Star Wars: Empire at War is, we think, LucasArts’ apology for LucasFilm… and Force Commander… and Rebellion, while they’re at it. It contains only minimal references to the three new movies, three different real-time strategy systems that cover the strategic game, land battles, and of course space combat. In short, just about everything you’d think you’d want in a Star Wars strategy game seems to be here. Given the nearly total lack of new movie references, it’s like LucasArts is going out of its way to say “see, Star Wars doesn’t have to suck!”
The two basic ways to play the game are the story-driven campaign and the Galactic Conquest mode. They’re quite similar to each other, though the campaign is obviously somewhat more linear and doesn’t give the player as much freedom. Galactic Conquest can be played on a variety of maps, from as little as 10 planets to over 40. Basic starting conditions for each map are customizable, meaning that the player can adjust the beginning tech level, maximum tech level, and starting credits.
The two sides that are available, the Rebellion and Empire, are rather distinct from each other. Their differences extend across the galactic map, space combat and ground combat. For example, the Empire researches technology – a costly and time-consuming method. By contrast, the Rebels use R2D2, a special character, to steal it from the Empire. So when the Imperials research Victory-class Star Destroyers, the Rebels can, within a short while, steal that technology and start making Assault Frigates. Generally this means that the Rebels are somewhat behind technologically relative to the Empire, but they don’t spend any money in the process. Also, they can choose to sacrifice some edge in ground technology by focusing on stealing space weapons, and vice-versa.
Further interesting strategies develop, especially in multiplayer, when Boba Fett and bounty hunters come into play. Hero characters with abilities on the galactic map typically have a recharge time. “Killing” a hero knocks them out as if they used their ability. With the ability to force R2 to recharge, the bounty hunters can delay the Rebellion’s tech development even further. The onus then switches to the Rebel player to use R2 as fast as possible – before bounty hunters find him.
In an interesting switch from past SW games and from most expectations people might have, Rebellion equipment tends to be somewhat better than what the Empire has to offer. Star Destroyers might seem like an unbeatable ship, but in fact the Mon Calamari Star Cruisers are superior in 1-on-1 combat. Where the Star Destroyer has an advantage is in carrying its own complement of TIE Fighters and TIE Bombers. The Rebels need to build X-Wings, A-Wings and Y-Wings independently.
Ground combat has the opposite paradigm. With units like the AT-AT walker around, the Imperials are decidedly the big dogs in this fight. Of course, Rebel Air Speeders are the perfect counter, tying their legs up. The balance is decidedly asymmetric, but more in the vein of WarCraft III than the extreme diversity of StarCraft.
The graphics in Empire at War are gorgeous. This is easily one of the most attractive games we’ve seen, which takes great advantage of modern graphics cards. Perhaps the only missing major feature is support for HDR lighting, but given how rare that is anyway, I wouldn’t be inclined to knock Petroglyph, the game’s developers, over the head with it. Long gone are the days of inferior graphics for a Star Wars title.
Sound effects are just what you’d expect from a Star Wars game. Imperial lasers scream, Rebel lasers fart, major characters make appearances – even if they have to be voiced by competent replacement actors. The music is exactly what we’ve come to love and expect about Star Wars