I hark back to Star Wars: Empire at War every so often, but it’s more an interactive film than much of a strategy game. You build a huge fleet, set it loose, and turn on the autocamera mode — and it beautifully recreates space battles right out of the movies. Beyond that, there’s not a lot to it.
As with many games, it took an expansion pack — Forces of Corruption — to really bring it to life. A larger tech tree, of new pirate units alongside a mix of stolen classic Imperial and Rebel craft, a more involved plotline in a single longer campaign rather than split between two sides… It’s still far from perfect, but it made good progress.
And that expansion brought with it one particular mission that’s a real favourite of mine, despite its flaws: a raid on the Imperial Archives on Coruscant.
The Second Last Mission
The fact that I introduce this as a raid on a single building might already set your alarm bells ringing. Yes, this is a more RPG-esque mission that focuses on guiding individuals around rather than base-building and grand strategic manoeuvres.
In this case, it’s less ridiculous than you might think. Empire at War doesn’t do base-building, except on the galactic map — skirmishes are fought with whatever resources are already there, with buildings endlessly respawning squads for defenders and invaders pulling pre-built reinforcements from orbit. The RTS part of the game is already focused pretty purely on unit control.
It begins with the obligatory Cantina Scene, one of which must by law occur in every single Star Wars story ever. It’s a fairly clean “briefing” cantina scene, though, simply accompanied by a cantina soundtrack — which is quite amusing, really, because our three criminal heroes discuss quite nonchalantly in publich that they’re about to rob the empire. They don’t even find a shady booth!
The mission comprises several distinct little sections, and that’s the main thing I love about it. There’s something quite special about having individuals working towards a common goal (or not) independently, with each performing some task suited to their abilities in a different part of the assault course — and then having the pieces of that assault course converge.
Perhaps the mission’s first boo-boo is that the entire map is immediately revealed; there’s no black fog hiding it, merely the semi-opaque fog of war that conceals enemy units but leaves the terrain wide open.
That means you can see ahead of time how the assault course is laid out, if not precisely which of your heroes is going to go where. Maybe, though, this actually adds to the appeal — because you can see and appreciate the layout as a whole, as a coherent space. People are not being teleported between areas that are connected only by pretend, they are in the same real space and blockaded by genuine doors.
I think it’s a smaller expression of the same appeal that lies behind the love of continuity across films, across universes — it’s just satisfying to see things fit, and equally oppositely painful when they don’t (but you’ve got the Close, But No Biscuit podcast if you want to open that particular can of worms)
So while tactical criminal genius Tyber Zann goes in the front door with his shotgun and bribes some guards, immortal force-sensitive bird-man Urai Fenn goes in the basement to
cut blow up some cables while our-Sith-are-cooler Nightsister Silri takes the loading bay.
The Imperial Archives are in fact a museum, in itself a wonderful setting for a dungeon crawl. Pieces of decoration from normal scenarios are placed in lovingly crafted dioramas, with real units frozen in miniature as exhibits. It’s very fitting as a finale mission, that you get to drift by some of the worlds you’ve previously conquered in microcosm — a bit like how most of the original Sonic games gave you a short re-tour of the game by mixing samples of music from each zone over the credits.
It’s also just, well, kind of cool. It’s a pleasant extrapolation that makes sense within the Star Wars mythos; Palpatine is a Sith Lord so of course he’d store Sith artefacts in his personal vault which is behind a museum that proclaims the might of the Empire. Of course, poetically (or not), this mission takes place just before the second Death Star is destroyed over Endor and the Empire begins to collapse.
The major downside is that the heroes on offer don’t have much interest to them. As I said in the introduction, there’s not a lot of playing to actually be done in Empire at War. You call in the units that will best counter the enemy’s units, and then attack-move them around a bit until you win.
Hero units here have a maximum of two abilities — the first alarm bell. We’ve recently learnt from Nox that five is the magic number for controlling a single character, and Warcraft III has taught us for a long time that four is also comfortable enough. Two is fine when you have an army alongside, but it’s far too few to add much interest to managing a single character. It doesn’t encourage much clicking, or much thinking about what to click and when.
The two abilities on offer for each hero are also nothing to write home about. Tyber Zann can Bribe enemy units to convert them to his side, which only works for a few pre-placed stormtroopers, and a personal cloaking field that lets him run away. Urai Fenn has an area stun that doesn’t work on the force adepts he fights individually, and another personal cloaking field (he also regenerates health so he’s basically invulnerable). Silri can summon a pet Rancor and drain life, which means she only really has one ability because the Rancor hangs around until murdered.
I suppose I’ve always been drawn to this style of mission. I remarked about similar frameworks in the Armelior’s WC3 campaign Rise of the Lich King, where missions would swap between heroes — even between factions — as they ran their course.
I just love small, comprehensible, interlocking mechanisms. The way each subsection of this level twists around the others… Space and narrative are combined to beautiful effect in this mission — it’s just a shame the actual gameplay mechanics aren’t quite there.