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Star Wars: Empire at War

Star Wars - Empire at War

Correlian Corvettes blast away at Star Destroyers. X-Wings divert power to the engines to sweep round a group of launching tie fighters and pepper them with Fire. Wedge Antilles makes a strafing run on the Death Star. No, it's not A New Hope - it's Empire at War, the latest Star Wars strategy game.

Every review of a Star Wars game starts with a recap of where the particular genre of the particular game has been before. No review of a Star Wars FPS can start without some back reference to the incredible Dark Forces and Jedi Knight. No space game can start without contemplating the awesome original X-Wing. Star Wars strategy games, however, have less of an endearing legacy - Galactic Battlegrounds and Force Commander both utterly failing to set the world alight.

However, Empire at War does have one thing in its favour - it's been coded by Petroglyph, a studio formed from a bunch of ex-Westwood people. Anyone with a memory longer than goldfish will know that Westwood created Command & Conquer, making them a fairly safe pair of hands in which to place a RTS game.

Star Wars: Empire at War Gameplay Star Wars: Empire at War Gameplay
The game itself is set before the events of Episode 4 - the original film - and documents the rise of the Rebellion. It takes a few liberties with the half-established backstory to the films, but in general it is mostly faithful. It takes all the units you know and love, such as AT-ATs, X-Wings, Stormtroopers and even the Death Star, and lets you build them and play them. This was always the potential pull of previous Star Wars strategy games, but Petroglph has managed to pull it off rather more effectively.

Empire at War is not your average RTS. It is fair to say that later versions of C&C epitomised, for me, everything wrong with the genre. Gameplay was ever thus: bring up a new map, make as many units as possible as fast as possible, rush across a 2D map to capture points and kill the enemy before he had time to generate a decent amount of units. Lather, rinse repeat.

Easily they flow, quick to join you in a fight

EaW, as I shall henceforth refer to it, attempts to take a rather different tack. Gameplay takes place on two different levels - a 'battle' level and 'galaxy strategy' level. You start as one of the two Star Wars factions, the Rebellion or the Empire, and are given a couple of planets - out of a galaxy of 20 or so - as your starting worlds. Worlds generate income for you, and you can build facilities on worlds that can increase that - such as mining colonies. You can also use worlds to research new technology and produce troops and vehicles. Each world can do different things: so Yavin 4 is a world that is well-equipped to build vehicles, being the home to the Rebellion's space fleet. Alderaan, as a densely populated capital, is a great place for foot troops. The aim of the game is to control planets, increase resources, increase troops and then expand your empire / rebellion, in line with a campaign-based mission structure. This is the game at the galactic level.

Star Wars: Empire at War Gameplay Star Wars: Empire at War Gameplay
Troops and fighters can be moved between planets that you control. Upon arrival at a planet, you can begin the battling nitty-gritty - taking out the other side. Some planets have little on the surface, and the battles will take place in space, using your fleets of X-Wings, Star Destroyers, space stations etc. Capturing an enemy space station can lead to an increase in resources to build ships. Alternatively, some fights will be ground based, and you'll have to fly in ground troops and assault vehicles to take control of objectives.

Forces are persistent - if you manage to complete a battle with few casualties, you can pull those troops back off the planet they're on and redeploy them elsewhere. However, if you're already grasping troops from any and every planet to desperately garrison a stranded outpost, you can a) expect to be in real trouble if they take a kicking on the planet they're on, since you won't have any more and b) expect to get attacked by the enemy somewhere you are weakest.

You are a traitor and a member of the Rebel Alliance!

The actual gameplay on the ground is a mixed bag. There are the standard RTS conventions: grouping units, right click to attack, etc etc. Interestingly, there is a far more pronounced 'paper, scissors, stone' mechanic: getting the right mix of units for a battle is very important. Light vehicles suck against AT-STs, but infantry are far more capable of dodgy the heavy laser fire and taking them down. Set infantry against infantry, and you can expect a prolonged battle: throw in a couple of vehicles and watch enemy troops get mown down (literally).

Star Wars: Empire at War Gameplay Star Wars: Empire at War Gameplay
Disappointingly, there's no real tactical use of land. The maps are all flat with no advantage gained from height. This is disappointing in the wake of recent RTS games, such as Dawn of War, that make fantastic use of strategic positioning on the vertical plane. In that game, setting up an assault squad on a roof top can enable you to dominate a cramped road; in this game, there's no way to get troops to take to the tree-tops, or fire from the top of buildings.

The same goes for space battles. They're fun, and when you're watching Tie Fighters squeal their way around the map, it's hard not to be immersed. However, the game plays like Homeworld never existed. That game consisted entirely of absolutely sublime space combat, with a control interface and game design that enabled epic, involving space battles as you could truly expect them to happen. Here, EaW feels, again, flat.

Because you're not producing units within the map - all your unit allocation and production is handled at the galactic level, if you remember - there's the ability to bring down reinforcements, if you control a suitable landing area. However, there's no real strategic important to the landing areas: one would have hoped that getting to the centre of an Empire base and controlling a reinforcement area there would enable you to bring down troops and destroy the tyrannical bastards from the inside out. However, that's not really the case: areas are inevitably stuck out on a limb somewhere.

The game is also incredibly hard, and harshly unforgiving (as well as a little stupid). In some missions, you're charged with escorting key troops, such as Rebel pilots. However, those pilots appear to have a death wish, rushing off to challenge garrisons of Storm Troopers as soon as they appear, rather than sensibly hanging back a bit. Some maps appear nigh-on impossible to manage, even on Easy, as your enemy rushes your starting point before you've barely had a chance to set up camp.

I find your lack of faith disturbing

All in all, Empire at War is easily the best Star Wars strategy game out there. The two-tiered approach to galactic conquest is innovative and really adds something to the genre. The setting is good, the missions are cool and, hell, it's Star Wars.

However, I can't help but feel like some depth could have been added to the gameplay - literally. Better terrain features in ground battles and 3D movement in space battles, along with better AI, could have made this into a stellar title.

Turn the page for our in-depth performance evaluation of the game's graphics settings and benchmark performance on mid-range and high-end systems.