Our time at Sega’s E3 suite was largely unimpressive, but I did find a couple of gems hidden in the back, in their “PC Room.”

The PR flak almost didn’t take me there, concerned, I guess , that it would eb a waste of my time. Barred the way, asking if there was anything else I’d rather see instead, anything I hadn’t seen. When I told her Id been through the whole suite, had a few minutes to spare between appointments and that I really did want to see what they kept in there (Really. I really do.), she relented. Grudgingly. And handed me off to someone else to make the introductions.

It was worth the effort.

The PC Room was dark. Cave dark, and inside were about a dozen PCs of various manufacture, all with the happy, little Logitech keyboards sporting an LED display above the F keys. Behind the keyboards were a half dozen developers doing their best Mission Control act, entertaining the one, sole journalist brave enough (or persistent enough) to break the PR flak barricade.

What they were showing her was Space Siege. Developed by Gas Powered, and driven by the same general aesthetic behind the best-selling Dungeon Siege games (coming soon to a theater near you), Space Siege looks like at once both familiar and wholly alien.

Eschewing the party-based gameplay of its forbears, Space Siege instead suits the player up a lone warrior bent on capturing an alien invasion vessel, and reclaiming the millions of human slaves stored inside. After that, who knows? The Earth has been destroyed, see, and this one man is humanity’s last hope.

It’s an epic space opera of a story line, and unlike the vapid holiday pamphlets masquerading as story that infest the loading screens of most space action games, offers something you can really get your teeth around. Whether or not this story follows the player into the game remains to be seen, as what I saw was all gameplay demo. Still, it’s a good start, and Gas Powered promises that their emphasis on player vs. party will make for a more detailed, and interesting character-driven experience.

The character, although technically alone, will receive help in the form of a robot sidekick, which he can modify and upgrade. He can also modify and upgrade himself, via cybernetics, and the degree to which he modifies himself will impact how NPCs view him, as well as the difficulty of the game. You can platy all the way through as a non-modified, pure human, in other words, but it will be a struggle.

While I’m not sure how the aging click-n-slash mechanic will translate to the sci-fi genre (click-n-zap?), the game, although still in an early build, has enough character to make it potentially one of the most exciting PC games in a long time.

***

Universe at War

In the year 2012, humans discover we are not alone. This,” according to the developers of Universe at War, “is not good news.”

The Heirarchy, a powerful machine race bent on world domination, land on Earth and set out to … well, dominate it. That’s the bad news. The good news is that they have enemies, among them, the technologically superior, yet weaker Novus, and a mysterious race of beings who’ve lain dormant beneath Earth’s’ oceans for millennia, called the Masari. The even better news is that in Petroglyph’s new RTS, you can play all three of these badass factions, and each one offers something unique.

First, I have to admit it’s been ages since I’ve played an RTS. I also have to admit that Universe at War is the first one I’ve seen in a long, long time that makes me want to give them another go.

Universe at War is everything you’d expect from the developers’ pedigree; it’s beautiful, elegant, sounds great and is looks to be about as balanced as a ninja sword. Each of the three factions has strengths weaknesses and unique aspects that should suit almost any playstyle, and will provide hours of fine-tuning fun.

Petroglyph’s motto: Easy to learn, difficult to master, and even just watching it was clear to me, after only a few minutes, how to best use each of the three factions’ speacuial abilities. But I have no doubt I’d still get my ass handed to me by someone with a little more practice and skill.

“It’s not game you’ll know everything about playing in an hour,” they tell me, which is part of why they’re so proud of their latest trick: scaled achievements. The longer you play,. The better the Xbox Live and Windows Live achievements you’ll get, and the awesomer you’ll appear to your friends and foes online. Further, some achievements unlock resources that will make you even more badass. Meaning the acjhievements are more than just trinkets: they reward loyalty.

“We really wanted achievements to mean more, ” they said. And for better or worse, these do.

Universe at War will be available in Q1 of 2008, for Xbox 360 and PC (Vista or XP).

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