Star Wars: Empire at War

Star Wars Rebellion attempted to bring the taste of conquest to fans and RTS players hungry for the opportunity to change the course of the Galactic Civil War. By playing as either the freedom loving Rebels or the fascist boot licking Imperials, you could start ‘liberating’ worlds and build massive weapons of planetary annihilation in short order. If you wanted more than one Death Star, for example, you could do that as long as you had the credits.

Unfortunately, the title was plagued with micromanagement issues, a horrid interface, and the space battles weren’t particularly exciting. There was a lot of promise, though, and I was hoping that someone would pick this concept back up and try again and was pretty excited to hear that Petroglyph was going to take a stab at it. Made up of industry veterans from EA shuttered “Westwood Studios”, namely those whose credits include Command & Conquer, they’ve managed to put together an experience that is both accessible to the casual strategist and can be challenging for the veteran…with some reservations.

Conquer the Galaxy

Empire at War can be played either online, or in single player campaigns. The single player campaigns consist of skirmishes that center on several worlds in a premade scenario, the campaign for either the Rebels or the Empire, or full out galactic conquest where winner-takes-all. The learning curve is made easier with the introduction of optional, interactive tutorials that take you through the basics.

For the most part, the game is a lot of fun and had addressed a lot of what fans were looking for from Rebellion. Ground battles are introduced and space combat looks fantastic, especially when both sides begin to field Star Destroyers and Mon Calamari cruisers swarming with dogfighting fighters. The graphics and the special effects look great, especially in space, although the ground effects and can get kind of bland especially if you use the title’s “Cinema Camera” mode to watch these battles through. This mode allows you to watch the battle from different angles as if you were watching one of the films, but it also highlights some of the lack of detail in a few of the models and textures. This also applies to space battles where they may look great at a distance but when you get closer, they’re not looking so hot.

Production Quota

Managing your galactic ambitions are made easier with a clean interface and an easy to use galactic map. Planets are highlighted and are animated on the map and you can easily bring up information on any of them by double clicking. This also brings up the management console for the planet in question, if you own it, and you can decide whether or not to build factories, barracks, or mining facilities to add to the accumulation of funds and the arsenal that you need to support your war machine. Not every planet have enough “slots” for buildings, though, forcing you to think whether or not you should allocate a particular world for the production of soldiers, heavy weapons, or to put in that Ion Cannon to help defend it.

But the battles are where the core of the experience with the game will be. Production of starships are handled at space stations that you build around planets that you own (only one station per planet), and ground forces are handled on, well, the ground as you build factories and barracks. You can even improve your technology level as you progress in the main story campaign, or set it to how you want it to be if you want to play the title’s other modes such as Galactic Conquest or online against others.

Red Five Standing By (Battle)

Battle is divided into two main sections: space and ground. The space battles look great with Star Wars sounds and effects everywhere along with John Williams’ score setting the pace. Space stations break up along with the larger starships, battle damage is shown, and the voice acting is pretty well done. In an additional twist, players can target specific areas on the larger starships and space stations, giving certain systems priority over others such as torpedo launchers or shield generators. Should you focus on destroying the enemy hangar first to prevent more fighters from coming out? Or destroy the engines on that warship that’s trying to get away so that you can pummel it at your leisure? Getting the chance to decide this is pretty satisfying stuff.

Getting your vessels to do what you want them to do is as easy as pointing and clicking on the enemy and watching them go at it. As fun and as easy as it is to manage, however, it isn’t without its own problems. For one thing, while collision detection sounds like a small gripe, the lack of it led to some awkward moments as I watched two Star Destroyers clip into each other while pursuing different objectives since most everything still moves along a 2D plane.

It would also have been nice to not have to completely obliterate enemy space stations, for one thing. The more advanced stations take awhile to build back up and aren’t exactly cheap. Boarding actions are not an option, giving you no other choice than to completely destroy these installations. This is somewhat aggravating as they are also the only structures capable of building starships with only the most advanced ones capable of building capital vessels such as Star Destroyers and Mon Calamari cruisers.

This is hammered home at one point in the Imperial campaign, where a station that you have built suddenly turns on you over one of your own planets as you chase a traitor. Somehow, the entire defensive grid of the world that was under your command turns against you and I was forced to destroy my Level 4 battlestation and all of my defenses that I had labored to build there, rebuilding all of it again after the battle. The option to retake this asset would have helped.

One other thing that was left out in space battles that I thought would have been good to have was in using the Death Star’s laser as seen in The Return of the Jedi. Unfortunately, you can’t use it against enemy capital ships as they did, although you could use it in this way in Rebellion. It would have been nice to have had this option, but it did give me an opportunity to make this up by producing fleets of Star Destroyers instead.

Ground Pounders

Where space battles were exciting and fun, the ground battles felt as if they were the weakest part of the title, with what felt to be an extremely limited mode of play. When your fleets win the battle in space, now comes the part where you need to take the planet. In Rebellion, as long as you had a strong fleet and stuffed it with powerful ground forces, the world you attacked would automatically fall to you. In Empire at War, you can always use “Auto Resolve” for either space or ground battles…but your losses would be considerably higher. Unless you had massive fleets of expendible ships and men, it would mean having to take a personal approach to most of these fights if you wanted to keep from having to produce more to replace staggering losses.

