Star Wars: Empire at War
Developer: Petroglyph
Publisher: Lucasarts
Release Date: Out Now
Players: 1-8 online
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There are two types of Star Wars fan in the world: The ones who want to run about waving a lightsabre about, slashing infidels and whatnot. There are also those who want to command an Imperial fleet across the galaxy, order AT-ATs to stomp puny rebels and pretty much anything else that makes you seem as cool as Grand Moff Tarkin. Ever since I watched Empire back when I was a nipper I’ve been one of the latter fans and after some shaky starts we’re getting close to getting the game we want.

Empire at War is a middle ground between two Star Wars strategy games; one that focused too much on facts and figures (Star Wars: Supremacy) and one that cut out all strategic management sections and concentrated on 100% combat strategy. In EaW you get a little of everything in the strategy stakes, with the game split between planetary conquest, development and expansion (like the Total War titles) and real-time combat strategy both in space and on the planets.

The scale of the game is huge, with nearly fifty planets to fly between and fight over, all with little details like trade routes, speeding up army mobilisation, or access to special units when you’re in control of a planet. Petroglyph have included almost every Imperial and Rebel unit around, meaning you can have pretty much every showdown you’ve seen in the films: AT-ATs can assault rebel positions on Hoth, Star destroyers can exchange fire with Mon Calamari Cruisers above Endor, X-Wings and Tie Fighters can dogfight and the Death Star can blow the crap out of planets. Brilliant.

The Sound and music of Star Wars is also present, from the excellent Imperial March to the scorching sounds of lasers. The polite British voice of an Imperial captain sounding off: “Star destroyer reporting, sir” makes me pull a big evil grin and want to torture the girl next door to obtain the location of the rebel base…

There’s a fair few options to choose from in single player but most centre around the game’s main Galactic Conquest mode, with a storyline for each side to keep things moving a little. Essentially you start off with a few planets and some credits and have to move from one planet to the next until you’ve got ‘em all. It’s not that simple, though, as EaW is bloody tough in more than one way…

Rather than the turn-based outings of the Total War series, everything you do, from building cruisers to mining colonies, is on the clock and you can really feel it in the gameplay. Have the game set on anything but ‘easy’ and the computer will have your nuts if you’re not ready for them. The further you advance into space the harder it becomes as the computer starts assaulting several planets almost simultaneously, halting your preparation to take another planet but also stretching your forces thinly.

To take a planet you first need to clear the space above the planet and then land ground troops to take the planet. Space battles are by far the most impressive part of the game and also look the most polished. If you’re assaulting your fleet has to not only take out the defending fleet but blow up the Space Station protecting the planet too. These vary in size depending on the tech level but all have garrisons of ships to protect them. Smaller stations only have small fighters/bombers but when you get to the top rung, Imperial Space stations have Cruisers and Star Destroyers garrisoned. If a garrisoned unit is killed it respawns until the Station (or the hangar section of it) is destroyed. This garrison element also applies to the larger ships in the game, and all Imperial Heavy cruisers and Capital ships carry escorts of fighters and bombers.

It’s my greatest gaming moment in a long while to watch my Imperial fleet emerge from hyperspace, send out Tie recons, spot the Rebel ships and send out fighters to engage while the cruisers line themselves up for attack. Everything looks absolutely brilliant and with huge planets in the background as well as asteroid fields and characters like Darth Vader, Han Solo, Mon Mothma and Captain Needa getting involved it’s the closest we’ve ever come to playing an interactive Star Wars film.

Unfortunately the land element isn’t so well executed. Land battles involve a set number of units (the ones you assault with and the troops occupying at the time) and apart from the defenders perhaps having a few buildings which have garrisoned troops, there’s no chance to bring in more troops. Furthermore, the attacking army has to drop its troops at certain locations on the map, with a limit to how many troops can be on the field at one time. To send in more troops some have to die first, or you need to take another drop point. On some planets the limit is stupidly low (three on Kessel, with only one other drop point around), leaving you with hardly anything to assault with.

Luckily, three doesn’t mean three of one troop type, as they’re all bundled together in squads. One unit of Stormtroopers is actually two squads of about nine troopers, and one unit of AT-STs gives you four of the beasts to control. But the way land battles are made to favour the defender it’s almost always never enough. With Imperials especially, who face a cheap light tank but have no anti-tank troops, you’ll need at least double what the defenders have to take a planet, and some bombers wouldn’t go amiss either. The maps on each planet are all pretty varied but seem way too small and restrictive, forcing you into small alleys where you have no choice but to throw everything at the enemy head-on, which is hardly tactical. The Imperials also seem to be a lot weaker on the ground than the rebels, as every unit apart from the AT-AT and Darth Vader seems to get killed with relative ease.

This ties in with the Rebel’s huge shortfall when fighting space battles, something I found out when playing the game through the second time. The rebels have an abundance of small cruiser ships but when it comes to gunships and large cruisers (with garrisoned fighters) there’s really nothing until you get to the Mon Calamari Capital ships, right at the end of the technology spectrum. By this point the Imperials have four different types of large cruisers with fighter escorts and no matter how many smaller rebel ships you throw at them they keep coming. It wasn’t so bad having to recruit more soldiers as the Imperials as they cost nearly nothing (about 60 credits) but even the tiddliest of ships cost at least 1000 credits to replace and it tarnishes what is such a great Star Wars experience.

When playing Star Wars: Empire at War my friend, who was more critical than myself of the game, told me to ask myself: “what if this game wasn’t set in the Star Wars Universe?” If the game wasn’t Star Wars then you’d have an engaging strategy game which has a lot of attention to detail and is easy to pick up and get addicted to. Sure, the land battles are small and unfair but the amazing space battles more than make up for it, as long as you’re playing as the Imperials.

But I find it hard to think of this game without Star Wars being involved. It’s one of the best settings for games with the coolest characters and armies, and EaW lets you go nuts with them. It’s a shame that the sides are uneven on certain aspects and the complex sheen rubs off after a while - even for the fanboys, but it’s the best Star Wars Strategy game we’ve had yet and a step in the right direction toward the perfect SW game.

Best Bits

- Amazing space battles
- All authentic vehicles and troops
- Great sound and music
Worst Bits

- Weak land battles
- Uneven armies
- May not hold lasting appeal

by: Crazypunk

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