"This bucket of bolts's never gonna get us past that blockade."
The Star Wars franchise has been explored to death. Strange as it seems now, I remember once experiencing a kind of ecstacy at the thought of reenacting the infamous Battle of Hoth, or slicing through stormstroopers with my crackling lightsaber, or sending Alliance and Imperial fleets against one another in the dark above foggy, wetland planets. For the most part, those times have passed. Now the idea of a new Star Wars game is rarely anything to get particularly excited over, due in so small part to the overall decline in quality and attention to such titles. They've become largely derivative, repetitive, or simplistic cash-in games riding a brief wave of interest as millions of disillusioned film fans subjected themselves to further disillusionment at every media turn. But, very occasionally a Star Wars game comes along that suggests something better and taps into that enthusiasm I had thought long dead. After playing the Star Wars: Empire at War demo I experienced just such a sensation. So, did the final game live up to that promise?
The answer is, yes! For a little while. And, then, quite suddenly, no. Clear?
Star Wars: Empire at War is a game that flirts with greatness, but one that ultimately struggles to find an identity, pace, and cohesion. Empire at War promises epic battles across multiple Star Wars worlds. It offers players the freedom to dominate or liberate the galaxy as they see fit, or follow a story relatively parallel to the events leading up to and encompassing Episode Four. And, in the first dozen or so hours you spend with the game, you'll likely recapture, if briefly, that Star Wars magic that once held you (I presume) so enthralled.
Excluding expansions and assuming this list is accurate, Star Wars: Empire At War is the 49th Star Wars based video game released to date, so it's very hard to imagine that it has anything to deliver that we haven't seen before. Obviously, the elements haven't been exactly blended quite this way before, and the marriage of ground, space, and galactic is a solid concept, but to be notable Empire at War needs to fundamentally forge its way by consolidating what is best in Star Wars games and ditching what isn't. With a proprietary engine, and a team composed largely of former Westwood employees, it seems like a solid pedigree.
The game takes place on three levels. There is the top galactic level where you manage your empire and resources in a very macro sense, building units, vehicles, bases, and fleets that you will take into battle. Then there are the two combat levels, one in space where fleets, fighters, bases, and special, usually familiar, vehicles collide in a cacophony of turbo lasers and concussion missles. Victory in space (or defeat if you're defending) usually exists as a prelude to the third layer of ground combat, where attackers can land increasingly more units by capturing reinforcement points while defenders employ their existing structure to hold their ground.
On the grand scale, the game is vaguely reminiscent of Star Wars Rebellion, a game that despite every reason not to, many people seem to remember fondly. In the game's best play-environment, Galactic Conquest, the galaxy is either focused on as few as 8 planets or in the grander games expanded to more than 40. The goal is usually the same, dominate all systems by whatever means necessar, though occasional side quests will be presented. Holding individual star systems adds to the speed at which you accumulate a steady stream of credits, and each system offers its own particular bonus like the opportunity to hire smugglers on systems like Nal Hutta, or the chance to build the massive Mon Cal Cruiser, though usually it's just effects like cheaper build prices or slightly enhanced units.
Unfortunately this galactic scale lacks the depth of a 4X game like Master of Orion or Galactic Civilizations, so you'll find yourself with lots of time to wait for credits to accumulate, fleets to be amassed, and armies to be prepared. Lots of time to think about battles you might otherwise be having, or what you'd do with your forces if you had the money, or what you'll have for dinner. That's not to say that you have nothing to do, only that you have to sit and be patient until you have the credits to move forward.
Once a battle is initiated, however, the pace of the game turns completely. Early game conflicts are some of the best the game has to offer, comprised generally of an attacking force of a few capital ships with fighter escort against a low to mid level space station and its defense force. Later battles become confused, bloated, and cramped. For as big as everyone talks about space being, it sure is tight in this game. The battles take place in discrete and confined combat spaces, and you must form your tactics within that limited real estate. Though, there's rarely much pre-fight planning to be done, as the space is so small that combat is usually joined before you can reform the formations of your ships.
Managing your ships in smaller scale skirmishes is engaging and thrilling. Setting up fighter escorts for bombing runs against capital ships while manning the heavy punches of your own fleet makes for frenetic gameplay. Again, I stress, this holds true for small to medium skirmishes. Later in the game, however, as you amass fleets of a dozen capital ships, and you have to worry about bringing in reinforcements, and waves of Tie Fighters dance around equal waves of X-wings all within the confined space, it all begins to jumble together and loses coherency. The playfield eventually becomes a mess of ships tossed like so many fireflies in a jar swirling around one another in a pretty but disorganized light show.
The problems continue onto the ground as increasingly larger battles become increasingly tedious. The maps are dull as (must resist Star Wars Tatooine Landscape analogy) ummm, Tunisia. The maps for each system look randomly generated, and poorly at that, which makes it all the more surprising to discover that every time you invade Naboo just for the joy of killing Gungans, you'll be doing it on the same small parcel of land, with the buildings in the same place. Apparently Naboo is about the size of four city-blocks! The only real joy of ground combat comes from unique characters like Palpatine, Han Solo, Mara Jade, and Darth Vader, who is often strong enough to conquer entire planets by himself.
The single player campaigns work under the same basic mechanics as Galactic Conquest, and create a framework for that story by focusing your efforts on specific battles that forward the mostly benign story. Empire at War also offers skirmish play, both in land and in space, where you start with minimal resources and facilities and develop new units and technologies in a more traditional RTS fashion by capturing mining stations and siphoning credits into the war machine. Multiplayer options are available aplenty, though the majority of pickup games out there revolve around the quicker skirmish battles.
Visually the proprietary engine gets the job done well enough, though it looks notably better from a distance than up-close. What it lacks in buzz-worthy pizzazz it makes up for in its ability to zoom out significantly. In an era where practicality forces graphics hungry RTS developers to lock the camera far too close to the action, it's refreshing to be able to zoom out substantially. Aside from that, the visuals are best described as passable.
Star Wars: Empire at War may end up being a point of contention for Star Wars gamers, a title that some love, others hate, but most find largely forgettable, lost amid the forty-eight other games with a similar title. The title is entertaining for a while, and offers a few glimpses of something far better, but fails to play to its potential strengths. It suffers from a relatively uninspired AI that succeeds largely through brute force, attrition, and an inherent ability to manage otherwise confusing battles. The game's pace is too erratic, a frustrating blend of waiting and fighting, and though it offers three layers in which to play none of them are particularly deep. Ultimately the game simply promises much but delivers about half.
Empire at War is a good game for a while that becomes a purely mediocre title in the long-run.