Star Wars: Empire at War
The Star Wars-universe is without a doubt the most heavily utilised sci-fi setting in the entire games industry. A year won’t be complete without at least multiple Star Wars-games released in stores. 2006 doesn’t seem different at all because here is Empire at War (EaW) already. A real-time strategy game made by ex-Westwood folks, a description like that could make several fans drool but experience ain’t always a guarantee for another great game. Read along to find out if we have to drop the lads from Petroglyph Studios into the gruesome mouth of the almighty Sarlaac or if we have to hand them over our beloved little sex slave Leia.
Installation complete, let’s get started. Aha, LucasArts has a new logo it seems, one they’re so proud of they want to keep showing it each time you launch the game. Uninterruptable movies like this are, like in every EA title, a waste of time. After a while we do arrive in the menu you might already know from the demo: a view from inside a Tie Fighter which is roaming between spectacular spaceclashes, while John Williams’ Imperial March radiates from your sound boxes… if that doesn’t excite you in the first place then you have probably bought the wrong game. Of course, what contributes to that ‘I love Star Wars’-feeling is the fact that EaW kicks off right before the storyline of the first classic Star Wars movie (A New Hope). The three recent movies in the franchise were complete bummers for me, the atmosphere and designs didn’t appeal at all (I won’t even start about the acting). So, nothing is better than the old trilogy and that definitely plays in the advantage of this game.
I find your lack of faith disturbing. (Darth Vader)
The singleplayer consists of a campaign (Rebel Alliance or Empire), the Galactic Conquest mode and Skirmish. The campaign is a good point to start and to learn all the possibilities which are available in Galactic Conquest too. The main difference is that the campaign contains several missions which advance a linear storyline and unlock more technologies and planets while Galactic Conquest is more freeform but without a real story. Both gamemodes offer you a well-organized map of the Star Wars universe. It is literally propped full of planets on which you can build those typical structures from a standard RTS (barracks, turrets, extra mines, etc.). Each planet can also have a space station in orbit (which can be upgraded from time to time) to produce all those flashy spaceships. Once you get the hang of it (which shouldn’t take long normally) your main goals will be to expand as much as possible for which you need as many units you can produce. The ‘population limit’ is determined by the number of planets under your control and the amount of credits you acquire daily from mines and fixed taxes. And that’s how the circle goes; keep on conquering planets, keep on producing those units like there is no tomorrow and fend off a counterattack once in a while. Sounds a bit boring doesn’t it? It is, after a while. Some attempts have been made to keep things fresh though, like the fact that not every planet has the same functions; Dagobah doesn’t even have a functional planet surface-part or a collection of asteroïds is only interesting for a space station. Some planets give bonusses and produce certain units at a lower price than others. Next to the two known sides there are also Pirates which control parts of space. Don’t hope for much initiative or signs of intelligence on their part though, they’re mainly waiting to be slaughtered. Their arsenal ain’t impressive either but it forms a cheap alternative in some of the skirmish/multiplayer maps where you can take over a Pirate outpost.
We seem to be made to suffer. It’s our lot in life. (C-3PO)
This all doesn’t change the fact that things become stale pretty fast. A shame really, because if Petroglyph would have made the campaigns/Galactic Conquest mode turnbased and at the same time added more options (like resources, trade and diplomacy) and independent sides, it all would have kept you interested for more than a couple of hours. Now the player is stuck with a simplified, real-time overview which features an uneasy interface. The only way on the global view to see where enemy fleets can come from is to send troops to surrounding planets. Why not keep those connection lines visible at all times? The grouping and managing of your troops is pretty irritating too. You can try it in a quick way, without zooming in to the planet where armies are stationed, by just throwing all the unit icons together. Of course, in 99% of those cases ground units are stacked together with spaceships and that isn’t really handy (enemy ships tend to relentlessly attack those easy target transports during space combat). So, you want to split them up in a better way. Alllright, then you zoom in and you’re wasting minutes of valuable time with dragging units across all those fleets. I searched like hell for a quick key which could transfer all the numbers of a certain unit type to another fleet but didn’t found it. The biggest fault of the campaign and Galactic Conquest is the lack of satisfaction. Like I said previously, within a short time you’re doing nothing else than producing troops because numbers are key in this part of the game. You’ll always win when there are enough reinforcements available and that counts for both combat parts (space and ground). Subtile tactics like rebels which can bypass space fleets when they want to attack a planet’s surface or smugglers which can steal credits or a bounty hunter whose job it is to neutralise hostile heroes, it all doesn’t add much when the ‘strategy’ of keeping enough troops at bay is enough. The battles themselves offer fast and small-scaled action rather than extensive strategy.
