Review by Commy

"A Long Time Ago..."

A Long Time Ago...

It sure seems that way since news of a real-time strategy game set in the Star Wars universe first leaked out. Imagine, taking control of the courageous band of rebels and fighting for control of the galaxy against the evil Galactic Empire. Repelling an assault by the hulking Imperial Walkers against your hidden Rebel Fortress. Sending a group of X-Wing fighters on a dizzying trench-run attack against the Death Star. Or taking the part of the leader of that evil Empire and building a Death Star to keep the local systems in line. Never was the set up more perfect for a strategy game, and Star Wars: Rebellion (SWR) makes it most of the way to that promise. What there is to this game is engrossing, fun to play, and allows you to enter the Star Wars universe. But what the game lacks keeps it from challenging the really great strategy games and leaves it down the ladder at least one rung from games like Civilization or Master of Orion.

The Star Wars Universe
Set in the Star Wars universe though it may be, the heart of the game is pretty traditional resource-management strategy fare. Exploration, expansion, building, resource management, military buildup, and conflict are all a major part of this game. The universe, which may be customized between small, medium, and large settings (the size determines the numbers of planets in the universe), consist of two types of sectors. Core sectors contain mostly inhabited and developed planets and can be aligned with the Alliance, the Empire, or Neutral. The Outer Rim sectors contain mostly uninhabited planets (there is the occasional inhabited neutral planet) ripe for easy exploitation.

The Galaxy Screen

In order to take advantage of unoccupied planets, you first explore them (typically using either Y-Wing Long Reconnaissance teams or Imperial Probe Droids) to make sure the planet is unoccupied, then you send troops to occupy the planet, and finally build a structure to be deployed on the planet. Once you've done that, you have a planet that is 100% loyal to your side and ready for further exploitation. Occupied planets pose a different problem. You can attempt to sway the planet to your side using Diplomacy missions or you can simply take the planet by brute force using military units. Of course, planets taken by brute force tend to be a bit unhappy and you'll need to spare several military units to garrison the planet until you quell the dissenters. In general, the Rebels tend to do better using diplomatic means (I think they may have an advantage in diplomatic missions, though it may just be that they have characters with better diplomacy ratings), while the Empire can do just fine imposing its will militarily (the longer Imperial troops are stationed on a planet, the more ''loyal'' that planet becomes to the Empire).

The Star Wars Planets
Each planet (they're all here: Hoth, Dantooine, Tatooine, Yavin) is rated in several categories which determine how useful that planet is in your quest to control the fate of the galaxy. First is a loyalty rating, which can be 100% for the Alliance or for the Empire, or somewhere in the middle. Loyalty affects several areas of the game. First, once a planet is loyal enough to you, it switches to your control: you can move units to the planet freely (without the hassle of an assault), you can use any existing facilities on the planet, and you can build further facilities on the planet. Planets under your control which don't have strong loyalty ratings require garrisons (the lower the loyalty, the larger the garrison requirement) and can lose production due to smuggling. Planets also have a rating for the number of available ''energy'' slots which determine how many facilities (mines, refineries, orbital spaceyards, training facilities, construction yards) may be erected on the planet at any one time. Finally, a planet has a fixed number of available mining sites.

Core Sector and Planet Screen

On those planets you control, you have to build in order for your forces to grow. At the lowest level are Mines, which produce raw materials from available mining sites. Next are Refineries which turn the raw materials into refined materials. In turn, refined materials are used to build everything else in the game. Construction Yards allow you to build all of the other facilities in the game. Orbital Shipyards allow you to build the various space craft in the game (X-Wings, Star Destroyers, Nebulon Frigates, etc.). Training facilities allow you to build the game's military units (Alliance Fleet Troops, StormTroopers, etc.) as well as some specialized units which can be used on missions (such as Imperial Probe Droids). Finally, each Mine/Refinery pair under your control provides maintenance capacity points, which provide upkeep for your fleets, troops, and facilities and limit the number you can have in play at any time.

Building Stuff

The Star Wars Characters
One of the game's more unique aspects is the use of characters from the Star Wars universe. Characters can be assigned positions of leadership to provide bonuses to spaceships, fighters/bombers, or ground troops, which is pretty typical of strategy games. But characters may also be used for missions to further your aims in the galaxy (this piece of game play borrows heavily from an old board game called Freedom in the Galaxy). Each character is rated in a number of categories, such as diplomacy, combat, espionage, and leadership, which determine how successful a particular character will be on a particular mission. Princess Leia, for example, has a very high Diplomacy rating, while Luke and Han Solo have high combat ratings. That means Leia is good for swaying planets to the Alliance, while Luke and Han are excellent at sabotage, abduction, or rescue-type missions. Character ratings can increase as the game goes along. Aside from the major characters which will be familiar to everyone from the movies, there are a host of minor characters which may be recruited as well.

