reviewed on PC
It Is a Period of Civil War
Star Wars: Empire at War is the latest offering in the great and venerable line of Star Wars games. Developed by a newcomer Petroglyph and the long time vet LucasArts, Empire at War is a Real-Time Strategy game with empire-building elements. And while it doesn't deviate too much from established RTS patterns, it does make several ambitious attempts to break new ground. They're not all good of course, but only rarely can someone be faulted for trying something new.
Playing to Nostalgia
I was incredibly disappointed by the lack of an opening movie. That said, the main menu more than made up for it. And what a bold statement: it's the cockpit of a TIE Fighter, and through the front panel you watch as a space battle unfolds. If you were lucky enough to be a PC gamer (and Star Wars fan) in 1995, the imagery will stir within you the memories of the best space combat game ever made - Star Wars TIE Fighter. I refuse to believe this is just a coincidence; Petroglyph wants the player in that frame of mind when they start playing Empire at War. It's a bit of a double-edged sword though, as the later Star Wars space combat games never lived up to their predecessor. Empire at War suffers from a similar fate - despite having many good qualities, it doesn't manage to fulfil its potential.
Empire at War offers both single player and multiplayer content, and except for the "Story Mode," the only difference between the two is if you have the chance to playing against humans or the AI. There are four primary game types: Land Battle, Space Battle, Land Control, and Galactic Conquest. If you've played any RTS game before, you know what to expect from the Land Battle: create units, conquer territory, and destroy your opponents. Space Battle follows the same pattern, except - you got it - in space. The Land Control plays a bit more like King of the Hill, where holding territory is more important than crushing your enemies. And while that's all pretty standard fare, Galactic Conquest takes a step in a new direction.
The More You Tighten Your Grip...
Empire at War attempts to take the "Real Time" portion of RTSes to a new level by expanding the scope of a typical game from a single battlefield to an entire galaxy. Sound like a lot? It is, and the learning curve for managing Galactic Conquest is pretty steep. Even after "playing" through the tutorials (which are easily the worst I have ever seen), you don't really have any idea how to play the game type effectively. It took me playing halfway through the Empire campaign before I felt like I had a good handle on how exactly to play. This is only compounded by the "Real Time" aspect, which is needlessly punishing. Although you can view the map and queue up build commands while the game is paused, you can't issue orders - the clock has to be ticking for you to do that. Issuing orders includes grouping units into one of the three space slots that represent orbit around a planet (or down onto a planet's surface) and giving "move" commands (accomplished by dragging a unit from one planet to another). The game doesn't indicate to you that you can't issue commands while paused, but none of your orders are carried out when you resume play.
...The More Star Systems Will Slip Through Your Fingers
And it doesn't end there. Where you drag a unit is also important - each planet has a special 4th slot for actions available only to certain types (or groups) of units. That slot can be used to order C3PO and R2-D2 to steal technology, have a Smuggler steal credits, or send a Rebel Raid (less than 4 ground units) past a fleet's blockade. A miss-click sends your units into orbit instead of on the special mission, and for a Rebel Raid, that usually means having your units destroyed by the blockade or starbase garrison. You also can't issue new orders while a unit is on the move - once you send them on their way, they might as well cease to exist until they arrive at the destination.
The map itself is also unintuitive. The paths between star systems are unclear, and the pseudo-3D view of the map makes the issue worse by shifting your perspective as you scroll around the map. The only clear delineation is between planets that will grant you a bonus for controlling both ends, and those can be any distance apart. Finding out if a fleet can go from one system to the next requires a trial and error process of grabbing a fleet and dragging it to your intended destination. The gray line displayed is the path that the fleet will take, and is theoretically the shortest route. To make matters worse, the icons representing how developed a star system is (and how developed it can be) aren't clearly documented anywhere - so when you mouse over a planet for the first time, you're greeted with a pop-up that might as well be in a foreign language. "Okay, Tatooine is at... 3 of 5 and 2 of 4.... somethings. Screws? Sleds? What do those icons mean?!" Well, if you play with the UI enough, you eventually find out the icons on top represent current star base level vs. potential star base level (the icons look like small screws), while the bottom icons do the same for your ground development (number of buildings vs. available build slots - these are slightly more recognizable as buildings).
No Pros and Cons at this time