Gnomishlich asks

Could I ask your thoughts on Petroglyph Studios, specifically Universe at War: Earth Assault? I’ve always thought of it as ahead of its time, but bogged down by implementation issues. your thoughts?

Oh. Petroglyph. Those guys.

For those not in the know, Petroglyph was formed by the last group of Westwood refugees back in 2003 when EA turned off the life support that was keeping the zombified husk of the studio alive and merged what was left with EA Pacific. Westwood were responsible for a couple of minor PC hits you may have heard of, such as Command & Conquer, Red Alert and all that jazz. In theory Petroglyph were well placed to carry on where Westwood had left off, immediately beginning work on two RTSes that eventually came to market in 2006 and 2007. But it didn’t quite turn out that way.

I own both of Petroglyph’s initial games. The first — Star Wars: Empire at War – actually scares me a little bit because I have no recollection of buying it. Like, at all. The first I knew of it was when I was trying to sort out my Steam games and stumbled across it when browsing through my library, accompanied by a muttered “What the fu-?” I own just shy of 400 full games and expansion packs on Steam, and with the sole exception of Empire at War I can remember buying every single one — even the ones that were part of massive pack deals that led to me owning such gaming luminaries as CivCity Rome and Midnight Club Street Racing. I could probably even put a rough date on when I bought most of them.


So when I found Empire at War in my games list I was somewhat taken aback, to put it mildly. If Steam can make buying games so easy that I don’t even remember the rationale that led to me forking over money for something I didn’t really want then we’re all in serious trouble. Fortunately it seems to have been something of an isolated incident rather than the start of a trend, possibly exacerbated by Star Wars: Empire at War being one of the most forgettable games in existence.

This is odd considering it does make an effort to break from the RTS formula of base building and tank rushing1. Empire at War does the Total War split between a empire map where you build units and move armies and fleets that switches to a conventional RTS with tiny mans shooting at each other whenever two armies come to battle. It really shouldn’t be as boring as it is, and yet the moment John William’s score starts playing over the empire map I feel this weird narcotic effect starting to seep into my bloodstream. It’s not particularly the game’s fault, but Star Wars is, for my money, one of the most dull and ill-defined sci-fi universes in existence. The space combat is the only thing that really translates across into games since it’s based on World War 2 carrier vs carrier battles, and so everything that isn’t part of the X-Wing/TIE Fighter series (okay, maybe I’ll give Rogue Squadron some points here too) has actually suffered from being set in the Star Wars universe. Yes, even the Jedi Knight games.


I’ll probably end up expanding on such a contentious statement next month sometime, but for now it’s a phenomenon that manifests itself as “grey and pointy syndrome”. To wit: the Star Destroyer design is fairly iconic what with the opening of the original Star Wars film and all, but when you’re designing an RTS in which unit differentiation is going to be key making every single ship an identical grey and pointy shape does not do wonders for the game’s visual variety. It’s intimidating to see a fleet of Star Destroyers on screen in the films; it’s frustrating to see them flying around on your computer monitor because you can’t tell the difference between them. Even the sodding TIEs changed wing shape and silhouette from model to model. A complete lack of any sense of destruction from the trademark Star Wars blat-blat lasers merely reinforced the sense that I was watching a collection of grey pointy things engage in a not-particularly-interesting light show, not a space battle.

Anyway, Empire at War may or may not be a bad game but I’m never going to find out, it’s just that dull to me. Universe at War at least features colours that are not “black” and “grey”, and furthermore lured me in with the promise that I’d get to play with a mobile oppression palace.  Unfortunately when I finally got around to trying to play it a few months back it bore more than a passing resemblance to an RTS after the C&C 3 model where everything hurtles around the map at 900mph and you don’t have time to differentiate between units to figure out what does what. Which is puzzling, come to think of it, because I remember playing a demo back when Universe at War was released at the start of 2008 and thinking it was a fairly okay game. It definitely hasn’t aged well in terms of interface; when I played it more recently the main thing that jumped out at me wasn’t the gameplay or the units or the graphics, but that the blocky text was ugly as sin. Here, look at this screenshot. Look at the numbers in the top right corner. It looks like they’ve used Arial Bold, for crying out loud.


It might seem like a fairly minor thing to get hung up on, but it’s just symptomatic of the fact that I didn’t think Universe at War was particularly polished, like they just slapped an RTS together out of parts they had round the back and called it a day. Also – and feel free to correct me if I’m wrong, here – I get the distinct impression that each race gets its own UI design and style, except the game starts you out as the humans who are a tutorial race who just get this very ugly, bare-bones interface through which to play the game. It was just massively offputting to me, especially since the game should have been handing me the mobile oppression palace from the off and telling me to crush some puny humans as its tutorial, not giving me inferior terrestrial technology to fight off alien invaders. That’s not a tutorial. That’s kicking the player in the nuts as a greeting and expecting them to enjoy the rest of the game.

So I didn’t get that far into Universe at War. It may have been groundbreaking and ahead of its time, but the hour or so I saw of it was crushingly conventional and utterly off-putting. I dislike ragging on games just because they had a bad opening (Planescape: Torment taught me a salutary lesson here when it took me a year to escape from the Mortuary because it was so grim and unappealing) so I’m not going to make any pronouncements as to Universe at War’s overall level of quality. It might well be a good game. I don’t know. Just as with Empire at War, though, I’m probably never going to find out seeing as I have zero desire to give it another try. There’s just something about Petroglyph’s games that rubs me up the wrong way, and this is puzzling given the team’s pedigree. Either they haven’t been able to move forward with their thinking since 1996, or some of the key movers and shakers responsible for the design of C&C didn’t make the jump across to Petroglyph. A shame, really. The video game market does need somebody pumping out the odd dedicated RTS to keep the concept fresh and to iterate on its design. It’s just not these guys.


1. Yes, I know that hasn’t actually been the formula for a good decade or so now.

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4 thoughts on “Petroglyph.

  1. innokenti says:

    Rubbish opening are a particularly annoying affliction of video games I think. There’s no shame in tarring a game with the brush of its opening, because a game should hook you in and catch you from the off. If it’s not fun for the the first hour or two or whatever, and fantastic after that, it’s still a significant part being rubbish.

    And, to be fair, a great deal of my favourite games have got the opening wrong. Or had little to hook me in. But they did at least have enough promise for me to carry on playing. So stuff that doesn’t draw me in and has little promise of goodness more often than not doesn’t deserve more time.

    Trying to think of model punchy opening and there are remarkably few, especially among RPSes. Red Alert 3 actually gives it a good go by throwing out the crazy from the word go, but is mired by other problems. Thief 2 had probably one of the best tutorial/first missions because it was well-balanced for both beginners and those familiar with Thievery. You can get right into the meat of the fun if you know what you’re doing, or get to grips with the basics otherwise.

    • Hentzau says:

      I do try to stick with games that have bad openings. I mean, the only reason I went back to PS:T was because the entire internet was screaming OMG BEST RPG EVER at me, so it is possible for me to horribly misjudge a game based on its opening. As you say, though, it’s not really *my* problem. Games should do as much as they can to hook players in from the get go, and not necessarily in a Revenge of the Sith opening kind of way either. A conversation can be as tense and gripping as an epic space battle, but there needs to be *something* about it that grabs me.

      • aosher says:

        What is it about RPG openings? I guess it’s the need to add a tutorial level that coheres with the in-game narrative. It’s all very disappointing.

        • Hentzau says:

          The sole exception I can think of is Baldur’s Gate, which lets you blow right by the tutorial and out into open country within about five minutes. But then a lot of people hate Baldur’s Gate for *other* reasons.

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