Character Screen

Characters also have ''Force'' ratings which indicate their level of strength in the Force and their level of Jedi training. Not everyone has the ability to use the Force; Luke Skywalker and Darth Vader are capable of discovering minor characters who have Force ability and to train them in the use of the Force (Luke must attain a certain level of ability himself before he may train others). Characters who have Force ability have much higher ratings than their normal compatriots and their ratings generally rise at a faster rate. The one downside to having Force ability is that Force-aware characters on a planet may be able to detect the presence of other Force-aware characters on a mission to that planet due to ''disturbances in the Force''. Characters (and some specialized units) can be assigned to missions.

Missions run the gamut from the mundane--like Diplomacy (attempting to increase a planets loyalty to your side) and Research (into things like Ship Design, Facility Design, and Troop Training, which will lead to more advanced facilities and units becoming available)--to the wonderfully dangerous--Abduction or Assassination (trying to kidnap or kill an opposition character) and Sabotage (destroying a particular facility or unit). Characters may be assigned to the mission itself, where their ratings will determine whether or not they are successful, or as decoys on a mission, which can make it harder for the enemy to foil the mission. Enemy characters on a planet will attempt to foil a mission; when a mission fails, characters may be wounded, killed, or captured.

Missions

The Star Wars Fleets
Outside of the planetary resource management and character/mission aspects of the game, the rest of SWR revolves around fleet management--moving ships through hyperspace from system to system to create and answer threats. Each side has their own unique mix of fleet units to work with. For example, the Empire has TIE fighters and bombers, Star Destroyers, Super Star Destroyers, and can even build the dreaded Death Star (if you have massive amounts of refined materials and maintenance capacity available). The Alliance answers with the likes of X-Wing and Y-Wing fighters, Corellian Corvettes, Nebulon Frigates, and Mon Calamari Cruisers. Each unit has its strengths and weaknesses, and the abilities of the two side's forces is pretty well balanced when all is said and done. Although the Alliance has no equivalent to the Death Star, the Death Star is vulnerable to attacks from fighters and must be protected using either escort fighters or a planetary Death Star shield.

When opposing fleets end up in orbit around a planet fleet battles occurs. The player has the option, after examining the disposition of forces, to either retreat immediately, have the computer simulate the battle and generate results, or take command of the battle using the tactical battle simulator. The tactical battle simulator is basically a large 3-D cube in which each ship in the battle--down to the level of a squadron of fighters/bombers--are individually represented and may be maneuvered by the player. There are some preset commands which may be assigned to groups of ships: target fighters, target the nearest capital ship, or recall fighters. Ships may be assigned a specific target and attack plan: approach from the left, right, top, or bottom, surround the target, or stand off at the edge of weapon range to attack. Units may also be assigned to fly to way points as a means of generating custom flight paths.

Tactical Battle Engine (Zoomed-In View)

The Star Wars
The game is played in running time, and may be set to one of 4 different speeds (and paused, although no commands may be issued when the game is paused). SWR is won by the Alliance if they control the Imperial capital (Coruscant) and have captured both Darth Vader and the Emperor Palpatine. The Empire wins the game by destroying the Alliance's secret headquarters (which may be moved if threatened) and by capturing both Luke Skywalker and the leader of the Alliance, Mon Mothma. For those who want a quicker game, you can change the game setting so you do not have to capture key characters to win the game. The game can be played against the computer, or against another human player with the complete suite of head-to-head play options available.

That's Great, But is it Fun to Play?
SWR can be a very engrossing, almost addictive game. It has kept me up late at night so I can build just one more squadron of X-Wings or wait to hear how Han Solo did in his mission to take out that Death Star Shield. Much of the reason for that, and much of the game's charm, lies in its subject matter and the familiarity of the universe. It's almost impossible to overstate how much that matters in this game. The fact that you are managing the evil Empire or the plucky Rebellion is, in some ways, the single fact which saves SWR from being simply a mediocre strategy game. The graphics are good for a strategy game, with special praise for the breathtaking cut scenes (LucasArts continues to create the best in the industry) which run flawlessly even on my relatively low-end system. The sound is minimal (beeps/chirps and commentary from your droids; single sentence commentary from characters about the results of their missions; theme music in the background, etc.). The voice acting, what there is of it, is very good. Unfortunately the actors playing the roles don't get the voices exactly right--especially C3PO--but after a few hours, you get used to it (this may be the only case where being in love with the movie works against the game). There is also a beefy manual which includes a well-constructed tutorial and excellent information on almost all aspects of gameplay and an excellent on-liine database of game information.

