Review by DarthMuffin

"A shallow gameplay prevents it from being the game Star Wars fans have been waiting for"

Introduction

Empire at War is LucasArts' fourth attempt at creating a Star Wars strategy game. Fourth? Yes, fourth. There is a little game called Rebellion that was extremely trashed by the critics everywhere. Rebellion is clearly one of the most underrated games of PC gaming history. Its problem was that it was quite complex, and the reviewers simply did not play enough to really know what the game is all about. Why am I writing this here? Well, Empire at War burrows some aspects from Rebellion; mainly the galactic conquest mode that is reminiscent of games like Rome : Total War. The two other Star Wars RTS titles, Force Commander and Galactic Battlegrounds never really succeeded in piercing the competitive Real-time Strategy (RTS) game market. Like its predecessors however, Empire at War will probably not make a name for Star Wars in the RTS pantheon.

Gameplay 8

In a way, Empire at War is much like Rome : Total War. The basic idea is that you have a map of the Star Wars galaxy, and you choose which planets to attack, where to move your forces, where to build this building, etc. Battles are fought real-time on planets and space maps. Unlike in Rome (and Rebellion, to a lesser extend), the galactic view is also in real-time. This was an extremely smart move from the developers. It really makes the game more competitive since you have to think and act fast. It's like playing a game of chess without turns.

In the galactic view, you build your forces from capital ships to starfighters, from vehicles to troops. When you move a fleet to a planet occupied by the enemy, a space tactical battle (if the enemy has ships over the planet, that is) will begin. This is, along with the ground tactical battles, the RTS part of the game. Force Commander and Galactic Battlegrounds both had one crucial flaw : they did not sport space battles. And what is a Star Wars game without space battles? In Empire at War, space combat is quite well done. You simply control your forces and try to best the enemy. You can target specific systems on larger capital ships, and this can create some nice tactical strategies.

When you win the space battle, you can choose to assault the planet to gain control of it. This is where the game really breaks from traditional strategy games. In the ground tactical battles, you cannot create units. You have to use what you brought in your fleet. The defender must use the forces he had on the planet before the invasion, but some buildings built in the galactic mode can provide a constant flow of “garrison units”, as they are called. To keep things balanced, the attacker can only bring down on the planet a specific number of units, based on how many reinforcement points he controls (and how big the said points are). This is actually a nice thing. Not only does it keep the gameplay balanced, but it is also much more Star Wars-like and realistic. When you think about it, it does not many much sense for an invading army to start constructing buildings and training troops right next to the besieged enemy base. The developers were clearly inspired by the famous Battle of Hoth from Empire Strikes Back when they designed ground combat, and this is really great.

I have two main complaints so far. First, combat tends to be somewhat chaotic. I am not a professional RTS player, but I really know what these games are all about (RTSs are probably my second favourite type of games). Some issues with unit-controlling create some hassle, and your units sometimes end up doing things you did not want them to do. Second is the size of the battles and maps. I think they are quite small, which really does not represent Star Wars battles.

Speaking of size, space battles also suffer from this. There is a population cap that won't let you have many ships at the same time in the tactical battle. The rest of your fleet will have to be brought through the reinforcement toggle when you loose some ships that are already in the tactical battle. This is obviously made to keep things more balanced (so even if your fleet is very small you can still inflict some damage) and to accommodate lower-end computers, but space battles in Star Wars should be much bigger, as we saw in Return of the Jedi and Revenge of the Sith.

As you might know, there are two sides in Empire at War : the Galactic Empire and the Rebel Alliance. Given the game's time setting (before SW4 : A New Hope), these are the only possible sides. The problem is that newer RTSs (well, even the now-old StarCraft had three unique sides) tend to have more than two sides. As far as I am concerned, this does not really bother me. However, it is not a good start when trying to create a popular RTS game. Fortunately, the two sides are completely unique; no crap like the Age of Empire games that give your side a mere 5% bonus here, 10% there.

There are a lot of planets, each with a “unique” space map and a “unique” ground map. “Unique” might not be the most appropriate word here, since they are quite simple and not extremely original. For the space maps, it's fine. Space is space, after all. I think the ground maps could have been developed more extensively, however.

Empire at War also has its share of heroes. Since WarCraft III first brought out that idea, heroes have become a “must” for every RTS. The heroes of Empire at War are obviously from the movies and even the expended universe. They are basically super-powerful units with better damage and hit points as well as a few special abilities. Unlike in other games, they do not level up and learn new abilities as they kill enemies, which is a bit of a disappointment.

My main complaint with the game, however, is its lack of depth. The galactic conquest mode is very shallow, and you will end up simply doing lots of similar tactical battles. Games like Rebellion and Rome : Total War give you the opportunity to use diplomacy and special units to spy or sabotage structures and ships. Empire at War obviously does not let you do this.

