Summary: Star Wars: Empire at War. You've seen the commercials, you've thought about the last three terrible movies... is it worth the risk? Read the review, find out.
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
In skirmish battles, the game plays out very similarly to a regular RTS. You have a 2D movement plane, interrupted by features like asteroids or ground terrain deformations, and there are resource collection points that must be built on. These are limitless but do have a fairly moderate resource extraction rate. The resource, specifically ore, is converted into credits automatically and there are no alternate materials to worry about. Units are not built by buildings specifically, but hyperspace in or are dropped off by space shuttles. In land battles, the key is to control landing sites, which permit forward placement of units. In space battles, there is really no such restriction.
Most units have one or two special abilities. Sometimes, these are fairly basic – boosting attack power at the cost of shields and speed, or taking cover to take less damage. Some units have abilities that have more specific and unique uses, such as the Interdictor cruiser, which is an Imperial unit capable of preventing enemy ships from hyperspacing out of a battle in campaign mode, or interrupting the target lock of their missiles.
Then, of course, there are the hero units. Darth Vader, Obi Wan, Mon Mothma, Emperor Palpatine, Boba Fett and others are available in land or space battles – some, like Boba or Vader, can be useful in both. They typically have very powerful special abilities; Vader is capable of taking out a fair-sized Rebel ground force by himself, while Han and Chewie in the Millenium Falcon will make mincemeat of anything in a space battle under the size of a frigate. The game has balance problems when played seriously, and the hero units contribute greatly to them.
Then again, Empire at War is definitely not meant for serious play, never mind competitive. It is a fairly light game, highly entertaining at what it does – ie, providing a decent all-around Star Wars strategy game – but it is not deep. Hardcore RTS players are liable to be disappointed. Strategy gamers in general are also likely to want more complex features like RPG stats for their units or a morale system. This, we feel, would ruin the elegant simplicity of Empire at War. The most depth that can be found is in controlling key planets on the galactic map, planets that give various bonuses, and those that permit the construction of the best ships like Star Destroyers and MC80 Cruisers.
We experienced highly frustration problems in connecting and playing multiplayer matches at launch, but two quick, successive patches fixed things right up. Moreover, we applaud LucasArts for investing in a patch download system that is fast, efficient, and painless. No longer do you have to muck about fifteen different download sites, queuing up just to get pathetic 20KB/s download speeds. It’s about time a publisher took responsibility for its own QA problems and provided an easy patch process for PC users. This is not a LucasArts innovation, but other than Steam, so few other examples exist that we have to give LucasArts credit for their effort.
Ultimately, however, the multiplayer is what suffers most from the lack of depth. The multiplayer skirmish battles are particularly affected, while the galactic conquest campaigns with Rebels and Alliance facing off against each other across 40 or so planets offer a better value. Just be sure that you and your opponent have the same idea about whether or not you want to fight the tactical battles.
Master of None
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