The Encyclopedia

But all is not right in this galaxy, and in fact, Star Wars: Rebellion has some pretty major flaws. The most glaring is an absolutely horrific interface which makes doing most everything a chore. I think someone forgot that the center of a good strategy game, ultimately, is not the universe, the units, or the characters, but the information that the player is asked to manage. What this game is crying out for is summary screens where the player can not only view information on all controlled planets/fleets/characters, but also issue production, mission, and movement orders. Instead, if you want to build something, you have to open the sector window, then the planet window, then the manufacturing window, then choose Build from a pop-up menu, choose the desired item from a drop-down list, enter the number you want to build, then choose OK (now you have to close all those windows, by the way). Very often, you also have to set a destination for items: choose Destination from the pop-up menu, open the sector window...you get the idea. It's a lot of mouse clicking and it grows old pretty fast. The game's developers should have stolen more liberally from games like Master of Orion when constructing the interface.

They should have stolen less liberally from games like Master of Orion in creating the basic concept for the game, however, which is SWR's other main fault: it just doesn't really capture the sense of the conflict between the Alliance and the Empire as I have always envisioned it. There is no cat-and-mouse game going on with an already-powerful Empire scouring the galaxy and using its massive resources to find the band of Rebels who move from place-to-place, always trying to stay one step ahead of the Empire, picking and choosing battles, and generally trying to avoid direct conflict unless the odds are severely in their favor, favoring a process of erosion rather than direct conflict. Instead, the game starts as pretty typical space empire building stuff--two equally weak side trying to develop their base of operation (mouse vs. mouse)--and ends as pretty typical space empire building stuff--two relatively powerful sides in open conflict (cat vs. cat).

Instead of matching the strategy game to the universe, they plopped the universe into an existing strategy game paradigm. Instead of starting with a universe where the two sides were on roughly equal footing, they should have been thinking in terms of a galaxy mostly under control by the Empire where one side is trying to maintain it's grip on the galaxy and the other is trying to chip away little by little and undermine that control. Playing the game as the Empire should be a completely different experience from playing it as the Alliance, not because the unit mix is different (as in Master of Orion , Command & Conquer, or Warcraft), but because the situation at the start of the game is completely different. In reality, however, the game plays essentially the same from both sides. There are other smaller problems with the game, like the passive AI (head-to-head play is always an option). The tactical fleet combat engine, while cool to look at, doesn't allow you to affect the outcome of space battles that much; the side with the best/most still wins pretty handily whether simulated or played out. The save game slots need to show the ''turn number'' at which the game was saved so you know what file is the latest one. The strategy part of the game doesn't have the kind of depth of games like Civilization or Master of Orion. And the research element of the game feels like it was thrown in at the last-minute or included altogether for the simple reason that other strategy games have research elements.

So...What's the Verdict?
As I wrote this review, I kept asking myself the following question: How would I feel about this game if I were, for example, building ''Generic Fighters'' instead of X-Wing Fighters or sending ''Generic Hero #1'' on a sabotage mission rather than Luke Skywalker? Would I have enjoyed the game as much as I did? Or does the cachet of the subject matter and universe engender forgiveness for flaws that would otherwise be unforgivable? I think it's an interesting question and looked at that way, I think Star Wars: Rebellion is a derivative strategy game that lacks the gameplay depth, interface, and spark of brilliance which would distinguish it from other games in its genre. As such, I might not have found it nearly as fun as I did if it were based on generic subject matter rather than a movie I saw over 15 times in the theatre before I turned twelve.

But, in the end, the truth is that you can't separate the game from the subject matter. For me, building and sending into battle a squadron of X-Wing fighters has a joy all its own that has kept me up until 2 AM every night playing ''just a little longer.'' I'm still playing the game every night because I want to amass enough resources to build a Death Star and start rampaging through the galaxy...after all, when you are the evil dictator of an evil galactic Empire, you have no compunction about planetary destruction. The escape into that fantasy world is what this game provides and what I really wanted. Star Wars: Rebellion has it's faults, among which is that it's just not exactly the game I hoped it would be. But, despite the faults, SWR is a hell of a lot of fun, and that's why I keep coming back.


Reviewer's Score: 8/10 | Originally Posted: 03/25/03, Updated 03/25/03


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