Star Wars: Empire at War full review
Game developers have been cashing in the Star Wars name for decades. Regardless of your opinion of the Star Wars movies, the continued popularity of the games prove that people want to explore and be a part of the universe George Lucas created. Initially, Star Wars games were limited to pixilated lightsabers or re-enactments of specific battles. Now, games like Empire at War let you control a war effort across the entire galaxy. Allowing you to take command of either the Rebel Alliance or the Galactic Empire, Empire at War is an epic strategy game with both real-time and turn-based tactical elements, enabling you to build and manage troops, ships, and hero characters as you lead your armies to conquer the galaxy.
This has been done before. Star Wars: Rebellion ambitiously attempted to depict everything from diplomacy to espionage to fleet formations in the Star Wars universe. Heavily criticized, the only “action” part of the game was the space battles. The land battles were auto-resolved and the game played out more like a turn-based card game than a truly interactive experience.
Empire at War can be considered a spiritual successor to 1998's Rebellion, effectively building off Rebellion's core concepts while vastly improving the graphics and expanding the action aspects of the game. Empire at War keeps the turn-based “days” system of Rebellion and similarly allows you to organize star systems and the deployment of your troops and ships. Like Rebellion, Empire at War also lets you supervise planetary production (for constructing buildings and units), and allows you to take command of your fleet in space battles that take place over planets. Yet, unlike Rebellion, you can command your armies on the planets they battle on. Sadly, it’s only in this latter category that Empire at War fails miserably.
If the land battles were a stand-alone Star Wars game (a la Battlegrounds) it would be the worst sci-fi RTS this side of Endor. You need a scalpel to finally tune your troop formations but instead are given a bludgeon and a blindfold. Your units can move, attack, capture strategic pads, and use their special ability. They can’t dig in, get morale boosts, construct new buildings, change their formation, or perform any of the myriad of tasks we associate with modern real time strategy games.
Every battle plays out the same: both sides get close to the other and shoot. Effectively the sci-fi world of Star Wars is reduced to Revolutionary War tactics. The only exception is the hero units like Darth Vader. They’re so overpowered that they can effectively wipe out an enemy army by themselves. They can slice through troops, crush vehicles, or shake down enemy structures. You might as well leave the rest of your toys at home, because you’ll pretty much just spend every battle micromanaging your hero units.
In an attempt to provide variety in the battlefield, the different planets have various structures, indigenous animals, and pads that can be captured. The problem is they all fundamentally play the same. The clunky controls don’t change with the planet’s climate, whether or not the population will aid you in battle, or how many bodies of water are present on the surface. While it’s cool to see little civilians with blasters come to your aid in battle, such connections to the larger war effort are few and far between. The land battles plays differently than anything else in the game and the small unit cap ensures the battles will never achieve a truly “epic feel.” The entire land combat segment of the game seems rushed and pales in comparison both graphically and technically with the more robust space combat interface.
The reason you play Empire at War is for the space battles. If you auto-resolve your land battles and reduce the game to resource management and fleet deployment, you still have a pretty enjoyable experience (and one that is vastly superior to Rebellion) because the space battles are that much fun. Each battle starts out with your force arriving in the system without any knowledge of where the enemy is. Whether you’re defending the system with a space station or are attacking, you’ll quickly want to deploy fighters and corvettes to seek out the enemy’s fleet. There are space anomalies like asteroids that allow for enemy fleets to hide and provide navigation problems for larger starships. You can deploy your fleet to attack certain targets, to engage their special abilities, capture defensive locations, and retreat.