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.
The combat is limited to a 2D plane even though the ships are 3D. When you engage the cinematic mode, you can see that the ships aren’t just lined up on the same plane, but in fact are maneuvering at different altitudes. The cinematic mode effectively lets you sit back and watch the combat enfold while depriving you the ability to give orders. In battle, ships explode and break apart, leaving their hulks in space. If you have a planetary ion cannon, you can engage it and watch as an enemy capital ship fizzles with blue lightning. There are even different attack points on capital ships and stations so you can order your troops to take out the hangars and remove the threat of more TIEs being deployed. The two sides have different classes of ships with different costs, and certain innate advantages. The Alliance has the advantage of better fighters that can jump between planets, but the Empire’s fighters don’t have to be built and are simply deployed by carriers during combat.
While I hated how overpowered certain land-based heroes played, I enjoyed seeing certain character become useful tools in your war effort. If you play as the Rebel Alliance, assigning R2-D2 and C-3PO to steal technology is imperative to your war effort. Han and Chewie are also great at stealing credits and aren’t bad in a space battle either; Boba Fett is also terrific at taking out enemy heroes or enemy fighters in space combat. The point is: your favorite characters from the movies (and some you’ve never heard of) are essential to turning the tide of war. I never went into a space battle without Admiral Ackbar’s Home One leading the charge.
When you view the larger galaxy and see your building queues, troop garrisons, fleets, and defenses, it’s a pretty impressive display of scale. My 2.8GHz Core i7iMac struggled with the larger maps (over 20 planets) and crashed frequently. For this I entirely blame Aspyr—the iMac has the power to handle the game, but the buggy build of the game I played had major frame rate drops and crashes that made the larger scale scenarios unplayable.
That’s not to say Empire at War is a great game that just got a bad Mac port. The galactic battle HUD has its limitations and despite some blinking icons to denote manufacturing, doesn’t do a good job of organizing your larger war effort. Allowing the player to manipulate larger windows and see where your troop garrisons and fleets are thin would be a major improvement.
There are also some creative choices I disagree with. While LucasArts made some poor decisions in Rebellion, the ability to engage saboteurs, guerillas, and diplomats in the game really effected how you played. It wasn’t just enough to conquer a planet, you had to placate it with diplomacy and actively garrison large numbers of troops to prevent rebellions led by guerillas. It added a great layer of depth that was underappreciated at the time. Similarly, the ability to bombard planets that lack shield generators was not only fun, but logical—why wouldn’t an enemy fleet soften the defenses of a hostile planet before invading? With Empire at War, you can deploy shield generators but they only come into play during land-based battles.
Empire at War is part of Asypr’s “Mac Pack” of Star Wars games. I’ll review the other half of the pack, Knights of the Old Republic, next week.
Macworld’s buying advice
There are moments in Empire at War that you can’t get anywhere else. The ability to command huge Star Destroyers as they maneuver through asteroid fields and then send flights of TIE bombers at enemy ships—never gets old. The problem is that the compelling moments of this game are lost among a lot of crap. The land-battles are chores and do to their frequency, make the objective-based “story” mode a trial of patience. The galactic interface is intimidating and difficult to distill to the information you need. While Empire at War is likely the best strategy game you’ll see for Star Wars, it still can’t hold a lightsaber up to great sci-fi RTS’s like Starcraft or Sins of a Solar Empire. In the last twenty years, Star Wars games have increased their scale and come closer to capturing more facets of the movies. Empire at War is two steps forward, one gigantic wookiee step back.
[Chris Holt is a Macworld associate editor.]