What better way is there to spend Star Wars Day than to play Star Wars video games while The Empire Strikes Back plays on the television in the background.
Star Wars: Empire at War is a real-time strategy game that feels like a cross between a streamlined Galactic Civilizations and Warhammer 40,000: Dawn of War. It is time-consuming and addictive, strategic and brutally difficult; and when overcome, it can be exceptionally rewarding. Well crafted and designed, Star Wars: Empire at War may just be one of the best Star Wars video games I have ever played.
Players are given a choice to start the game as either the Rebel Alliance or the Empire. Star Wars: Empire at War is broken up into three main gameplay modes: the galactic metagame, space battles, and ground battles. All three aspects of the gameplay feel diverse, and when played in a rotation, they break up the monotony of playing the same type of battle repeatedly.
On the galactic map, players are tasked with taking and holding planets, managing resources for each planet, and building a fleet and ground forces with which to launch future offensives. Like with Galactic Civilizations, each planet must first be attacked with a fleet of spaceships. Once victorious, ground troops must be deployed to eradicate enemy ground forces and take crucial resource points. Each planet has a disparate and limited number of slots with which to build structures. Structures are used to produce various resources: space stations are used to monitor nearby enemy fleet movements, deploy orbital defenses, and manufacture ships; land structures are used to produce money, ground troops such as infantry and tanks, and surface based planetary defenses.
Once a planet is occupied, strategic planning for future movements becomes imperative. Because some planets have more resource slots than others, players have to decide how best to use each planet. Things become even more complicated when you factor in the planet’s proximity to enemy transportation routes. Players would be wise to stack large fleets and ground troops on planets near these transportation routes, while leaving distant occupied planets lightly defended and producing currency, the games most vital resource used to purchase ships and troops. Occupied planets near these transportation routes are subject to repeated attack from enemy fleets, and the enemy is not shy about throwing everything they have at you. Here is where the difficulty can spike relegating battles to an arduous back-and-forth exasperated by poor strategic planning. Being able to produce multitudes of troops and ships means having a high maximum population potential. Players can expand their maximum population by taking planetary systems. Strategic prudence in Star Wars: Empire at War means occupying planetary systems away from enemy transportation routes while positioning the bulk of your forces near those routes until your armies are large enough to mount an offensive. Doing otherwise makes the game a difficult and painful slog which may lead to your humiliating defeat.
Space battles are initiated when the player or A.I. moves a fleet into orbit over an enemy occupied planet. Once in battle, the gameplay resembles what is to be expected from a traditional RTS. Although the number of ships in a fleet have a fixed limit, the number of reinforcements is only limited by the size of the fleet allocated to that particular planet. Once a ship on the battlefield is destroyed, players can call reinforcements from the pool of ships in their allocated fleet. In other words, victories in these hard fought battles are largely dependent upon the overall size of your fleet and number of reinforcements you have at your disposal.
Each ship has very distinct characteristics, strengths, and weaknesses. Star Wars: Empire at War follows a very formulaic rock-paper-scissors style of gameplay, making it crucial for players to have a diverse mix of ships in their battle squadron. For example, heavy cruisers are slow but absorb a lot of damage and have long range laser attacks. Y-Wing bombers are quick but can be picked off easily by laser fire, but their bombing attacks are devastating, especially when you need to take out a shield generator on a space station. Bombing runs require the Y-Wings to be dangerously close to their target, so having cruisers and corvettes draw away laser fire is a prudent strategy.
