in order to have their walkers tricked out appropriately to counter.


Fortunately, other things for the Hierarchy are a bit easier to manage, especially when it comes to resources. Since they're here to collect everything, they literally can. Reaper Drones, smaller walkers also dropped from orbit, go around dissolving and vacuuming up everything that's not nailed down. They convert collected matter into raw materials, which the Hierarchy can use to build more war machines. Trees, cars, people, rubble, buildings, cows - you name it, the Hierarchy can get resources from it. However, just because you can pick everything up doesn't mean that there isn't inherent value in some items over others. Savvy Hierarchy players will plan out what to hit and when in order to maximize their resource intake. This creates some interesting combat situations, in which resources that are completely worthless to the other factions have to be kept away from the Hierarchy, as they see nothing but big dollar signs when they look at them.




Weaponry-wise, the Hierarchy utilizes a lot of radioactive and plasma weaponry, which makes them able to shut down large areas of the map as they slowly stomp across it, pushing their enemies into unfavorable positions for easy collection and annihilation. They're sloppy and overbearing with their power. They're a race that would rather saturate an area into oblivion than go for a sniper's precision in their attacks. This leaves them vulnerable to certain tactics that the other factions can exploit…


That's just a taste of what to expect from one of our very diverse factions for Universe at War. We'll be revealing more about the others in the future!


IGNPC: Your work on Star Wars: Empire at War had to have taught you some valuable lessons about persistent RTS features and styles. What were some of the lessons you learned and how have you fused that knowledge into the gameplay? Will it still all work in real-time?


Adam Isgreen: We've learned a lot from SW: EaW/FoC about what we loved and what we did not when working on a second-gen persistent game. First off, we learned that the persistent universe actually interfered with player's desires to play the story campaign. We kept hearing that players "just wanted to get to the story," rather than fight filler battles between them, no matter how compelling they were on their own. We took this to heart in our story campaign for UaW, which is more linear and features a lighter version of the global mode than we have for the full-blown Conquest campaigns. This keeps the story moving along at a better pace, allowing you to stay focused on the battles and the story rather than being side-tracked.


However, for our Conquest campaigns, our global mode is fully open and truly comes into play. We loved the power that we had in SW: EaW/FoC, but hated the management of it all. Having sub-screens to list what was where wasn't an elegant solution to the abundance of data (i.e. ship locations, which planet had what factories and tech, starbase upgrade levels, etc.) a player had to keep track of, and we disliked how technical the galaxy became when you turned all the data displays on. Combined with the sheer number of "buckets" you had for fleets and planets and factories, we felt that we could do a lot better in streamlining the strategic experience.


So, we did. In creating our new global layer for Universe at War, we had to make some tough decisions - lots of dials, or a few? Deep meaningful choices, or lots of minor impact? After a lot of revisions and reworking (much to the chagrin of our UI programmers), we've arrived at what we feel is a very deep, yet easy to understand global mode. We've changed the player's main focus to Strike Forces, consisting of heroes and their persistent forces. The changes to how you build and fortify zones is also more streamlined but at the same time still decisive and impactful to your overall strategies. They are also integrated better into both the tactical battles as well. In the coming weeks and months as we finalize details, we'll be able to talk more about Strike Forces, the way command centers work on the strategic level, and the other changes and gameplay in the global mode.


The player has a lot of decisions to make, but the focus on strike forces and large command centers allows us to make those choices deeper and have more impact on the game rather than worrying about dozens of fleets, who was building what (and where), and a lot of lesser choices that didn't have major impact on the territory.


And yes, it's still all in real-time.


IGNPC: Once in tactical mode, what kinds of battlefield tricks can we expect to see? Any unit customization?


Steve Copeland: Good RTS games are all about placing hard decisions in the player's hands. You might surprise your opponent by sacrificing all of the customizable sockets on your relatively fragile science walker (which are ordinarily used for enhancing all of your other units) to build a devastating front-line weapon on its back. Sometimes you have to take big risks if you want big rewards.


We have an unbelievable amount of unit interactions in UaW, both between friendly and opposing faction's units. There are many, many clever assists one can perform with a group of mixed units to improve each other's capabilities, as well as tricky one-two punches on the enemy. Some of these take a certain amount of finesse, so often a good, old fashioned "group select and attack move" is in order to keep up the pressure and buy some time to pull out a trick or two.


