Star Wars: Empire At War

"This bucket of bolts's never gonna get us past that blockade."

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

Star Wars: Empire at War
Official Site
Released: February 2006 (US)
Publisher: Lucasarts
Developer: Petroglyph

Comments

Pretty much spot on with my feelings toward the game. It would seem to me that the major issues I have with it are not ones that are easily changed with a patch.

The ground missions are so far terribly uninspiring, and the space battles require constant pausing so I can select that one X-wing group and tell it to attack that one tie fighter group. Otherwise it's like trying to catch flies.

I was spoiled by the play of Dawn of War, and can find no real redeeming strategy in the RTS sections of the game. As far as I can tell large portions of every map are not usable, and you can gain no tactical advantage from the terrain.

Great review. Elysium. Sounds like another reason for me to remain in denial that there are such things as "strategy games."

Where this game fails the most in is its depth beyond what's there. Admittedly, it's as simplistic as an RTS can possibly get, with little room for strategic thinking at all. But, just as a game like Freecell is also fairly simple, it's also fun enough to get just enough enjoyment out of to keep coming back to it.

The Fly wrote:

Great review. Elysium. Sounds like another reason for me to remain in denial that there are such things as "strategy games."

Oh no, there are, it's just that many of them have Hexes. There are desperately few "Real Time Strategy" games.

Prederick wrote:
The Fly wrote:

Great review. Elysium. Sounds like another reason for me to remain in denial that there are such things as "strategy games."

Oh no, there are, it's just that many of them have Hexes. There are desperately few "Real Time Strategy" games.

amen to that. Seems like this is yet another RTS that boils down to clicking the fastest.

I have this, played a bit, then went back to Combat Mission, where I actually control something and terrian and placement have meaning.

Sounds like I need to pick up Dawn of War, just never got around to it.

Well...that seals it for me then. Back to CMBO and GCII for me. Pitty, the demo looked really good.

What's your word on multiplayer? LIke most games nowadays it seems multiplayer can ramp up the enjoyment of any game.

Sounds like I'll be sticking to Dawn of War (& Winter Assault), as well.

Since you haven't picked it up, Larsson, let me encourage you to do so. Even if you're not a fan of the Warhammer 40k universe, its a fantastic RTS with great multiplayer options and well-balanced, unique races (not perfectly balanced, but such is life). Winter Assault is a worthwhile expansion as well.

karmajay wrote:

What's your word on multiplayer? LIke most games nowadays it seems multiplayer can ramp up the enjoyment of any game.

Yeah the heart of RTS is in multiplayer. That's when you really find out how much thought was put into the game. Are the "races" the same or are they unique, and are they balanced? Are there true unit counters? Are there tactical counters? etc...

Fletch_101 wrote:
karmajay wrote:

What's your word on multiplayer? LIke most games nowadays it seems multiplayer can ramp up the enjoyment of any game.

Yeah the heart of RTS is in multiplayer. That's when you really find out how much thought was put into the game. Are the "races" the same or are they unique, and are they balanced? Are there true unit counters? Are there tactical counters? etc...

In space the sides are pretty close to each other, not quite Warcraft II pallete swaps, but not Warcraft III level of diversity either. On the ground they are actually quite different from one another, lots of counter units and the like, but most people tend to gravitate towards space combat in multiplayer.

I love how all the previews mentioned "multi-player coop" when in fact what they offer is a 1 on 1 campaign where one player is the Rebellion and the Empire. That is certainly not co-op... a real let down for me.

Thanks for the review. I liked the demo well enough, but it didn't completely grab me. I think I'll hold out for the LoTR Battle for ME2 because I liked that demo even better.

Lester_King wrote:

I love how all the previews mentioned "multi-player coop" when in fact what they offer is a 1 on 1 campaign where one player is the Rebellion and the Empire. That is certainly not co-op... a real let down for me.

It still has a stand RTS multiplayer mode that you can play cooperatively vs. the AI if you wish.

Sinatar wrote:
Lester_King wrote:

I love how all the previews mentioned "multi-player coop" when in fact what they offer is a 1 on 1 campaign where one player is the Rebellion and the Empire. That is certainly not co-op... a real let down for me.

It still has a stand RTS multiplayer mode that you can play cooperatively vs. the AI if you wish.

