Review by dws90

Reviewed: 02/21/06

Conquering the PC one planet at a time

Star Wars games appear to be omnipresent; no matter where you go, you find another one. Some are good, some are bad, and some are downright awful. Empire at War, a quasi-sequel to Star Wars: Rebellion, is LucasArts' latest entry into the pool.

EaW puts you in the shoes of the Supreme Commander of either the Galactic Empire or the Rebel Alliance in the years before Episode IV. There are three different game scenarios you can play: Story Mode, Galactic Conquest, and Skirmish. Story Mode offers a nominal story and structure to the complicated task on conquering the galaxy. Galactic Conquest mode has a number of different planet combinations, but each with the same objective: completely destroy the other side. Finally, Skirmish mode allows you to fight a single battle over or on a single planet, building troops as you go.

Each side has a number of ships, vehicles and soldiers at their disposal, ranging from the small TIE fighter to the Death Star. The sides are relatively balanced, yet maintain a separate identity. The Rebels, for instance, have to build starfighters at shipyards before they can send them into combat while the Empire is given a group of free TIE Fighters and Bombers with every capital ship they have in combat. To balance this out, the Rebel ships have shields while the TIEs don't. Since each unit has its own strengths and weaknesses, you need to build your armies carefully. In the Story and Galactic Conquest modes, you face your enemy in three different places: the Galactic map, space, and land.

The Galactic map is where most of the game's strategy comes into play. From there, you can build various structures on the planets you have under you control, thus enabling you to recruit certain types of soldiers. If you're the Empire and build a factory on a planet, for example, you can manufacture AT-ST walkers. If you build a set of barracks, you can recruit a legion of Strormtroopers. Once you have your forces built, you can move them from the surface of a planet to orbit (if they're land forces), then from the orbit of one planet to another.

For balance reasons, not every unit can be made from the very beginning of the game. After all, it makes little sense for a fledgling new rebellion to have Mon Calamari Cruiser, doesn't it? Each side handles acquiring new technology slightly differently: the Empire builds research stations and has to pay for each upgrade, while the Rebels send R2-D2 and C-3PO to an Imperial planet to steal it. Research/steal enough technology, and your tech level will increase, allowing you to buy bigger toys to kill things with. This system works very well and insures that neither you nor your opponent can get too powerful too quickly.

When you send a fleet from one of your planets to an enemy one, one of two things can occur. If your opponent doesn't have anything in orbit, you remain on the Galactic map and can plan your next move. The much more likely outcome, however, occurs when they do have something in orbit: space combat. As the Supreme Commander, you get to command the battle. Your command strategies are pretty limited ("Move there!" or "Attack that target!"), but to win you'll (sometimes) need to make use of the special abilities of each unit. If all of the enemy fleet is engaged with part of your force, you can have the remainder redirect firepower from their engines and shields to boost their laser power. If your enemy has built a space station, it will become a stationary object in the battle, adding its lasers, missiles and infinite supply of fighters to the task of killing you. Since, for technical and balancing reasons, not every ship you have can fight at one time, you can call in reinforcements from the rest of your fleet as your ships are destroyed, but so can the enemy. Once you win, you control that planet's orbit and can commence a ground invasion.

There are two ways to invade a planet. The first, more obvious way is to take control of the planet's orbit as was said above, and then send a ground force down. If that's too noisy for your tastes, you can build a special stealth fleet which can sneak past the enemy orbital positions and attack the planet directly. Either way, you enter land combat mode. Similar to space combat, not all of your troops can be on the battlefield at once. You can call in reinforcements in the same way, but with a twist. Instead of a set number of soldiers, the amount of troops you can have varies depending on how many reinforcement points you own. Thus, it’s in your best interest to conquer those points as soon as possible by having your infantry stand next to it. Other then that, land combat is similar to space combat with two exceptions: build pads. If you have infantry soldiers standing near a build pad, you can use a handful of credits to build either a turret (anti-infantry, vehicle, or aircraft) or a health station (bacta for infantry and a vehicle repair shop for your mechanized forces). Of course, the enemy can do that as well, so build wisely. The second major difference occurs only if you have a bombers in orbit via method one, above. If you do, you have the ability to call in bombing runs on your enemy. You can only do so once in a very long blue moon and only in areas in sight of your forces, but the bombing runs completely decimate your opponent, not to mention looking great. Finally, just as in space combat, any structures your enemy has built will be present on the planet as well, and will, depending on the structure, occasionally spit out an infinite supply of troops. Once the planet is conquered, you can move on to the next one. Unfortunately, the next one won't be very different from the fist, and it’s likely you'll tire of this routine relatively quickly.

Overall, the game isn't highly difficult except for two things: credits, and enemy attacks. In order to build buildings and fleets, you need money. Money, however, doesn't like you. Each planet you have under you control will grant you a handful of credits every day (which can be amplified by building a mining facility), but the amount of credits going are quite low compared to the credits you'll want to spend. As a result, you need to use your resources carefully. Enemy attacks make that difficult. Like any real army would, your AI opponent will occasionally attack planets you own, placing you in the same situation as the troops you killed when you conquered the planet in the first place. The AI doesn't seem to need as much time or money to build troops as you do, so expect full assault forces very often. To have a chance, you need to prioritize your planets and choose which ones to build a defense force on. These two things more they make up for the lack of difficulty elsewhere.

EaW’s graphics are only so-so, but are definitely good enough give the game a real Star Wars feeling. The ships are very detailed, and the each of the 43 planets looks like they should. Individual troops, however, tend to be lacking in detail. Stormtroopers in particular look like they're been hit in the face with a frying pan. Most of your time is spent looking down upon them, so that doesn't really matter. What the game lacks in graphics is made up for with sound. The game's soundtrack is a combination of the music from the various movies, and, when combined with the accurate sounds of blasters and engines, portrays a real Star Wars feel.

Star Wars: Empire at War is a game geared towards Star Wars fans. The Galactic Map fleet building part of the game is incredibly fun, but the space and land battles are rather basic and repetitive. Star Wars fans will not feel the repetitiveness kick in for quite a while because of the sheer "coolness" of commanding Star Destroyers and X-wings. Strategy game fans will likely not find the game involved enough to whet their taste, and non-Star Wars, non-strategy game fans will find little in it for them. Nevertheless, if you're a Star Wars fan, Empire at War is a great game, and certainly worth a look at.

Rating:   4.5 - Outstanding

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