A couple of years back, LucasArts made a promise to itself (and to gamers) that it would reaffirm its commitment to quality over quantity. Upon the release of Episode I, the market was flooded with far too many Star Wars games and products, none of which was given enough time in development to really knock people’s socks off as a mind-boggling experience. Star Wars Republic Commando was the first such game to come out of this reaffirmation process, and although it didn’t get the credit it deserved, it turned out to be a rather solid game.
The company’s latest outing, the real-time strategy Star Wars Empire at War, goes one step further than Republic Commando. Its graphics are better. Its gameplay is less pedestrian. Its presentation is divine. But it’s still just a real-time strategy game that happens to have a Star Wars veneer. Empire at War is very good in parts, and it’s obvious the team took the message about quality to heart. But it’s also rather bad in parts, a sign not of the developers’ lack of skill, but its apparent love for space and all things evil.
As a real-time strategy game, Empire at War follows the basic RTS formula for the meat of its gameplay. Land-based missions generally involve achieving two or three pre-determined objectives, with a few missions including a “surprise” objective that only arises once the original objectives are complete. At times this is tough to swallow, because you’re never quite sure if that mission you think you’re going to sneak away with having only one battalion left is actually going to end when you think. Fortunately, though, if things look dire, you can order your forces to retreat, so long as they can live long enough to make it back to the extraction point and hold of the enemy for 20 seconds.
Empire at War does, however, take a unique (and ingenious) approach to resource gathering: it doesn’t have it. Instead, everything in the game, from troop and vehicle upgrades to base- and structure-building, is predicated on having enough credits. Credits are accumulated simply by controlling planets, and players can augment those credits by building mines and (if playing as the Rebel Alliance) by siphoning money from an Empire-controlled planet. This speeds-up the entire game, because rather than enter a battle and fight for resource points, players simply have to hop into battle with their existing space- and land-based resources and gain control of the planet.
Once on the planet, players can call in reinforcements from their landing party to replace fallen units, with the total number of units available at any one time determined by the number of dropship points the team controls. And yes, the enemy will continually try to capture (or recapture) any and all points under your control. This model holds true in space, too, as any planet currently under your control is entirely liable to be attacked by enemy forces. In other words, always leave someone behind to watch your back.
Essentially, then, Empire at War plays like any other real-time strategy game worth its salt, and the developers’ sheer ability to pull this off in a believable Star Wars environment is an achievement of which they can and should be proud. However, not all is perfect with Empire at War, and there are two key discrepancies that keep it from being a “must own” for both casual and hardcore fans.
The first discrepancy is the dramatic difference between playing as the Empire and playing as the Rebel Alliance. For starters, players begin the Empire campaign with a hero, Darth Vader, immediately available. Not only does this give players a super-powerful character from the beginning (he can honestly act a one-man army), but it also lets players build small structures on a planet’s surface in mid-battle once they control the construction point. Second, playing as the Empire provides gamers with more-advanced machinery from the get-go, making it much easier to gain control of planets and therefore earn money, which makes it easier to amass huge forces, which in turn makes it easier to kick Rebel butt.
The problem with all this, as fun as it sounds, is that the minute you start a campaign as the Rebel Alliance, the difficulty increases dramatically. You don’t start with a hero. You don’t have access to many resources, ships or advanced machinery. You don’t have much money, and it’s absolutely imperative that you have a flawless strategy or defeat is darn near certain. Consequently, playing as the Alliance is much harder than playing as the Empire, and it requires even more strategy than the rest of the game.
To be fair, the gameplay differences between the Empire and Rebels make complete sense in the context of the Star Wars mythos. One is a marauding, massive force that simply overpowers enemies with its force and number, while the other relies on its spies, wiles and strategically precise attacks to incrementally win the war. In that sense, it’s not right to complain about the two sides playing so differently and having such diverse resources, because they should. On the flip side, the sheer imbalance between the two sides’ learning curves should have been softened, because as it is, playing as the Rebel Alliance is simply an exercise in frustration, especially if players start the game as a Rebel rather than a servant of the Dark Side.
It’s the second discrepancy, though, that most hurts Empire at War: the difference in “fun factor” between the land- and space-based battles. Whether you’re playing as the Rebels or the Empire, land-based battles are incredibly strategic, and it’s easy to see entire armies decimated by a single tank (if playing as the Empire) or entire armies of tanks obliterated by stromtroopers (if playing as the Rebels). When amassing a fleet for a land attack, it’s imperative that you understand what types of forces you’re facing, because only the units that have high efficiency ratings against those forces will have a shot at victory. Not only is there little room for strategic error, but there’s little room for bravado such as going against an AT-ST with a tank or two.
Fortunately, Empire at War is almost a tale of two games, because the space battles are absolutely amazing and much more fun, and it truly feels as though the adventurous side of the team spent its energy programming space while the hardcore strategy guys focused on land. A bit more balance would’ve evened the overall gameplay experience and made the game more consistently enjoyable. As it is, though, when you’re playing as the Empire, you’ll probably let the land-based battles solve themselves via the “Auto Resolve” option and save your actual gameplay time for the more-entertaining space battles.
In addition to being fun, the space battles also look remarkable, with nebulae, asteroids and all manner of celestial objects floating about with shadows and great effects. The ships, too, all have individual animations and location-specific damage modeling, and the explosions, while not the most impressive I’ve seen, look sufficiently Star Wars-esque. The land battles, though, much like in the gameplay department, are a different story. From above, it’s easy to appreciate little details like the reflection of a dropship shimmering off the water, but zoom in close, and the textures and apparent detail lose some of their magic. Ironically, the coolest graphical feature of Empire at War, the BattleCam, lets you take a break from the action and watch your units do battle from a more cinematic perspective, and when you’re in this view, everything looks amazing, particularly in space. It’s not clear whether this camera mode slips the game into a sort of “replay” mode, but somehow everything looks a bit cleaner and crisper. Just don’t look at the ground textures.
The audio, too, is solid, but then again, we’ve come to expect that from LucasArts. The guns sound like stereotypical Star Wars guns, and the vehicles all sound like their movie counterparts. Units, when chosen in battle, always respond appropriately, and when you’re building units prior to battle, each one, when completed, will call out its ready status in such an attentive way that you’ll actually feel like a Star Wars commander. What’s more, LucasArts used voice actors for the heroes that sound so similar to the movie characters that you’ll probably flip through the manual to make sure James Earl Jones didn’t reprise his role as Darth Vader’s voice.
Looking at the specs for Empire at War, it’s obvious that there’s a lot of replay value. Pound for pound, Empire at War has an incredibly large amount of content packed into its two CDs. There are two distinct campaigns, a skirmish mode, a galactic conquest mode and even online multiplayer options. The thing of it is, though, all but the most hardcore RTS junkies will play only one-fourth of the game (only the Empire half, and within that half, only the space battles). That doesn’t mean the other three-fourths of the game is wasted content, but if LucasArts had balanced things out a bit more, there’s little that could’ve stopped this game from being a must-buy.
- Gameplay: 7.5
- Space is action-packed while land is the epitome of strategy; the imbalance is a bit disconcerting. A few pathfinding issues pop up, too
- Graphics: 8.6
- Impeccable space battles, but the terrestrial experience, once again, is a different story. Not bad, just not as good.
- Sound: 9
- Great voice acting and good combat audio, although at times it’s a bit repetitive.
- Replay: 7
- Technically it’s there, but the discrepancy between the Rebel and Empire experience will push some people away.
- Overall: 7.9
- With a bit more balancing, this could’ve been the Star Wars game to beat them all.