I will conclude here on a happier note. The game is really kind to fans of past Star Wars games. The most notable examples are the inclusion of the famous Kyle Katarn from the Dark Forces series as a Rebel hero, the planets Manaan and Taris from Knights of the Old Republic (as well as Dantooine, Korriban and Tatooine, for that matter) and vehicles reminiscent from those of the Battlefront series. These small nodes are really great and will surely please many fans.

Video 8

I think that the graphics are good, and certainly comparable to those of the other RTSs on the market. The best aspect is probably space combat; everything is really detailed, and damaged ships really look damaged (you will see parts exploding when one of the ship's system is blown away) and space stations blow up quite realistically.

Ground combat is treated with a lower level of detail, in my opinion. It remains very good, but I think it could have been improved a little. There is still a weather system that provides some penalties to troops or vehicles. These are quite interesting, especially considering that the defender can eventually research a technology that makes his or her units more resistant to various weather effects. This obviously spawns some interesting strategic value.

I will also talk here about the “cinematic mode”, called the Battlecam. When you activate this feature during a ground or space battle, your view will turn to a cinematic that follows units around the battlefield. You obviously cannot give orders or navigate around the battlefield in this mode, so its only purpose is for the show. As far as I am concerned, I think that this is a nice addition. I see only one problem, however. The cam switches between most of the units in the combat zone. Sometimes, I wish I could just follow a group of X-Wings as the engage enemy TIEs. The cam has an evil tendency to switch to that unit in the back of your forces that doesn't do anything and that you specifically did not want to see.

Audio 9

The sounds are really great, obviously coming from the movies. Of course the music is also top notch, and the game even includes tracks from the scores of the prequel (which is a nice little addition).

There is not much to analyse here; I do not give a 10 because the sounds can sometimes become repetitive. I also do not understand why they could not get the same voice actor who did Kyle in the recent Jedi Knight games to do it in Empire at War. Kyle's voice in the game just does not sound right. Others, like Vader are quite credible. Of course Fett is still voiced by Temuera Morrison.

Story 7

The game takes place before and during Star Wars Episode IV : A New Hope. It is therefore set during the birth of the Rebellion and the creation of the first Death Star. In that regard, the campaign does a pretty good job. As the Empire, you will follow the progress of the construction of the Empire's famous superweapon and eventually capture Princess Leia and destroy Alderaan. As the Alliance, you will “steal” X-Wing prototypes, help Han Solo free some Wookiees and eventually blow up the Death Star.

The main problem is that the campaigns do not offer much in the “special stuff” category. For me, a campaign has two main goals : to advance the storyline (Empire at War does a nice job here) and offer something more than “traditional” games to the player. By this I mean that, when I play a campaign, I expect to have special objectives instead of the usual “destroy the enemy”. While there are some interesting concepts in the campaign (rescue some prisoners by attacking a convoy, capture a ship with a tractor beam, etc.), many of the scenarios simply involve you blowing up the enemy. Special objectives given to you in the galactic view usually revolve around winning a normal skirmish battle.

The campaign also showcases some of the heroes. Why not everyone? It would have been really great to have a mission where you only control a handful of units with Kyle Katarn and steal the Death Star plans.

Replay Value 7

Real-time strategy games generally have a great replay value because of the obvious multiplayer options. I chose to rate it lower in Empire at War for two reasons. First, it is hard to play multiplayer. The game uses gamespy as a provider, and playing there can be quite painful (though it is still better than The Zone!). It is really beyond my understanding that newer games don't have something similar to Blizzard's Battle.net, which exists since StarCraft. And it's not like LucasArts doesn't have enough money to maintain servers for their games.

The second problem is the repetitiveness factor of the games. The best aspect is undoubtedly the galactic mode, which is reminiscent of Rebellion and Rome : Total War. However, only two people can compete in this mode. Idea for the future : make the Black Sun pirates (which are now only computer controlled) a playable side, so that at least three people can play the galactic conquest. Normal “skirmish” games will get real old, real quick. The available maps are few (why not include all of them?) and not that different from each others.

Conclusion

Empire at War is a pretty good RTS. It is clearly better than two of the previous instalments of Star Wars RTSs, Force Commander and Galactic Battlegrounds. In fact, Empire at War takes some elements from Rebellion and Force Commander, and merge them with traditional RTS elements. Fortunately, it is not the spiritual child of the sad Age of Empires modification that was Galactic Battlegrounds.

The main problem I see with the game (as well as many games by LucasArts), is that the developers try to build up a game from existing RTS concepts instead of really creating something new. I understand that they tried to adopt a safer route since the disaster that was Force Commander (which was not all that bad, actually), but if LucasArts and Petroglyph decide to never try something new, their games will be eaten alive by the already-powerful companies that dominate the RTS market, such as Blizzard.


Reviewer's Score: 8/10 | Originally Posted: 04/17/06


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