Playing longer than 10 minutes on a battle map is an exception really. Fast-paced RTS-gameplay isn’t bad of course but this way you’re very easily tempted to just press the auto-resolve key instead of fighting the conflicts yourself. The ‘bond’ you might have had with your troops is utterly squashed by this fact. Just send in some more troops and things will be ok.
Let’s see what this baby can do. (Han Solo)
Let’s discuss that more traditional, actual RTS-part itself then. Nearly all the creatures and machinations you remember from the old movies are present here. From the gigantic AT-AT Walkers to the Airspeeders, from Tie Fighters to Nebulon B-Frigates, it’s all available. A bunch of less known vehicles and spacecrafts were added too, which doesn’t always appeal as much as the known stuff but more on that later. In other areas of the game you can see the versatility of the Star Wars lore. Numerous exotic races and planets will be encountered by the player. Your relation with a planet’s population (which varies from Twi’Leks to Geonosians) only matters on the planetary surface and as you might have guessed, isn’t always positive; some feel like they should help out the Empire, others are aligned with the Rebels and some don’t like either side (e.g. you can’t expect from a Rancor to be friends with anyone of course). Most of them can be labelled as ‘folks with some lasers’ but you shouldn’t underestimate them though. They aren’t part of a population limit and they can conquer reinforcement points, neutral buildings and turrets. Those are definitely important advantages when you want to resolve a battle quickly. Nice extras are the benefits and disadvantages of the weather effects (rain makes lasers ricochet on Imperial armor and a windy climate sends rockets everywhere).
In space you cand find environmental hazards too. Nebulas temporarily disable special abilities of your ships, an Ion Storm even takes away the energy shields. Sending a Star Destroyer through an asteroid field will have the same, unpleasant effects as in the movies.
Great, kid. Don’t get cocky. (Han Solo)
Heroes seem like an obligation in every RTS nowadays and thus Empire At War is full of them. The known characters from the classic movies act as the usual superunits here; Darth Vader boasts real Force, he hurls infantry and vehicles away as if it is nothing.
He did seem to have a weakness for turrets but if he encounters them one at a time, he simply ‘shakes’ them till they’re destroyed. Han Solo and the unseperatable Chewie can respectively disable and take over enemy vehicles. Showing off with an AT-AT soon becomes a pain when you see a muscled hairball stealing it. In space these Star Wars-icons are present too and just as other figures like Boba Fett and Luke Skywalker (with his Red Squadron), they form a true plague for fighters and parts of the larger spaceships. It doesn’t stop here, lesser known names as colonel Veers (with his improved AT-AT) offer enough fun with their unique specials. Even Kyle Katarn and Mara Jade (of the Jedi Knight and Mysteries of the Sith games) will fight with or against you. The normal units have a special ability of their own too which they can activate at all times (or after a cooldown period) just like the heroes. These actions range from simple stuff like faster movement (X-Wings) to killer abilities like Tractor Beams (Destroyers).
Many Bothans died to bring us this information. (Mon Mothma)
The missions you’ll receive are underwhelming, especially the ground level tasks are not so great. The gameplay somewhat resembles that of Ground Control (in EaW you’re also fighting for reinforcement points) but without the enjoyment and large scale.
Several times I was reminded of those typical missions of the Command & Conquer series where you only had a limited number of units at the same time for a mission. These Tanya-, “For King and Country”- or Forgotten-event were pleasant enough back in the real C&C-days, but even here they managed to screw it up (biggest example being the horrendously boring Emperor Palpatine-mission against the Bothans). The fact that in most cases you can bring in reinforcements completely takes away any challenge there might have been already.
