Star Wars: Empire at War

March 19, 2006

[i]Star Wars[/i] has explored plenty of different game genres in the past. From the old [i]X-Wing[/i] simulators to the Battlefield-like atmosphere of the [i]Battlefront[/i] series, Lucas’ movies have been around the block. But one of the few genres [i]Star Wars[/i] hasn’t seen such success in is the real time strategy area. We’ve seen a few companies try to mold [i]Star Wars[/i] into an RTS, but they didn’t do too hot when they hit retail. Now we’ve got the latest attempt to enter the genre with [i]Star Wars: Empire at War[/i], which not only tries to break the traditional formula of an RTS but at the same time learns from the mistakes of previous games trying to translate [i]Star Wars[/i] into the strategy formula. Not everything hits the mark, but [i]Empire at War[/i] is the best way for strategy fans to get their [i]Star Wars[/i] fix.

Strategy fans will be relieved to know that Petroglyph Studios is behind [i]Empire at War[/i]. Petroglyph is a new company founded by several members of the former Westwood Studios, known for the seminal Command & Conquer series. It’s obvious that they haven’t lost their edge since leaving Westwood, and they have finally managed to translate the [i]Star Wars[/i] universe into a competent strategy game. Based on the period between [i]Star Wars: Episode III[/i] and [i]Episode IV[/i], [i]Empire at War[/i] allows the player to choose between playing as the fledgling Rebel Alliance or the ruthless Galactic Empire. The best way of summing up the story of the game is that you are given the chance to recreate [i]Star Wars[/i] history, retelling the events of [i]A New Hope[/i] or destroying the galaxy with the Emperor’s Death Star.

[i]Empire at War[/i] is a bit unconventional for a standard strategy game. Things work on a sort-of multi-layered strategy experience. On one side, you are given a view of the entire galaxy with the ability to take over every planet from Hoth to Coruscant. It is on each individual planet where the majority of your structures and armies are built, allocating funds from each of your controlled planets. Stacking up your planet’s space defenses are critical for staving off fleets of Imperial Star Destroyers, and building ground forces is key to capturing enemy-controlled planets. From the planetary view, a space or land battle may be initiated, leading into the second layer of strategy (which is the standard RTS view where you control your units). Depending on what units are included in your attacking or defending force from the planetary view, you battle the enemy with what you have brought along or stacked on your planet. This eliminates the all too familiar resource gathering aspects from the game, and allows you to bring powerful AT-ATs in right from the start of the battle, that is if you’ve made sure to bring them along on an invasion.

It’s in space that [i]Empire at War[/i] shines its brightest. The game includes every sort of spacecraft you could imagine from [i]Star Wars[/i], and each unit brings something different to the battlefield. Mon Calamari cruisers shoot it out with gigantic Star Destroyers while X-Wings and TIE fighters dogfight in-between the fray. While [i]Empire at War[/i] isn’t the most graphically appealing game, the battles in space look great and are easily the most visually appealing thing in this game. Combat in space also attempts to give the player some different tactics than those seen in the ground battles, such as targeting hard points to disable the engines of a cruiser and attacking the helpless carriers transporting AT-ATs en route to the planet. It’s refreshing to see how the developers tried to incorporate different forms of play into each gametype.

Unfortunately, whereas the battles in space are stellar, the ground battles are less than overwhelming. This isn’t to say the ground combat is terrible, but it is certainly doesn’t do too many things different from other strategy games. When compared to the planetary and space modes, fighting on the ground seems somewhat out of place in [i]Empire at War[/i]. Accompanying the mediocre ground combat are mediocre graphics. The textures on planets aren’t exactly that groundbreaking, and aside from different climates, one planet doesn’t look too different from the next. Whereas space battles have fairly good visuals, things look pretty ugly on the ground, including polygonal infantry units, some awkward animations, and other unappealing sights. Granted, these problems don’t show up as much when the camera is far off, but seeing as how the developers included an up-close cinematic camera, it seems strange that things would look so poor in this area.

Hero units deserve some mention. Han Solo, Darth Vader, Boba Fett and all the usual characters associated with [i]Star Wars[/i] make it into [i]Empire at War[/i], and each character brings different skills and advantages to the battlefield. Some like Admiral Piett and Admiral Ackbar come packaged with impressive capitol ships while others like Mon Mothma give bonuses to production needs. Almost any character put into a battle can turn the tide of battle with the special powers they are given. Even the smallest Corellian Cruiser piloted by Captain Antilles can use his weakening powers to lower the damage Star Destroyers deal. The hero units add a lot of variety to the game, and let’s face it, it wouldn’t be a [i]Star Wars[/i] game if the defining characters were absent.

Being a [i]Star Wars[/i] game, you would probably expect some great sound to come in the package, and you would be right. In fact, the developers have outdone themselves in terms of audio in [i]Empire at War[/i]. All the standard John Williams music is included, but aside from good music quality, the sound effects are also pretty stellar. Particularly in space, the sounds of explosions, turret fire, engines blazing and X-Wing pilots chiming in are all clean and crisp. However, the sound quality is also in full force in the other areas of the game, and while ground combat got a beating earlier, the sound is also excellent on land as well. The sound really makes it feel like you’re down in the middle of everything, and this will be one of those games you’ll want to pump up the volume with.

Score: 5/5

Questions? Check out our review guide.