Matthew Moore - Associate Editor 3.21.06
LucasArts has a long track record of Strategy games that have failed for one reason or another.
Starting with Rebellion, which was a decent game, but never clicked with the mainstream gaming audience. Then moving on with Force Commander, which was simply one of the worst RTS games ever created. And finally ending with Galactic Battlegrounds, essentially an Age of Empires mod, the game was admittedly fun, but it wasn't really Star Wars it was Age of Empires with lasers. LucasArts decided to give Star Wars strategy another go this year when it turned to a new developer called Petroglyph. Although the name most likely is not familiar with our readers, the people who work at Petroglyph are well known to the RTS world. The team behind Command and Conquer, the definitive RTS series, founded Petroglyph. We are happy to report that Petroglyph has finally found the right formula for Star Wars strategy.
With the developer's heritage it would seem obvious that Empire at War would be an RTS, and in some ways it still is, but it is so much more than that. For the long term Star Wars gamer Empire at War is more of a merger of Rebellion and Galactic Battlegrounds. The game can be divided into two sections, tactical and strategic. Tactical being further divided into space and ground combat.
The strategic component of the game takes place on a large 2D galactic map, in campaign mode this map can comprise of more than 40 planets. During the strategic portion of the game you must control production and resource allocation to all of the planets under your control. At first this seems relatively easy, but here's the kicker, the game is real-time. So when you have a dozen worlds under your control you had better make decisions quickly or you will soon find yourself with a lot fewer worlds to worry about. Although this is probably the most stressful portion of the game, it is surprisingly easy to pick up and really fun. It is a refreshing change from your standards RTS. And we aren't just talking about a change in pace, the strategic side directly affects the tactical side of things.
Last year a famous American coined the phrase, "You go to war with the army you have and not the army you want." That phrase truly epitomizes Empire at Wars' view on tactical combat. You build your armies and fleets in strategic view and then control those troops in tactical view. There is no longer any traditional RTS build up during a battle; you can't just continuously pump out troops (there are ways of calling in reinforcements though).
So let's take a closer look at the two tactical modes. The mode everyone is curious about is space. Space combat was lacking from Force Commander and Galactic Battlegrounds, and most likely at least partially the reason neither worked. How can you have a Star Wars strategy game without space combat? It is clear that Petroglyph spent a great deal of time working on space combat, because it is incredible. When two fleets meet up over a planet you immediately switch over to space combat. At times during these battles you really feel like you are watching the movies. The sense of scale is incredible, watching a Star Destroyer swarming with gnat like TIE fighters is amazing and being able to control this TIEs is awesome. Surprisingly space combat is definitely the more difficult of the two tactical portions of the game. The computer AI is incredibly devious (hiding in asteroid belts, targeting just the right components etc). You often need to micro-manage all of your ships to make sure that they are targeting the right components of capital ships. Don't worry though, if you don't want to deal with this portion of the game you can have the battles auto resolve. But honestly you'd be missing out; this portion of the game is what truly makes it Star Wars.
Surprisingly the final section of the game is the weakest. You would think with Petroglyph's long history of making RTS games that the ground combat portion would be a no brainer. I'm not saying that ground combat isn't fun, but some things just don't make sense and in many ways it kind of seems like the ground combat could run itself without you being around. When you land on a planet, or your opponent lands on your planet you switch to ground combat. As you can't make more units you need to rely on reinforcements, which you receive, based on the number of reinforcement points you control. Reinforcement points make sense, except for when you actually already have buildings on a planet that produce troops. During battle those buildings can continue making troops, but the troops somehow end up in space and then need to be transferred down to take part in combat. My other complaint is that the ground combat never gives you the epic scale combat we've all come to love from the movies. Often you are playing with just a handful of units.
Once you've mastered all three portions of the game, the strategy behind Empire at War becomes amassing fleets and troops for raids to capture enemy worlds and repelling your opponent's similar efforts on your worlds. The bigger the map the more difficult it becomes to both defend all of your worlds and keep the pressure on your opponent. It may sound complicated and long, but the game is a blast to play. Planets are changing hands back and forth and you really get the feeling you are in a galactic struggle.
The graphics in this game are good, but they just miss the bar on great. This is probably a matter of a developer not being able to focus on just one game play style. The ground combat just can't quite live up to games like Dawn of War, and the space combat isn't up to the level of Homeworld 2. This said though, the graphics will not disappoint, especially the space combat side of things. And of course when you have beautiful graphics you are going to need a pretty powerful computer to bring out the best in them.
Not surprisingly the sound in this game is classic LucasArts quality. Of course John Williams score instantly brings you into the Star Wars universe and overall the sound affects and voice acting is well down (although voices are not from the original cast).
Overall this game finally lives up to the potential everyone has been imagining a Star Wars strategy game would have. It does have its flaws, in particular the ground combat, but it is still an instant classic and well worth purchasing.
Final Score: 9.0/10