No matter what you think of Star Wars, you almost have to admit that it holds an extremely rich imaginary world. Its bestiary, numerous vehicles and planets have had 30 years to ferment, and as a result there's plenty of fodder for spin-offs to play upon. Almost every genre of game has been explored through the eyes of the Rebel forces or the evil Empire, often with great results. With its heavy focus on battle and conquest, it seems strange that, until very recently, there has been so few attempts to capture the strategies behind the great battles of Star Wars. Those that have been produced have fallen short of being brilliant. There have been a few strategy-based titles, however they, for the most part, have all resulted in lukewarm results. LucasArts looks to change all that with Star Wars Empire at War.
Developer, Petroglyph, has worked hard to make Empire at War more than just your run-of-the-mill RTS. Rather than simple ground campaigns, involving endless base-building and steady resource mining, they have chosen to take a multi-layered approach. Firstly, battles do not just take place on firm ground, but also high up above the planets you are trying to conquer, or free, depending on your position. There is a vast array of these planets too, each with their own unique inhabitants which Star Wars fanboys will all know and love. When not engaged in battle, you have the Civilisation-like task of maintaining and building up your bases and troops on the sections of the galaxy which you currently occupy. There are a few modes of play included with gameplay ranging from being narrative-driven to simple one-off battles. There is also a multiplayer mode which increases the lifespan of the game significantly.
The narrative of the game includes many elements and familiar settings from the film, but by no means does it centre exclusively on this. Story is mostly delivered via dicussions with members of your side via holographic communications. This makes for immersive progression, rather than constant forced cutscenes.
Each planet you gain not only automatically adds to your income, but also acts as a new base from which to launch attacks. As you would expect, there's a limited amount you can place in it. This means that you'll have to walk a fine line between building structural defences, such as ground to air weapons and space station improvements, and training troops and manufacturing starships to use for your next strike on the opposing force. There is also a need, especially for the Empire, to build facilities that progress your level of technology. All of the action on the galactic map takes place in real-time, and as a result it is imperative that you do not dawdle when choosing where to place troops, which structures to build and what planets are your most strategically advantageous.
It is not just the local occupants of each planet that are unique. Each planet also has a specific bonus it gives you once you've taken it for yourself. For example, some increase build speed of certain vehicles or troops, while some vehicles themselves can only be built at specific planets, especially the bigger ones such as Star Destroyers. This means there's a tactical element introduced to conquering the galaxy, and rather than simply taking each planet one by one in a mad grab for cash, it is imperative that you investigate what bonuses each planet will bring you before committing troops there.
You cannot underestimate the lure of being able to control the troops, heroes and especially vehicles of Star Wars. Whether this is a result of having seen them on the big screen, and therefore having a more real world-esque sense of these units to grasp at, or because of their inherently excellent design is irrelevant. It is definitely a lot of fun. The space and ground battles take place separately, and usually before landing your forces you'll be required to take out whatever defences your enemy has floating above their planet. These are probably the most enjoyable of the battles, and to watch miniscule X-Wings and Tie-Fighters take on the gigantic and impressive Star Destroyers and Rebel Cruisers, like a swarm of bees attacking an elephant, is incredible.
The battles on terra firma, while by no means bad, do not reach the same lofty gameplay heights that the space-based conflicts do. For the most part, enemies can be beaten with little thought put into strategies beyond amassing a horde of troops and charging. Although the AI is not excellent, there are some interesting mechanics involved in these battles, centring on reinforcement troops. Rather than starting the level with a base (as in most RTS titles), you begin with a reinforcement point. From this point you call for troops to be shuttled down from your armada circling high above the planet. There are only a certain amount of units that a player is allowed on the battlefield at any one time. It is therefore extremely important that you protect these points, along with capturing your enemies in order to restrict where they an deploy troops.
Like all good RTSs, the two opposing sides play very differently, each with their own strengths and weaknesses. As you would expect the Empire, with its seemingly endless power, is able to generate more troops, and are in many ways simpler to play as than the Rebels. Using probe droids you will hunt down Rebel outposts in order to annihilate them with your massive armadas. The brute force of the Empire is juxtaposed with the Rebel's cunning and strategic wit. In order to gain new technologies while playing as the Rebel forces, you must steal it by completing special missions. The Rebels also have the ability to assemble small parties to land on the surface of a planet without having to blast their way through orbiting defenses.
You don't have to worry about missing out on taking some of your favourite Star Wars characters into battle with Empire at War. Included in the game are hero units, which are not only recognisable from the films, but also add their special abilities to your armoury. It's incredibly cool to watch as Darth Vader cuts swathes through the lower level enemies that try in vain to overpower the Sith Lord. Other heroes are included, from Boba Fett to Commander Ackbar, and it's incredibly fun dragging these familiar faces around the maps to do your bidding.
The game has some reasonably impressive visuals, which isn't surprising considering most of the design elements have already been worked out by the game's cellulouid parent. With all the details cranked up to full, it tested pretty smoothly on our machine. X-Wings and Tie-Fighters moved smoothly between asteroids and space, and when ships were hit by the fatal laser shot, they'd explode in a brilliantly awesome fashion, spraying debris as they hurtled in to oblivion. The land battles are also pretty great to watch, and while they don't really work as well as the space skirmishes, they do have some interesting looking environments. There's also a battle cam mode which you can switch to in order to gain a cinematic view of the action. While this is fun for a couple of seconds, you'll quickly lose interest in it, especially as you can't control your troops whilst it's on. The action can also be zoomed in on with the scroll wheel for a more detailed perspective of your forces, while still being able to direct them about.
The sound also benefits from having the Star Wars films as a resource from which to draw. Lasers all sound great, and the aural aspect of all the ships is captured in an extremely authentic manner. The score is obviously inspired by the stirring John Williams pieces of the movies and some of it is directly taken from them. All of this adds to the feeling that you are actually playing out the action of the films.
There have been an enormous range of titles based on the world of Star Wars. Some have been excellent, and some almost shockingly bad, but Star Wars Empire at War falls in the former category. It succeeds, and with flying colours, in its attempt to bring the struggle between the Empire and the Rebel Forces to the RTS genre. Not only is the rich world of Star Wars portrayed in an interesting and epic light, but the mechanic of juggling battles with Sim-like resource management makes for an incredibly engaging game.