If you did fail for a story mission (in the rare case of not having enough reinforcements probably) you can restart it without the campaign ending abruptly. Don’t get me wrong here, there is some fun to be had during ground battles with the bombing runs and the neutral turrets you can take over but it never lasts long, also because the maps are outrageously small. I am sure even Dune 2 has bigger maps than EaW. The structure of these maps lacks imagination too; always two, three or four reinforcement points, a base and some neutral structures here and there. Don’t the ground units take care of the spectacle then? Partially yes; there are the heroes of course and seeing an AT-AT or two in full drive sure is worth the effort. But there are at least as much uninspired troops which are just not attractive enough. The charm of a T2-B or Repulsor Tank is zero to nothing compared to a ‘simple’ AT-ST. Both sides also have an artillery-unit but on such small maps like these with little to no movement space they are responsible for way too much cheap kills. No, the ground battles should have been better, at least a bit larger. I don’t necessarily ask for a Star Wars: Total War game but this is definitely too small-scale to justify the ‘Star Wars’ part of the game title.
That’s no moon. It’s a space station. (Ben Kenobi)
Yo Ryuken bro, is there something positive left actually? But of course, Star Wars isn’t Star Wars without the epic fights between gigantic spaceships and that’s the part where the game really shines. One has to admit that the inspiration clearly comes from titles like Star Command, Star Trek: Armada and Conquest: Frontier Wars (space is represented by a 2D-area) but still, a good clone can be amusing too. Everything that the ground battles miss in terms of coolness is present in the space conflicts. The Destroyers, Mon Calamari Cruisers, Assault Frigates and Tartan Patrol Cruisers are a joy to watch.
Add to that the numerous small fighters sprawling on your screen, the reinforcements who appear out of nowhere from hyperspace, the spectacular Ion Cannon and Hypervelocity Gun and you get something really kickass! The decision of Petroglyph to provide different parts of a certain ship to destroy is also great (although we know that from Homeworld and other strategy games too -Ed.). Some might find it too ‘arcadey’ in the beginning but there certainly is a tactical advantage to be gained here. Taking out the engine of a big Imperial Star Destroyer f.e. when he has jumped out of hyperspace a bit too far from battle is a great way to isolate him. Your enemy isn’t even able to destroy his own units (there is no self-destruct key for any spaceship) so he just has to wait till you decide to give the final blow. Furthermore the combat is much more pleasant to execute and to look at. No stupid mazelike structures of the ground maps here but real space.
Maps and unit count could have been bigger but the spectacle present now makes up for it bigtime. The way you see a broken Cruiser falling apart or when you notice the Death Star pulverising a planet beneath the playsurface, it gives a real kick. Hell, you can even trigger that green Death Star beam yourself! Just like in the land battles you can acquire turrets (in Skirmish/multiplayer there are also mines) and there is only big space station on the map.
That malfunctioning little twirp, this is all his fault. (C-3PO)
The bugs then. One you regularly notice in RTS-games is present here too; after an animation I sometimes experienced that the camera kept flying to the upper part of the map.
I only had one crash with an in-game animation, less annoying was the sight of some unit icons racing from one side of the map to another. Really odd, since the units themselves sticked to their normal speed. These are the kind of errors you might expect, from any game. But I am less forgiveable for the performance. The renewed autodetect option from the latest patch is better for sure, but that didn’t mean I could enjoy a reasonable framerate with the detail levels it advised me to use.
At the end of the game, when it all comes down to bringing in as many troops as possible, you really get the impression some dimwit is annoying you by constantly shifting the game speed from fast to slow. During the last mission of the Empire campaign (I chose for the snowplanet Hoth as the last bastion of the Rebels to conquer) the ground level battle really froze still on several occasions. Each map which features more than two players takes a serious performance hit too, especially when everyone starts to drop all they’ve got into the battle. Hopefully LucasArts will release another patch to fix it.
