Even though I’m pretty sure I’ve killed Darth Vader at least a thousand times and I’m almost positive the Death Star can’t be rebuilt like a set of LEGOs anymore, everything seems to reset itself nicely year in and year out thanks to Star Wars games. LucasArts, in one more attempt at truly covering the genre spread, presents “Star Wars: Empire at War,” the publisher’s latest attempt since “Star Wars: Rebellion” (and developer Petroglyph’s first) at making the ultimate galactic management real-time strategy (RTS) with space and land battles. The end result consists of one of the most poorly written and rushed single player campaigns of any LucasArts title and a space battle system that is both mind-blowing and repetitive at the same time. If LucasArts hadn’t embedded in every fanboy’s brain that this stuff never gets old, “SW: EAW” would be no more than another RTS.
Yet somehow it escapes such a dire fate; it somehow makes the Kessel Run in less than 12 parsecs (yes, the Star Wars references are only beginning). It takes the manual from “SW: Rebellion” that was the length of the 9/11 report and turns the galaxy into an actually manageable world. Planets finally serve the purpose that RTS games are always hinting at in the first place: war! You build ground troops and space fleets; you buy barracks and space stations; and as always, you mine for resources until there’s nowhere left to mine. With an entirely war driven galactic management system, you might expect the single player campaign’s story to be an experience all its own to cover up the endless war. After all, it can’t all just be war raging nonsense can it? Psst-it’s called “Star Wars: Empire at War.” Apparently it is.
Both the Empire and Rebellion campaigns try to delve into the lesser-known characters from “A New Hope” and what they were up to when the Death Star was making its claim to fame. This idea worked well in novels, but when it comes to keeping a gamer awake for 15 hours, only throwing roughly 25 minutes of aged George Lucas-like storytelling into the campaigns is highly unattractive. Every mission’s objective is to either “destroy this” or “escort this” (which translates into destroying everything to make way for the escort). Usually these objectives turn into a lot of sitting around and waiting for a building or a space station to blow up. The story feels like it should have remained unheard of.
In a bright and bubbly revelation, every gamer who touches “SW: EAW” comes to realize that it is the battle system that makes the game mentionable. Land battles are, for the most part, quite bland due to repetitive and wide-open scenery fused with sub-par AI. It’s great seeing the AT-AT stomp around and even drop stormtroopers from its belly, but the monstrosity moves so slowly it’s almost impossible to control (don’t even think about turning it around). There’s a nice feature that lets you have bombing raids if you have a fleet stationed above the planet. Features like that can go a long way to making both the galactic management and battle systems feel like one strategic game. Mistakes like not being able to build land forces in the middle of battle, however, can also go a long way in making it a poorly made RTS. Overall, the ground battles feel like a sloppy version of “Galactic Battlegrounds” and serve only as more gameplay time to backup the game’s true shining glory: the space battles.
No screenshot, gameplay video or prior experience prepared me enough for “SW: Empire at War’s” magnificent space battles. They are tactical, strategic, graphically mesmerizing and as cinematic as it gets. The game’s strategic balance for both sides is very well done; the Rebels come equipped with fast ships like the x-wings or the corellian corvettes while the Empire comes with the massive star destroyers that can barely turn but deal loads of damage when they do strike. If you look even closer, each ship has its own time limited special ability such as turning off shields for maximum firepower or maximum speed.
But if you choose to look even closer, you may drool too much. Each large ship, such as the frigates or star destroyers, has specific points on its hull that can be targeted (this also applies to enormous space stations that hover above planets). In other words, in order to take down a star destroyer, you will want a squad of x-wings to get in there and take out its engines or shield generator before bringing in the frigates. After those go down, you might target the destroyer’s hangar bay and stop squads of tie fighters from flowing out. There are usually a dozen different points to target on a large ship and sometimes twice as many on the space stations. Surprisingly, the AI knows to follow this strategy on its own a lot of the time, leaving more time for you to sit back and enjoy the cinematic experience.
Each space map looks beautiful and comes filled with dozens of asteroid fields and nebulas that can be used strategically for sneak attacks and tactical maneuvers. Off in the background, you can always see the planet that you are fighting above spinning and, in a sense, showing off its beautiful modeling. Zooming in on a star destroyer or a space station as it explodes into hundreds of actual pixilated pieces is quite possibly as good as a Star Wars experience can get.
Roll all of the layers of gameplay together, throw it online and you’ve got endless hours to waste with other people. Since the game revolves around war, taking control of every planet in the galaxy tends to feel more like a string of repetitive wars than a three-hour epic story to tell your grandchildren. Nevertheless, if waging war for hours on end is your kind of corellian ale, then don’t waste a second in picking up “SW: EAW.”
If you’re looking for a game with “Civilization”-like management and “Command and Conquer” worthy ground battles in a Star Wars universe, however, keep waiting. I guarantee you the Death Star is dying to explode again and Leia can’t wait to put her slave dress on a dozen more times before LucasArts calls it quits. If you’ve waited a decade since “SW: Rebellion” for epic space battles, stop daydreaming about what Yoda might look like naked and buy it. At some point, however, LucasArts had best balance the scope of their games with the amount of time and money they put into them.
The Word on the Screen: 7.9/10
Now reach over and turn on the radio tomorrow (Wednesday) morning at 10 A.M. and listen to ‘Press Start’ on KCPR. You know you want to.