The most striking thing about Star Wars: Empire at War is that it doesn’t kick seven shades of pain out of the original trilogy lore, unlike secret-Sith-apprentice-but-actually-a-pretty-cool-guy-unprecedented-force-powers-self-insert-central The Force Unleashed. Having said that, characters like Mon Mothma and Han Solo do crop up, and R2-D2 and C3-PO seem to form the entire Stealth and Infiltration division of the Rebel Alliance.
Luckily since it’s a little bit old (but not that old), it runs beautifully at maximum power. It’s a very pretty game, with all the usual dramatic Star Wars scenery. While the game itself seems a bit lacklustre in places, the expansion pack Forces of Corruption is rather satisfying…
The game takes place across three arenas of battle: the galactic map, where you do all your high-level shuffling of fleets and planets; the areas of space where you do normal battle in the skies; and the ground-assault arenas when you take true control of a planet.
The galactic map is where you build structures and units and shunt people around so the Empire don’t take you up the bum (what’s that? You had nothing but a level one space station? Have three Star Destroyers and boatload of those long-range shield-bypassing missile launcher buckets-o’-bolts) while you’re not looking.
Squads of ground troops and space ships are grouped into fleets, where you direct them to capture planets through the medium of interpretive dance (or invasion). Planets you own give money over time, and each one gives different advantages and can support a different number of structures. Basically, you want them all.
There is an auto-resolve feature, which pretty much just makes you lose everything when you enter into a battle. But where’s the fun in not actually fighting? The game would be over in seconds, and it’s hardly a forty-hour epic as it is. I suppose if you prefer high-level strategy to nitty-gritty punch-ups…
The Final Frontier
The next arena is the space above and around planets. If you take a fleet to a hostile planet where there’s a hostile fleet waiting (or they have only a level one space station and you have boatloads of Nebulon-B medical frigates), then you get to do a normal fight — you have ships, they have ships, generic RTS battling ensues. In space.
One nice touch is that larger ships like Star Destroyers have individual hard-points; once they’re all down, it blows up, but until then you can snag the tractor beam generator or the shield generator or the engines to keep the thing’s situation tailored to your needs (or the needs of your woefully underprepared squad).
Luckily, if the shit is flying on a collision course with your air-circulation systems when you enter a battle, you can sound the retreat, turn three-hundred-and-sixty degrees and hyperspace the hell out of there. This allows you to preserve your hard-earned Blockade Runners instead of throwing them into a losing battle (except when they have those dickbutty anti-hyperspace interdictor ships, in which case you can kiss goodbye to that fleet).
The Ground Pounder
Finally you have land battles. But you don’t have structures or anything (unless you’re on defence); like the fleets in orbit, you have a limited number of guys that you’ve built and grouped on the galactic screen sitting up there and you have to summon them down as necessary.
Ground attacks actually feel more like RPG dungeon crawls than strategy game missions. Since there is no building of structures, except capturable build-points that let you set up small turrets or healing stations, there is no training of units or resource gathering. You can only replenish by summoning units from orbit, but even then they can only be pulled down at special reinforcement points that have to be captured first (and also increase your population cap), forcing an almost linear dungeon crawl progression through maps as you try to snap up more points to get more guys in to finally crack that seedy den of AT-STs. And when you’ve emptied the fleet in the sky, that’s it.
The one thing I’ve noticed is that missions are tiny. In terms of looks, the ground levels are very Supreme Commander, though the smaller scale allows them to add in more interesting props to spice things up a bit — rather than just textures and the occasional rock or tree (though I do so miss strategic zoom). But in terms of raw map size, the maps are pretty miniscule, so just as you start to get involved you the fog of war dissolves to reveal that last Stormtrooper squad powering around the other side of the map. Then again, this smallness means the game can run beautifully while SupCom lags like a bitch even on an overpowered system.
Why Play When You Can Watch?
I think the best feature in this game is the cinematic battle camera. When you’ve issued enough orders and just don’t care anymore (or just didn’t care in the first place), you can activate cinematic mode and sit back to enjoy the show.