Doesn’t sound so bad. (Han Solo)
The music is superb and just Star Wars through and through. The familiar themes of John Williams were treated with the necessary respect and sometimes you can hear some added rocktunes from Frank “Hell March” Klepacki. It doesn’t hinder the theme in any way though. The sound effects are authentic but strangely enough not too remarkable either. The infantry lasers for example could use a more powerful tune. Also, some of the hero voices aren’t the original ones from the movies but then again, in the heat of the battle you won’t notice that.
The graphical engine is neatly done and definitely shows more than decent sceneries when all the options are maxed out. Unfortunately, that means you really need a high-end system to keep a steady framerate. Medium detail is fine but not shocking, low detail is simply despicable. Explosions can look great but also extremely fake and amateuristic. In space it’s pretty annoying to see explosions ‘drag’ for a while. Fancy stuff like heat distortion effects can only obscure a bit of these negligences. And when zoomed in, you’ll notice after a while that the fighter animations (in space) look quite awkward. Flying in formation is cool but once the battle enrages it becomes clear that the way how Tie Fighters or X-Wings move seperately doesn’t resemble the dogfights from the movies at all.
In Cinematic View this strange sight really comes through and you’ll immediately notice the glitches. A pity, yet in the end most of these details don’t matter that much. A strategy game is always best played from zoomed out perspective and in such a view Empire at War doesn’t really disappoint (in space then I mean).
The skirmish mode doesn’t always contain different maps than those found in the campaigns. Hoth stays Hoth, allright (even if it isn’t bigger than two footballfields), but in this way a skirmish-mode is easily put together of course. Each unique planetary environment also has only one map in skirmish. Looking from the bright side; with twelve different landmaps you get proof that in terms of visual variation there is not much wrong in this game. There are also twelve spacemaps. The different skirmish options are Land, Space and Land Control. During a Land session you just need to overthrow the enemy side. Two bases fight against each other and a lot of reinforcement points can grant you a bigger population limit if you can control them in time. In Land Control you only need to worry about those reinforcement points. Space is… well, just skirmish in space, with two opposing spacestations. The main source of income there are the asteroid mines. An unfortunate detail is the fact that the continuing struggle between the Rebels and the Empire doesn’t change in skirmish. In other words: it is impossible to have more than two different teams or two teams of the same side. It’ll always be Empire vs. Rebels, and only on maps with two bases, even if there are four players in the game (in multiplayer the amount of player is raised till eight). A fight between two Empire sides won’t be found here (but you do come across such situations in the campaign).
Good against remotes is one thing. Good against the living, that’s something else. (Han Solo)
If we forget some of the aforementioned singleplayer issues, then maybe Empire at War can excel in multiplayer? After all, that is usually where the most fun is in RTS’s, isn’t it? Well… no, the multiplayer has the same several problems that haunt the singleplayer part (like ultrafast matches because of the very small maps), but next to that it’s a quite pain in the ass to even get connected to other people for a simple, online multiplayer session. There are big problems with routers because of the sometimes failing NAT-negotiation. The worst of all is that once a connection won’t work with someone, everyone else of the same session will have to stop and try to start another game with multiple players. The chance to succesfully enter any online session is roughly estimated fifty-fifty. Just check the chatrooms in the lobby for complaints.
It’s a shame really, because I didn’t experience these kind of problems with any other RTS that also uses Gamespy for its matchmaking and all things said and done, this game doesn’t really disappoint that much in multiplayer battles (if you can get them working). The space battles rock as hard as in the singleplayer, it isn’t much of a surprise to see that most multiplayer games take place on the space maps. Galactic Conquest mode is also playable online (for two players) but just as the Land mode it doesn’t really provide that much satisfaction. According to Petroglyph, the connection problem should be solved by the upcoming next patch though. It better be.
Empire At War continues a painful tradition of mediocre till reasonable Star Wars games (exceptions like Jedi Knight I and II only confirm the rule). You will never get the impression that this is a step forward for the RTS-genre nor that every aspect of the game is complete or decently worked out. In all honesty I have to say that the space battles were the main reason I kept playing the game again and again. The rest is fun to have played with for a couple of times but unfortunately, the enjoyment won’t last for long.