Star Wars is a franchise that has been probably milked to death by now by every industry we can think of, the video game industry has spawned some truly awful games based on Lucas' brainchild, but in amongst the chaff there's definitely wheat.
The weakest aspect of the franchise so far has been in the RTS genre, this has been thankfully rebalanced now by Empire at War. The game isn't the greatest leap forwards in the genre but it certainly brings to life the Star Wars universe for the PC gamer much better than its RTS counterparts did in the past.
There are several modes of play in Empire at War, you can play a Skirmish style battle or go for the Galactic Conquest mode, and you can even play a Campaign as either the Rebel Alliance or the Galactic Empire.
Skirmish is just that, a battle between two opposing sides on either the ground based or space based maps. The game has no real resource gathering and instead a certain amount of points are generated for you to buy vehicles and equipment with as the game progresses, you can also capture resource point areas and build pads to construct certain defences/modules.
Galactic Conquest is where the game really attempts to shine and bring something new to the table, one could of course argue that Star Wars: Rebellion did the same thing but at least it's nice to see this mode has been included in the game. Playing as either the Rebel Alliance or the Galactic Empire you fight for dominance over the Galaxy.
Each game day you gain a certain amount of money and this buys you everything you need, you can play an extensive tutorial to learn the nuances of the game's mode and it is highly recommended that you do. By waging war on your opponent and capturing planets you will eventually be able to gain access to better technology, the Rebels Steal it and the Empire just take it.
When you steal all the available technology from a tech list your tech level raises and you can access bigger and better ships, weapons and so on. Each planet can support a limited amount of buildings and you can usually build a space station in orbit around it. The stations are useful to protect your planet from attack by hostile forces.
Every planet also offers a particular bonus to the faction that controls it, for example you might gain a production bonus to your credits if you own the Spice Mines of Kessel.
Campaign is similar to Galactic Conquest but you can experience the story from either side of the coin, learning how the Alliance liberated the X-Wings from the Empire and how Han Solo fits into the grand scheme of things when he decides to liberate the Wookies.
There is no base building as such as all areas are pre-built based upon the tactical map phase of the game, where you can manage your planets and micro-manage your fleets. There are unit caps and so forth to prevent insane amounts of units and on the whole the entire game works well enough.
There are two styles of RTS battle on offer, the space battles which are arguably much better than the land battles. The land battles feel a little tacked on to me and they don't quite have the feel of the space segments, they are clunky and somewhat repetitious, this again could be said about the RTS style gameplay as a whole however - once you've played it a few times then it begins to become more like an endless grind than any real kind of fun.
In space there are far more tactical options than on ground, for example you can order your units to aim for specific parts of a large ship or station, blasting the engines on a large Imperial Star Destroyer can halt the ship and make it more vulnerable to attack from large capital class vessels, blasting the Turbo Laser turrets on a station will give your capital ships a better chance of levelling the structure.
I also dislike build-pads and I would have preferred a more free-form style of base construction, regardless of the fact that the game isn't really about that. For me it's one of the key elements of a good RTS. Battle for Middle Earth suffered the same fate so Empire at War isn't alone in that respect - but BFME II dropped the build-pad idea so I hope a sequel to Empire at War will do the same.
Units are brought into the battle via reinforcement point landing zones on the ground or reinforcement areas in space, sometimes you are tasked with capturing more of these zones to increase your available amount of reinforcements and sometimes you're not.
You can bring in Heroes to the game such as Obi Wan or Darth Vader, these special units have powers and skills beyond the normal units and Lord Vader can take down tanks with his force crush power, this alone makes him a formidable and dangerous opponent against any and every unit in the game.
Empire at War excels quite nicely in the graphics department for the space battles, but then the ground battles and units let it down with some flat and pretty uninspired character and unit models. Even the game's heroes seem a little drab when you look at things, the camera has been forced into a specific set angle even when it is unlocked in the options; it is still pretty hard to get a good tactical awareness.
The graphics are a mixed bag, in space they have some beautiful explosions and some excellent damage mechanics, but the ground sections again feel as though they've been glossed over and given a cursory look before the developers went back to space battles and grinned at the sight of a Star Destroyer being torn in two with a sudden flash and bang of pretty lights.
This is also the same with the maps, in space they're beautiful and full of detail but on the ground they're all fairly similar and bland in places, the tundra of Hoth might as well be the stinky swamp of Dagobah.
There are some very prevalent AI problems with the game, path-finding seems to be a hit and miss affair for the ground battles and units will often do some pretty dumb things, the enemy will Zerg-Rush you with units and ignores complex tactics, often just throwing the biggest thing it can bring out into the fray.
In space however things are often vastly different as the enemy will often hide bombers or fighters in asteroid fields, nebulae and the like. It will protect its strongest asset with weaker fighters and try to keep you occupied; there are at least some tactics to its assault.
It's as good as it gets with several John Williams classic pieces as well as all new music created for the game.
With a tonne of stock sounds to draw from the game's developers couldn't go far wrong with this one, so they have kept to the feel of the movies with the convincing scream of the Tie fighter and the roar of the Falcon's engines as blasters both in space and ground fire off all around.
The performances range from good to excellent, but mostly they stay on the excellent side with a superb rendition of Luke Skywalker and the best take of Han Solo yet provided to boot. The rest of the characters are all reasonable and well acted with decent dialogue and an in-theme script.
You can play the Skirmish battles with/against friends; if you play them with friends then you share the same base/resources and can pool your talents to take down the enemy.
You can play Galactic Conquest against a single player, this is something that I liked the idea of but I would have liked to see team play implemented as well, so you can team up with a friend against the Empire or the Alliance.
Ah well, perhaps a mod or a patch or both.
Offline LAN play and Online net play are supported, the game however didn't pull me enough to play it Online but I did have several Skirmish matches with a friend against the Empire and it was definitely fun, but later on we found ourselves getting rapidly bored of the vanilla play.
Empire at War is undoubtedly the best use of the franchise RTS wise so far, it's a good example that hopefully will spawn a much better sequel. It is let down by being repetitive and vanilla in the ground based battles, the lack of tactical options on ground are eclipsed by the wealth of options in space and I begin to wonder why they just didn't concentrate on a space based RTS to begin with and add ground as an optional patch later on or even a cheap expansion.
Even the Heroes of the game aren't enough to deliver it from being just a decent game, if you like Star Wars then you'll probably like this game - but I like Star Wars and all I really can say is, better luck next time.
And no doubt, there will be a next time.
It's high time the game industry woke up to the fact that a franchise isn't just going to be an instant hit based on the name, things are changing and the recent cut-backs and crumbling development software houses are proving that their customers are becoming more and more discerning when they consider a game title based on an existing franchise.
When all is said and done, there's potential here and fun to be had so it's not as though this game is a wicked loss - I predict that since it's heavily moddable there will be some good mods to come out of the already rabid fanbase, which for a mod-psycho like me is great news.
There's still enough gameplay and content here to make it a very worthwhile game, it could have taken a few more months however for extra features and some much needed polish to really make it shine.