The galaxy far, far away has always seemed like an ideal backdrop for a strategy game, but although there have been a few attempts over the years, the results have usually been less than stellar (Rebellion, I’m looking at you). To this end, I’m happy to announce that Empire at War, the latest Star Wars RTS, is almost exactly what the strategy doctor ordered – and a lot of fun to boot.
The game is set amongst the events leading up to A New Hope, when the Empire is first made aware of a certain pesky Rebellion. It’s a cool time period to explore, and one which has given the developers a fair amount of freedom to come up with some exciting set-piece battles.
The main modes of the game are based around a tactical map of the galaxy. All the planets in the system are displayed, and every last one is theoretically yours for the taking. Of course, before you can take over planets, you need an army. From the main screen you can manage all of the planets you control, telling them to build structures and units as you see fit. As the game progresses, you can purchase (or in the Rebels’ case, steal) technology upgrades, allowing you to construct bigger ships and better ground units.
Of course, while you’re building up your forces, the enemy is doing the same. Eventually you will both find yourselves fighting for a contested planet – and this is where the fun really begins. Much in the vein of the Total War series, when a battle is imminent, you will have the option of either jumping in and controlling your forces, or automatically resolving it.
There are two types of real-time combat situations in Empire at War – land and space battles. Generally, a good planetary defence consists of both types of units. An attacking force will then have to get past your space blockade before they can attempt a land assault for control of the planet. The exceptions to this rule are small Rebel forces, which can land on the planet in secret, bypassing the space defences.
Space battles are based around your big capital ships, with a lot of smaller craft engaging in dogfights. These battles are often quite frantic, with laser fire saturating the screen in red and green, and Tie Fighters and X-Wings zooming all over the place. A very nice option is the ability to target specific components of the larger ships, so you can focus on taking out an enemy’s firepower or crippling their shields. For the most part, these battles are fun, although it can get a bit overwhelming when you’re trying to control huge fleets of ships.
Ground battles generally boil down to either destroying everything on the map (if you’re the Empire), or sneaking in and achieving a specific goal before high-tailing it out of there (if you’re the Rebels). You don’t build bases or units in the actual battle – instead, you must capture reinforcement points across the map in order to call in additional troops. The battles are quite fast-paced, and if you don’t have a good grip on which units are stronger against other units, you might find it hard going.
The downside to both the space and land battles is that there doesn’t seem to be a huge amount of variation, both in terms of unit selection and available strategies. Whatever happens, you’re always going to have your capital ships firing at their capital ships, or your rocket soldiers firing at their AT-ST’s. I think if this wasn’t a Star Wars game, these flaws would be more obvious. As it stands, though, the game manages to reproduce the Star Wars ‘feel’ so well that it’s easy to overlook any downside. Who can be disappointed in a game that lets you lead Darth Vader into battle against Obi-Wan Kenobi?
The presentation of the game has ‘Star Wars’ written all over it. Aside from the sometimes clunky interface, Empire at War is generally a treat to behold. Space battles in particular look great, especially when you turn on the cinematic mode and watch as your fleet tears apart an enemy space station. The ground battles aren’t quite as impressive, but certainly still get the job done.
The sounds and music are all Star Wars, so you’ve no doubt heard them all a hundred times before. Unless you’re really sick of John Williams’ score, you won’t have any problem enjoying what the game has to offer.
This is without a doubt the best Star Wars RTS ever. If you’re a big fan of the series, then stop reading this and grab a copy now. Even if you’re just a casual Star Wars aficionado, it’s still worth checking out. It’s harder to recommend it purely on the merits of its gameplay, but if you’re an RTS fan who doesn’t mind sacrificing a bit of depth and variety for bucket loads of atmosphere, you won’t be disappointed.