Any RTS fan worth his salt has the same thought when watching the snowy battle of Hoth in The Empire Strikes Back: “Damn, this would make for a bitching strategy game.” Yet, despite that potential, the few attempts at presenting a fun and challenging RTS in the Star Wars universe have thus far been bizarrely mediocre. Empire at War is the latest, and while it’s far from perfect, it’ll make you feel more like the Emperor than any game has before.
Don’t Fail Me Again
Empire at War takes a somewhat different approach to the world of RTS, giving you strategy gaming and combat on three separate levels. At the highest level, the game lives up to its name, giving you a taste of intra-stellar empire building. Whether you’re commanding the Rebel or Imperial fleets (and through the course of the game you’ll do both), your overall goal will be to capture and unify planetary systems. Each captured planet delivers funds which can be routed into a variety of endeavors. Play through the campaigns and you’ll have specific objectives, but there’s also an open-ended galactic conquistador mode which you can play offline or online against a friend.
To capture and control worlds you’re presented with a view of all the planets in a system. From here you’re able to zoom in and train soldiers on the ground or zoom out to move your ships through space. As a representative of the Empire you’ll build recon probes to look for the presence of Rebel forces, while as the Rebels you’ll use droids to infiltrate the Empire and steal plans for new technology. Plans like a certain Death Star? Oh you betcha.
Capturing planets usually entails battles which take place in an overhead perspective that will be familiar to most strategy fans. Here you’re free to select your units, assign them to groups, and attack your opponents. Land-based combat feels a lot like Command and Conquer minus the resource gathering, which is natural given that many of the developers here also worked on that seminal RTS.
Finally, to invade a planet you of course need to send your forces into orbit, and whenever opposing forces meet in space a stellar battle predictably ensues. Here you’re presented with the same sort of top-down view used for the land battles, but now you’re clicking on and issuing orders to Imperial Cruisers and the like. Cruisers and other large ships will deploy X-Wings and Y-Wings or TIE Fighters depending on your affiliation, which will fly in formation and perform strikes on opposing ships. Watching Y-Wings launch proton torpedoes at larger ships while X-Wings and TIE Fighters twist and turn in miniature dogfights is a great experience.
That’s No Moon
Space battles are fun and great to watch, but while space is decidedly 3-D, and the graphics engine is too, unfortunately you’ll exclusively be controlling everything in two dimensions. This makes these space battles easier to handle, but not quite as interesting as a taste of RTS action in true 3-D would have been.
Land combat isn’t perfect either. While the idea of sending landing parties down to a planet to capture it sounds quite intriguing, in reality you’ll only be capturing a miniscule square of land that, scaled appropriately, would barely represent a few square miles of terrain. The terrifically small land maps not only quash any thoughts that you’ve actually captured a whole planet, they also leave little if any room for applying strategies, which is a bit of a shortcoming in a strategy game.
Space battles are better, but they’re not quite perfect either. Thankfully many of the space maps are much larger and more open, however many maps feature similarly claustrophobic settings, with asteroid belts forming convenient paths designed to send your ships directly into enemy traps.
Your Eyes Can Deceive You
After a few years of stagnation, the most recent RTS games have been pushing the envelope with very impressive and detailed graphics. Empire at War continues the trend with some impressive sights both on land and in space. Individual units, from storm troopers to star destroyers, look just as you’d expect them. The terrain, vastly different as you move from planet to planet, looks equally authentic. And, compared to recent games, it all runs at a reasonably good clip on modest hardware.
The atmosphere of the game is predictably aided by the same brilliant soundtrack that somehow, despite its age and despite being layered over every mediocre Star Wars game ever made, still manages to pump up the adrenaline at all the right times. It feels even more appropriate here given that the action taking place here is reminiscent of that in the early movies.
There Will Be No One to Stop Us This Time
Empire at War has a few problems, and playing through the campaign with its tiny on-world maps and scripted events can feel a bit constricting. However, this game comes closer than any before it to delivering the feel of large-scale battles seen in the original films, making playing it a very, very fun experience. It’s somewhat lacking in strategy, but wanna-be Emperors will still love every minute.