Powerful frigates and heavy cruisers are units found at the far end of the tech tree. Unlike other games in the genre, players don’t research new technology. Instead, new tech presents itself organically when story-based mission objectives are satisfied, or they can be stolen by sending C-3P0 and R2-D2 on espionage missions. Having powerful units in your fleet is crucial to defending occupied planetary systems or mounting an attack against the enemy. When attacked, players must protect their space station from bombardment; when on the attack, players must destroy the enemy’s space station. Taking down an enemy space station follows a pattern of systematic destruction. Destroying the station’s shield generator further weakens the station’s defensive integrity, and taking out its hanger bay halts the production of enemy reinforcements. Getting near the space station requires thinning or eradicating the enemy’s fleet of heavy cruisers and smaller ships. None of this is easy, and the battles can be so hard fought that they become exhausting. In the end, victory in space is thoroughly satisfying, but sometimes frustrating.
Ground battles follow suit with space battles in a few key game mechanics, with a few significant differences. Like with space battles, combat strategy requires conformity with its rock-paper-scissors style rule set. Also, troop allocation on the battlefield is limited with the potential for reinforcements being called from the fleet of transport ships in orbit, again limited only by the number of troops moved to that planetary system. The number of troops on the battlefield can be expanded by taking and holding key strategic positions located on the map, a mechanic that is similar to the aforementioned Dawn of War. Once secured, that position converts into a landing zone for reinforcement placement. Another similarity with Dawn of War is that each individual unit is comprised of a small group of foot soldiers and/or vehicles. As your units traverse the map, platforms can be found and converted into turret emplacements specialized for taking out specific unit types, or healing or repair stations for foot soldiers or vehicles, respectively. There is no resource management or production during the ground battles in Star Wars: Empire at War since resource management is all handled in the galactic map metagame.
Completing a ground battle typically requires players to hunt for and destroy enemy barracks and factories, putting a halt to enemy unit production. After all of the enemies are wiped out, the level ends. Sometimes denizens of that planet will either aid you or fight against you. This means you may find yourself fighting alongside Wookies, Ewoks, or Gungans, or you may be required to destroy civilian cities and villages.
Ground battles become easier once the player learns the nuances to combat and strategy, at least until the end of the campaign where the difficulty spikes upward, leading players into long, exhausting battles. During these battles late in the game, you may find yourself starting a level pinned down in your landing zone while endless streams of enemy troops, civilians, and AT-ATs continuously attack your position. Just make sure you bring a large fleet of reinforcements with you into these battles.
The story in Star Wars: Empire at War follows the events leading up to the battle with the Death Star seen in Episode IV: A New Hope. The story gives players and fans some insight into those events where the Rebel Alliance scrambled to gather intelligence pertaining to the Empire’s weapon of mass destruction. Some astute observers may find a few anachronisms within the story, however. For example, did Han Solo help the Rebel Alliance before meeting Obi-Wan and Luke on Tatooine? Did the Rebels find schematics for assembling X-Wing Fighters just prior to their attack on the Death Star? With all nerdy fanboy questions aside, the story does a good job of adding weight to the events taking place in the game, enhancing the player’s sense of involvement and interaction.
Production wise, Star Wars: Empire at War does a lot right, but takes a minimalist approach to achieve this. Graphics, sound, and music are all authentically Star Wars, but the story is told strictly through holographic projections of key figures giving orders on the side of the screen. Developer Petroglyph Games opted to tell its story organically during gameplay rather than through high production cut-scenes. Because this title is an RTS, it works, but it still feels like something is missing. Also, graphics are dated by today’s standards. Character models are low detail and most of the ground maps look generic and ordinary, but the ships are identifiable and space battles look good. The sound and music, however, are exhilarating and they engender fond nostalgia for the classic franchise this game based upon.
Star Wars: Empire at War is an amalgamation of diverse ideas synergistically coming together to produce a unique RTS experience. It may be frustrating and prohibitively difficult for some, but the meticulous merging of its gameplay systems, and its effective use of the Star Wars license, make for an exciting title for fans of strategy games and Star Wars, alike. My youthful fanboy excitement for Star Wars has waned in recent years. Star Wars: Empire at War is a game that helped renew my interest in the venerable franchise, and has helped me to experience that childlike excitement I had thought long forgotten.
Star Wars: Empire at War Review