A system we call "Tactical Dynamics" is at the heart of the hard choices we give to players - it's the ability to customize your units on-the-fly. Each faction manifests this ability in a different way, and for now, we're only talking about the customizable sockets on the Hierarchy's war machines. These enable players to build everything from autonomous guns of many varieties, shields, armor, heat sinks, devices that give special passive or activated abilities, buffs, debuffs, mind control, radiation, mutation, repair, production capabilities—too many to name. How you customize your war machines is an important part of your tactical build order game.


IGNPC: What sorts of units can we expect? Are we talking smaller units or huge intergalactic units like Supreme Commander is offering up? Will these units be persistent as well and gain experience and power through a campaign?


Steve Copeland: You can expect a large selection of interesting units that make up extremely diverse factions, using unique technologies. Each faction is strongly themed with specific strengths and weaknesses. Scale is only one facet of this diversity.


The Hierarchy have enormous vehicles that each basically act as a portion of the player's base (as well as many small supporting units). When creating units that are so large, we felt that we needed to go the extra mile to make them feel like they are believably present in the world, and move in a way that conveys their mass and scale. We did this by building a large amount of interactivity into these vehicles, both in how the vehicles interact with the world and how the player interacts with the vehicle. Something so massive doesn't just nimbly move around the battlefield; as such, it needs to have plenty of interesting decisions to be made about its functionality and behavior. UaW: Earth Assault has this in spades.


Whatever units the player decides to include with their various hero's strike force will persist. There isn't a linear path of experience for units. Instead the player chooses, through research, how he will continuously evolve and improve his heroes and other units. Research decisions persist and can be changed as the game progresses.




IGNPC: What kinds of objectives will players need to think about when they're dropped into tactical mode? Is it going to be mostly seek and destroy?


Steve Copeland: In the global game, a player had better have put some thought into his plan before being dropped into tactical mode. Each Strike Force and hero has strengths and weaknesses that will determine their appropriateness for leading the troops into a given situation. Is a surgical strike in order to take out one of the territory upgrades your enemy is using for global advantage? Would it be best to just take a bunch of units and roll over my opponent? Or is this strike force going to dig in, build a base, and stage a full-on war over the region (often the only way to take out a massive war facility)? An endeavor like this could be worthwhile to cause your opponent a significant setback in economics, research, production capabilities, or to destroy a global mega-weapon.


There are also many high-level decisions to make in the shorter, one-off, tactical only games. We're big fans of both macro and micro management challenges, so we've made a game where both are important. To elaborate on the macro game: you've got to consider if you're going to force early tech versus early units, which research path you're going to advance, map control, economic game, harassment and distractions, how much effort to put into scouting. Scouting is key. The information you have will better let you head your opponent off strategically and give you valuable clues for how to best customize your units. All of the good stuff from your favorite RTS games is in there, with a good amount of fresh gameplay around each faction's specific researchable capabilities, unit customization, and other features.


IGNPC: What kinds of new features can we expect from multiplayer? We've heard you were inspired by MMOs and other online environments. Care to explain?


Ted Morris: For me, multiplayer is where it's at - and that feeling is shared by many others on the team. It's central to the game's core offerings, which is why we're moving beyond just the standard head-to-head and team battles for this game. We've taken a lesson from some of our favorite MMOs on what gets people hooked and keeps them coming back for more and incorporated some of those aspects into Universe at War.


Just to be clear, we're not creating an MMO - we're creating a game where players can expect to have short term battles that help accomplish a longer term goal. In the game lobbies those accomplishments will equate to bragging rights, but in the game they are a more tangible benefit that enhances certain aspects of your force. Some of these goals will take an hour to complete; others may take a month or more. Our mission is to give players something to do every time they log in and play.


One of my favorite multiplayer features is a mode we're calling "Conquer the World". Players are given a 3D view of the entire planet, showing what territories or continents they currently own. Conquering another location means challenging another player, and your progress is tracked and shown to others. It's a little bit bloodthirsty, but everyone will have a chance to achieve the highest honors. So, instead of logging in and just playing a random map, players will have clear objectives to grab for and a way to progress themselves forward.


With that said, we'll still have a way to match players of similar skill levels against each other and let the best of the best fight it out for recognition on the leaderboards. Our plan is to make sure the community is well supported with lots of giveaways, contests, additional content, and ongoing support.


IGNPC: How long have you been at work on Universe at War and when can we hope to see the game working?


Ted Morris: We've been hard at work for over a year now, and the finish line is finally coming into sight. You'll see the game sooner rather than later given we're planning for a multiplayer beta test and demo later this year. If everything goes as well as it has so far, you can expect to see Universe at War: Earth Assault on shelves in Q4 2007.

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