The first Star Wars game of 2006 is here, in the form of real-time strategy title Star Wars: Empire at War. The game, developed by former members of Westwood’s (Command & Conquer's) dev team, allows players to recreate pivotal battles across the Star Wars galaxy. Set just before the events depicted in Episode 4: A New Hope, Empire at War lets you command either the Imperial or Rebel forces in your bid for control of the universe.
The battles in Empire at War come in two forms: Space and Land. In space battles, the player controls everything from small squadrons of fighters, huge gunships and Star Destroyers, and even the almighty Death Star. Firing the Death Star’s super laser is just as fun in Empire at War as it sounds. Space battles generally revolve around a space station, which the player must attack or defend.
It’s a lot of fun to see your space station try to hold its own against an entire fleet of attackers, but it’s even better to build a fleet and take the fight to the enemy on his own turf. Seeing all of your cruisers and fighters come out of hyperspace right before the battle begins, just like in the movies, is truly a magical moment. Of the two forms of battle (land or space), the Space battles definitely have more of a strategy element in our opinion. For example: what do you do when trying to take out one of your opponent’s gunships, and your X-Wings can’t make a dent in its shields? One option is to command your Y-Wing bombers to take out the ship's Shield Generator, which then opens up the ship to an assault by your X-Wings.
So, you have taken over the space above Tatooine—now you have to establish full control of the planet. Infantry must be called upon to eliminate any enemy land forces. Time to take some troops and take the fight dirt-side. Much like the battles in space, you command your units to attack enemy personnel, destroy structures, and even take on neutral, interfering creatures, such as the Rancor and Tusken Raiders.
Unfortunately, the planetside battles are bogged down due to Empire at War’s lack of unique units. Yes, there are special cases, like when famous Heroes join your side (more on that later), but it would have been nice to have more than two major trooper units. One trooper unit is strong against other soldiers, and the other is strong against vehicles. Yes, there are various tanks to build, and sometimes the local inhabitants of the planet will fight on your side, but this lack of variety bogs down the game after you play it for a few hours. All is forgiven, however, when Heroes become available.
“Heroes” are famous, named characters such as Han Solo, Darth Vader, Emperor Palpatine, etc. these special units are very powerful and convey great tactical advantage once deployed. For example, Sith Lords Darth Vader and Emperor Palpatine can and do plough their way through countless Rebel Forces, with barely any help from their Stormtrooper backup. On the Rebel side, you can also enlist the help of Han Solo and Chwebacca, Jedi Master Obi-Wan Kenobi, and even the droids R2-D2 and C-3PO. All of these Heroes add much needed variety to the Land battles, and their special abilities, such as Chewbacca’s ability to hijack an Imperial vehicle, add tactical depth. And yes, Heroes can also be used in Space battles, with equally impressive results. The Millennium Falcon can even turn invincible for a short period of time! (ed,- That actually explains quite a bit about that asteroid scene in “The Empire Strikes Back”…
In my opinion, the Star Wars story is the greatest one ever told. That being said, it’s always nice to see what happened in-between and behind the scenes shown the films. Empire at War’s storyline provides additional background, and even offers an alternate ending for some of the events seen in the films. Playing as the Rebellion, you’ll play through and learn about some of the earlier days of the Galactic Civil War. Playing as the Empire, however, is a little different. If you beat the game as the Empire, you will be treated to a cool alternative ending of Episode 4. This ending isn’t quite as cool as the alternative ending featured in last year’s Episode 3: Revenge of the Sith game, but it delivers nonetheless.
Speaking of endings, you should be able to reach Empire at War’s ending a little faster than in other RTS titles. It’s not as short as Star Wars: Republic Commando, but it’s no Morrowind, either. The main story mode may be a little short, but since you’re going to want to play through it as both the Rebels and the Imperials, the lack of a longer game is more or less forgiven. Of course, once you are finished with the story mode, it’s on to the online multiplayer arena. This is where some gamers will spend most of their time, as some battles can take as long as an hour to play. Not that the computer AI is brainless, but as Obi-Wan said, "If the AI (droids) could think, there'd be none of us here, would there?"
Graphically, Empire at War is both good and average. The Space battles look very impressive, with hordes of TIE’s and X-Wings battling it out. Everything look as if it came from a Star Wars movie. There is even a way to view the battle in a cinematic view, where you have no control of your ships. You just watch the battle play out. You obviously can’t use this view that much, but when you get the chance to, it’s great seeing all the action unfold from this cinematic viewpoint. The Land battles also have this feature, but, unfortunately, the mediocre graphics are more noticeable in these fights. Don’t get me wrong, the graphics aren’t bad, but they are a little too blocky and less detailed than I would have liked. As for the audio presentation, the John Williams music really shines, and the various signature Star Wars sounds (such as the blasters) also feel right at home.
Gameplay- 7 While I liked the Land battles, the battles in Space are much better. The Land battles lack some unit variety, but are much improved when Heroes are brought in.
Graphics- 7 Like the gameplay, the graphics just seem better in Space. The cinematic view, when you can use it, is very impressive. If the Land graphics were less blocky, then this score would have improved.
Audio- 9 The Star Wars soundtracks are amongst the best soundtracks in film history, and Empire at War uses them to perfection. The other trademark sounds, such as the blasters and even the Tusken Raider’s roars, are also included. Character voice-overs are also very well done, and old favorites like Han Solo and Darth Vader sound as close to the real thing as sound-alikes can get. It’s a shame, however, that James Earl Jones didn’t do the voice of Vader.
Value- 8 The story mode doesn’t last as long as some may like, but playing through as the Rebels, then as the Imperials, creates two different experiences, so you’ll have to beat the game twice to get the full picture. The online multiplayer is a blast, and I can see myself playing the game for months to come.
Curve- 7 While hardcore RTS fans probably want more from their games, the casual fan of either Star Wars in general, or RTS titles specifically, will likely enjoy this title. If you are looking for an RTS that doesn’t get too in-depth, or if you are just looking for a cool new Star Wars game, look no further than Star Wars: Empire at War.