During ground battles, since nothing much happens, cinematic cam is a bit rubbish. And on the galactic map screen, where nothing happens, it’s pretty daft. But in space battles…
The game is squad-based, so when you tell a squad of Y-wings to take out the shield generator, they don’t just stand and shoot like in Warcraft. They swoop and dive and fly everywhere, and with cinematic mode active the camera often chooses to follow them. Then again, it also does the classic underside-of-the-ship-as-it-flies-forward shot, it focuses on big capital ships when they get blown to pieces…
The scripted camerawork captures the camerawork of the films’ space battles incredibly well, and overlay that with classic Star Wars laser sounds, reverse-screaming-elephant TIE fighters and pilots giving spurious status updates… The atmosphere is quite delightful.
Of course a part of me rails against the fact that this is a game and I kind of want to play it rather than watching it, but fuck that — it’s worth absorbing at least a few space battles as they unfold in real time (and without a GUI interface in Visual Basic either). You deserve a rest.
Your Pitiful Little Rebellion
The rebel campaign is short; I can only assume the Imperial one is equivalent. That’s to say, there is an entire galaxy to conquer, but when the Death Star appears and blows up Alderaan (and makes off with Yavin 4 — I don’t remember that from the films) you kind of feel the need to rush. I only played on Easy and got my arse handed to me too many times, but by the end I had only conquered half the galaxy (the other half wasn’t even revealed until two split-second missions before the end) and if my proper fleet was in position it was unstoppable (naturally it never was… in position, that is). But to be honest, I get the feeling I missed out on quite a bit by only taking half the galaxy, so it may be worth a replay at some point.
The events of the campaign span a period of time before A New Hope up until its conclusion; I was hoping for it to last at least until Return of the Jedi. Then again, the size of the tech tree and how quickly I ate most of it up was an uneasy indicator of how quickly things might end. At least it finished with Admiral Ackbar telling me to beware of traps in his impossibly powerful Mon Calamari cruiser, tearing Imperial shit right up.
With the expansion pack Forces of Corruption, it pretty much does turn into a series of dungeon crawls.
Some missions remove the ability to reinforce your attack team: planet conquering is instead planet corruption (dem crims), and for “intimidation” missions you get a specific team composition regardless of what’s in space at the time. Once a planet’s been corrupted, though, you can usually take a real army in to take total control in the normal way from whoever has their actual grubby paws on it at the time.
The storyline of the expansion is based around Tyber Zann and his bros being dirty crims across the galaxy, and as such the game starts bandying proper in-game cinematics around. In terms of narrative, I’d say it’s a lot stronger than the main game (perhaps by not being really constrained by having to conform to the movies; maybe the main Imperial campaign will be stronger by being able to spread its wings). Though the expansion pack does take place vaguely around Return of the Jedi, the Rebel/Empire conflict is only a vague backdrop.
As the methods of corrupting/controlling planets expand vastly, so does the unit variety. Alongside your basic infantry/space fighter/frigate/light tank equivalent units in the pirate style, you also get access to some stolen Imperial craft. On the ground, as part of the story, you end up raiding an old Geonosian droid factory — and end up with beautiful Droidekas in your repertoire. Rancor riders also appear (they seem to be a recurring favourite in the Expanded Universe).
All in all, the expansion pack is much more satisfying and engaging (at least to little old RPG-centric me). And the last couple of missions are totally bitchin’.
Basically, it’s worth playing for cinematic space battles alone. Otherwise, get the Gold Pack — the expansion is a stronger game than the real one, more solid and well-rounded and with much more variety of options.
Overall, I do feel somehow enriched after having played the game. I’m not entirely sure how just yet, but it’s a good feeling to get. It certainly took a completely different approach than what I’m used to, unlike shitpile Starcraft II which took great pains not to innovate in any way at all. Then again, it’s not like I get RTSes very often these days; the galaxy/space/land archetype is probably horribly overdone and you’re all screaming at my ignorance.
Anyway: ultimately satisfying.