The chaps from Petroglyph have reached that vital testing stage of development with their new RTS, Universe At War: Earth Assault. You can sign up for the closed beta here, and I recommend you do so, because from what I saw earlier in the year this could be one of the most entertaining strategy games of 2007. Hopefully there will be an open beta to follow.
The Petroglyph team, who previously made the fairly average Star Wars: Empire At War, have let the juice of game-glands flow freely on this one. It's feels colourful and slightly crazed. The scene is set by three alien races invading Earth, each one with its own concept and base-building methodology. Universe At War just seems to be dripping in ideas – stuff like the varied resource gathering could make for some fascinating tactics. The bio-invader aliens, for example, hoover up cows and people for their organic resources, while the robotic aliens need raw metallic materials from cars and other technological devices. You might find yourself defending a herd of cattle to fend off your enemy's advances, or staking out a car park to ambush the robotic harvesters.
There's a strong whiff of the Starcraft asymmetric conflict going on, as well as some of the character and silliness of the Command & Conquer series. Petroglyph are all veterans of the Command & Conquer games, so we can expect the kind of polish and ease of play that you find in those games. While Empire At War seemed a bit stiff and constrained by the Star Wars licence, here the development team are clearly enjoying themselves, and just pouring whatever seems funny or entertaining into the game world. There's a sense of excitement in playing it that I've not felt elsewhere for quite some time. It really knows this is a game, and the mercenary sharkmen and titanic walker-robots really testify to that.
What's more interesting however is the mass and inertia of new concepts that the various alien races bring with them. There's no 'human' faction, so you're constantly playing with wildly diverse, often completely weird units. The two races I played included immense walking-base style robots that could be modded after being summoned down from orbit, and a networking Protoss-style iPod-theme information tech robots. They played quite differently, and each offered a slew of different tactics. Simply walking my mega-robot HQ into the enemy base was a joy. I was also impressed by the way the game continually opened up with new tech options, making you feel as if there was always something you could do to suddenly change tactics, or to claw back victory from the most precarious situation.
There's also another black hole bomb in there, which suggests Blizzard, EA Los Angeles and Petroglyph might all be thinking rather similarly about what lies at the top of those tech trees...