Depending on what you brought with you, you can land a capped number of units at your initial rally point. This means that while you might have five AT-ATs, but you might only be able to land three units because that is all your first rally point allows. This didn’t make a whole lot of sense to me. There are other rally points that you can take control of to raise the unit cap once you’re moving on the surface, but don’t expect to canvas the area with legions of soldiers and hovertanks as you unleash your army. Forget about re-enacting the kind of massive ground assaults that we got to witness on Hoth from The Empire Strikes Back or from the prequels. While it may have helped to cap rushes, it certainly didn’t prevent the enemy AI from producing legions of disposable soldiers and armor to rush you with in reply.

Most of the ground battles are a lot like rock-paper-scissors, with the most appropriate units devastating their opposite numbers with ease. For example, some vehicles can literally decimate foot soldiers by simply running over them. However, most of the battles boil down to one bland battle after another when you realize that this kind of simplistic approach is exactly the same for all of them. The maps that the battles take place on feel more like “find the enemy to stomp on them” mazes, dropping your units down to start hunting the enemy. I found myself reaching more and more for the “Auto Resolve” button just to avoid having to slog through another slugging match on the surface. When I picked up the Death Star, I was all to happy to “fire when ready”.

What would have made much of this easier to bear would have been the option to bombard the planet from surface, but in an odd omission, you simply can’t. With three Star Destroyers parked in orbit over a rebel world, I wanted to turn their bases to slag from orbit. That’s what those things were supposed to be able to do (at least according to West End Games’ interpretation in their RPG supplements). Not being able to do this didn’t feel like so much as a limitation, but more of an active decision to either make the player use “Auto Resolve” or play through the ground portion of the attack.

Building on the surface is also limited. You can’t simply build anywhere you please, only on top of “construction pads” that are scattered around. Even then, you can only build turrets, repair stations for vehicles, or bacta healing tanks for your troops. Forget about building tanks and training troops to supplement your forces. You also have special ‘powers’ that you can invoke until they can recharge again, abilities that can tip the battle to your side. For example, the Empire has the “bombing run” special that destroys most everything in their path. As long as you can see the target and click on it when you use this power, you can pretty much write it off.

Apparently limited to only the vehicles and starships up to A New Hope, the pickings are pretty sparse. Don’t expect to see all of your favorite warships and fighters in this title, either from the official films or from the rest of the Star Wars empire. This is one more thing that Rebellion allowed players to experiment with, as it encompassed all three films and introduced a decent variety of ships and fighter types for you to build your forces from and configure your fleets with. Empire fanatics will probably have to wait for an expansion or a sequel to see Super Star Destroyers or Grand Admiral Thrawn make a return engagement.

There are also hero units in the game that have a variety of special abilities that can help your side. Vader can destroy vehicles with the Force and is nigh invincible, for example, so is great in mopping up those pesky Rebels while followed by Stormtroopers. Captain Piett’s presence in whatever fleet you use lends a bonus to their effectiveness in battle. Han Solo and Admiral Ackbar are also in the game on the Rebel side, lending their particular talents to the good guys. One thing in particular to note is that hero units tend to be more affective on the ground than in space. The starship that your hero might be on can be easily taken out if you’re not careful, but on the ground, many of these heroes are nearly indestructable.

You also have the ability to create special characters such as smugglers that can skim credits from whatever planet they’re sent to, or bounty hunters that can be used to assassinate opposing heroes. All of these characters are also voiced when they’re clicked on sending them to where they need to go is as simple as dragging and dropping them on a planet. Whether or not they’re successful, though, is another story.

Campaign

The main story campaign for the title is pretty straightforward for the Rebels and ends when they destroy the Death Star. For the Empire, you’ve got your hands full as you follow missions to stem the Rebel tide and pursue a traitor that has been leaking information to them. Both take place some time after the Empire has been established, in the period of time leading up to the creation of the first Death Star.

While the Story Campaigns are interesting, they play out more as extended tutorials. They do offer opportunities for the player to branch out and take neighboring worlds if they decide not to head to their next destination immediately, but the linear nature of the missions ensure that only a handful of worlds are available at any one time. Players hoping to get a huge jump on the Rebels or the Empire through the rapid expansion of their holdings will be disappointed when they can’t even send probes to worlds that are outside of your operational theater during the particular part of the story that you happen to be in. This is one thing that Rebellion allowed players to do, keying momentous events whenever you hit a particular world (such as Bespin) or when the main campaign reached a certain stage (the showdown between Luke and Vader), but allowing the player to send fleets and forces as far as their resources could allow them. Players looking to do this will have to look to the other game modes.

Empire at War also has multiplayer modes of play to extend the game well after you’ve finished the story campaigns or simply wish to pit yourself against live opponents in a galactic war of your own making. You can even save your progress and pick it up later if real life starts to call you away from sending your fleets into battle.

Imperial Ambitions

Empire at War isn’t a bad RTS providing Star Wars fans with some of what they would probably like to see although the main story campaigns are little more than extended tutorials on how to effectively use either side. The space battles look and play great, but they’re countered by a weak ground battle system, a somewhat paltry tech tree, and unusual cap limitations. Veterans may chafe at how simplistic much of the combat is and how restricted it can feel, but it’s still a pretty big step over the experience that Rebellion had provided years ago and the casual RTS crowd may find it to be just right if they have the itch to conquer a galaxy far, far away.

– World 1-1

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