How does that work though? Do you pick like one planet or section of space and have a quick match on it?

I'm still bummed that you can't do the galactic conquest mode in co-op.

The Star Wars franchise has been explored to death.

Although true, I'd sure like someone to "explore" the X-Wing/TIE Fighter territory again.

*Legion* wrote:
The Star Wars franchise has been explored to death.

Although true, I'd sure like someone to "explore" the X-Wing/TIE Fighter territory again.

Mixed in with a bit of "Elite" freedom of exploration -- bounty hunter, smuggler, fighter... be all you can be!

Thin_J wrote:
Sinatar wrote:
Lester_King wrote:

I love how all the previews mentioned "multi-player coop" when in fact what they offer is a 1 on 1 campaign where one player is the Rebellion and the Empire. That is certainly not co-op... a real let down for me.

It still has a stand RTS multiplayer mode that you can play cooperatively vs. the AI if you wish.

How does that work though? Do you pick like one planet or section of space and have a quick match on it?

I'm still bummed that you can't do the galactic conquest mode in co-op.

It changes the game dynamic a bit. Basically you each start with a base and scattered around the map are little mining stations you can take over. You build all your units from the base (though you still call them in reinforcement style as you need them) and its basically standard kill the other guys base as most RTS's do it.

Nice review, and based on it I'll be passing on the game. Sounds to me like they tried to do a Total War game and totally failed. Its such a shame they can't make good games with licences.

The review is spot on IMHO. There were times early on when I started to really get chills watching my imperial fleet scourge the galaxy... but it faded fast once I delved deeper into the game.

Some more variety in the "terrain" of space battles would really have been welcome - ala Starfleet Commander. It almost felt like every space encounter was the same - just different lighting depending what planet you were in orbit of.

I do grin and cackle wildly as I use the Death Star on Naboo and Endor though. Take that you Ewoks and Gungans!

I love reading the reviews here. You guys must be able to read my mind or something, since you always manage to answer the questions that I have about a game.

Looks like I will be saving my money this time, I never was a big star war fan anyway.

On a side note: you guys don't happen to have a review of LOTR:Battle of Middle Earth 2 coming up soon do you? I have pre-ordered that one, and more and more it looks like it is another game that is all flash and no substance

thanks

A friend of my roommate's was over last night showing us this game. I thought it looked insanely boring, but I think it's because of the way he plays. Every few seconds he would pause the realtime combat and realign all of his attacking forces. Needless to say, this stretched every portion of the game out to ludicrous levels of time required. The only game I currently afford that luxury is Silent Storm.

I was so convinced by him that the game was supposed to be played pseudo-turn based like that, I didn't believe there was no key assigned to the pause function.

Not something I'm going to be playing.

LightBender wrote:

I do grin and cackle wildly as I use the Death Star on Naboo and Endor though. Take that you Ewoks and Gungans!

This, in and of itself, might make me pick this one up.

Uhhhggggg, ahhh, my eye's.....the goggles do nothing!!!

Anyway, ho hum, what a disappointment this was. As soon as I heard of Empire at War I had thoughts of Next Gen Galactic Battlegrounds come to mind. Whoa, was I wrong big time. This game needed to be made with the AOEIII engine with Star Wars flavoring! Period! Deja Vu anyone! LOL! I hate it when developers try to be different with one of the greatest licenses known to man and alien.

Mod Community, HEAR ME!! (Waving Hands at Mod Community Faces) Please make a AOEIII mod with Star Wars! Remake Galactic Battlegrounds with the Clone Campaigns!!

If I only knew hypnotism!

If only they would have done that. I love Galactic Battlegrounds but need updated graphics to completely enjoy it.

Now I must cry............for it will be FOREVER before I get my wish.

sniff....sniff......WAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAA!

[DOOM]

At first glance, the game looked like it was going to play like Rome Total War, where a great blend of turn based strategy and STRATEGIC real time based combat would be used... but I was wrong again. RTS does not exist outside RTW in my opinion... why are formations, terrain, leadership and manoveurs so hard to put into a RTS game effectively? LOTR BME 2 promised this too, but again I was left wanting... These RTSes haven't evolved much since the original Warcraft... or Dune 2 for that matter. Warhammer was good, but it needed a little more to be epic.
The new Medieval Total War is coming out later this year (?) and I'll be banking on that one as a huge hit.