I’ll start saying that Real Time Strategy (RTS) games and I have something of a love-hate relationship… I tend to enjoy them, but I’m really bad at them; so as soon as the game progresses to the point where I need to manage multiple groups at the same time all over the map, my brain conks out and I’m usually completely obliterated shortly after.
However my love of all things Star Wars and a promising demo compelled me to go and buy Empire at War and the bottom line is I’m glad I did. Empire at War is only an RTS in the loosest sense of the word, lacking many of the tedious aspects usually involved in these games like resource collecting and so on. Rather resources (in this case money and force capacity) are based simply on the number of planets owned by each faction, with various planets providing bonuses to certain units or production speed as well as income.
The game is set between the third and fourth episodes in the movie saga. The clone wars have ended, the Jedi council is in ruins and the empire is growing absorbing more and more systems with each passing day; however there is still some dissention amongst some inhabitants of the galaxy and the rebel alliance is taking shape in an attempt to fight against the scourge that is the empire. You must decide whether to join the mighty empire or take up arms with the rebels, whether to let history follow its known course or to change it into something never seen before.
As you would expect each side has its own advantages and liabilities, from technology research methods, unit types and infiltration to the instantly recognisable heroes like Darth Vader and Boba Fett for the empire and Han Solo and the iconic robotic duo C3PO and R2D2 for the rebels who, whilst not invincible, are usually pretty tough and offer a wide range of abilities that can often turn the tide of a mission. Fortunately should you lose a hero during a battle that hero will return to your command after a period of time.
The split between space and land battles is also an interesting one, providing some nice changes in scenery and some definite changes in tactics and unit management. Space battles are by far the most interesting, both in terms of tactical gameplay and graphics, the explosions and destruction of ships and the shimmering of shields as lasers and torpedo’s make contact is great to watch, and the ability to manoeuvre quickly to most parts of the battleground make for some very fast paced action. The large ships also have a variety of hard-points that can be specifically targeted, such as shield generators, missile and laser batteries and hangars, creating another tactical element to consider; do you focus on getting the shields down to eliminate the enemy faster, or do you attempt to limit is destructive capability to reduce the damage done to your own fleet, or do you destroy the hangars to prevent smaller fighters coming to the aid of their owner.
Another interesting tactical consideration is the use of reinforcements; every battle has a limited number of units that you can deploy at any one time, meaning that should you bring more firepower than you’re allowed to use you can call them in as reinforcements later in the battle as some of your existing units are destroyed. In space battles the number of soldiers at your disposal remains constant, but during the land battles this number is determined by the number of reinforcement points that you control, adding another strategic consideration to your plans.
As with most titles in this genre the game begins quite simply and only really becomes challenging as your power base begins to grow and you need to manage resources and defences of your existing planets whilst concentrating fleets to continue your conquest of new worlds. Fortunately the game also comes with an auto resolve feature, allowing you to instantly decide the outcome of any battle not directly tied to the storyline. At first you’ll probably want to enjoy every skirmish that arises, but later on when you are attempting to maintain control of half the galaxy and planetary control is changing hands every few minutes, this feature becomes very welcome.
The graphics are something of a conundrum with some great looking effects like heat distortion, laser blasts and explosions, but some of the unit models look very square and the landscapes appear very repetitive and unimaginative in a lot of areas, however the overall impression is a good one, with the space ships providing the best looking units in the game. There is a ‘cinematic view’ button that provides a movie style view of a battle, unfortunately when activated you can’t direct your troops and the camera often positions itself in inconvenient locations, making it a mostly ineffective feature, but fun to switch to switch on for a few seconds from time to time.
The sound is immersive and no less than what you would expect from a game of this calibre, with plenty of the well known sound effects and musical scores instantly recognisable to all star wars fans.
In general the gameplay is fairly intuitive, with some intelligent grouping to help get the most out of your strategy, and the ability to pause the action at any time to take stock of the situation and direct your forces accordingly is a much appreciated feature for those of us who battle to keep track of what’s going where at all times in a battle. The zooming in and out seems to work in strange levels rather than as a steady magnification, I found myself having to almost spin my mouse wheel to get any response at certain points which can get frustrating as you attempt to manage your troops and then zoom in to view your handiwork.
If you’ve completed the campaign mode or just feel like a quick pick-up game Empire at War offers a Galactic conquest mode to continue your dominance over several other galaxies and a Skirmish mode allowing you to set up a quick game against several computer opponents. There are plenty of options to configure to help you create just the sort of game you’re in the mood for, and you can save your progress to continue on at another time. Similarly there are a host of network options allowing you to take on up to seven opponents either over a local LAN or over the internet in a variety of scenarios.
If you’re a fan of the RTS genre or something of a sci-fi / Star Wars enthusiast or, better yet, both; then Empire at War is definitely worth forking over your hard earned cash for. There have been several patches released since the game was released that seem to fix the few bugs found in the game, mainly addressing unit balancing so you’ll want to download those as soon as you start the game and begin your quest for galactic domination.