Star Wars: Empire at War feels like a game made by a committee of folks who had a hand in all the previous Star Wars titles. It has a ground-based RTS a lot like SW: Battlegrounds (and to some extent the less fortunate SW Force Commander). It utilizes reinforcement points like SW Battlefront. The strategy element is a lot like SW: Rebellion. It also throws in a space-based RTS, which I think is a first for a SW game (someone correct me if I’m wrong), but the space-based RTS is also the least remarkable part of the game being not quite as good as Conquest: Frontier Wars. I can pull all those game titles and dozens more out of my ass without prompting – that’s the sign of a seasoned game reviewer. I suppose the question you’re all here to have answered is whether or not all these pieces work together to make a good thing. I think it would be a good thing, if not for crummy unit balancing and some awful AI, as well as some very peculiar game design decisions, but as it stands it’s just average and maybe even a little below average if you’re not a Star Wars fan to begin with. Let’s take it a piece at a time, shall we?
The meat of the game, though probably not the piece you’ll spend the most physical time playing, is the strategic part. A 2-D map shows the planets in the galaxy, the units in orbit and on various planets that you know about, who owns what planets, and a bunch of economic data about your empire, and I choose the word empire specifically. It doesn’t seem to matter if you’re playing as the Rebellion or the Empire; you’re building an empire. Both capture planets and collect taxes to assemble fleets, build buildings, and recruit ground units, yadda, yadda, yadda. The only difference between the two that I could see is that the Empire researches new technologies, while the Rebellion has to steal them, but the whole movie concept of a ragtag group playing it sneaky against a much larger Empire is thrown completely away in the game. This is a war pretty much of equals, and I found that a jarring and needless departure from the movies. Once you manage to get over that fundamental shift, the strategic part involves deciding what buildings to build on what planets, noticing that different sized planets can hold different numbers of buildings, building space stations, assembling fleets, recruiting ground forces, and moving these forces around. All of this is done more or less in real time, the clock in the corner counting off galactic days (at the end of each of which you collect the cash for the planets you hold). If at any time enemy fleets meet in orbit about a planet, or units land on a planet occupied by the enemy, the game moves into either space or ground-based RTS tactical mode accordingly (actually, that’s not entirely true, you can avoid tactical combat and let the computer just figure out who wins and loses, but I, and the game’s manual, don’t recommend it).
So let’s say you head into space combat. As it is more or less impossible to land units on a planet without first beating the fleet in orbit, you’re going to be doing the space combat thing a lot. That’s kind of unfortunate, because as RTS games go, the space game is a pretty simple one. Your fleet can be divided into three types – units that do damage at long range, units that do damage at close range, and units that die first in combat. The manual talks about how a small fleet can beat a superior one with tactics, but what it really means to say is that a moron can lose a battle against an inferior fleet if he tries hard enough. There are no fleet formations and every unit can damage every other, so combat is more or less just slamming your fleet against his, and trying to concentrate your fire and eliminate units as quickly as possible. Oh sure, there is some strategy, such as trying to destroy missile boats first because their missiles do a lot of damage before going after tie fighters who basically do no damage at all, and large ships have hard points like shields and lasers that you can target individually, and you can try and hide in nebula which cloud ship sensors or asteroid fields where large ships can’t follow, but none of this is groundbreaking nor will save a small fleet from being ultimately pulverized by a larger one. The only part of the space RTS that is new is one of those peculiar game design decisions that I mentioned earlier. As the attacker, you are limited to 20 units on the field at any given time. So if you have a fleet of 40 ships, only 20 of them are going to appear when combat starts. Which 20? Good question. I have no idea what logic it uses to pick who comes and who stays home. Worse still, is that you can’t make individual units leave once they’re in on the field, so if you have something in your fleet that you need for combat, you’re going to have to let the enemy destroy one of your ships to make room in your roster to call it in. Where’s the sense in that? Furthermore, the defender, if he has built a space station, gets periodic reinforcements from it automatically ad infinitum. The attacker has a huge uphill battle to fight unless he brings a monstrous fleet. As the Rebellion, I’ve managed to wipe out ten star destroyers along with all their support craft on the strength of my space station and its reinforcements alone.
If you manage to get past the space fleet, then you can land ground troops to take the planet. Here as the attacker (another peculiar design decision) you’re limited to 10 units total for your attack, and when you first land you get to land only three of them, and must capture reinforcement points to bring the rest of them down. Like the space battles, if you want a unit in the fight but don’t have room on the roster to hold it, you’re going to have to let the enemy destroy one of yours to make room. Again the attacker has a serous uphill battle. The ground RTS is more complicated in that your forces are infantry, mechanized, or airborne, and they’re for the most part unable to attack one another with any hope of success. Most mechanized units (there are a couple of exceptions) do almost no damage to infantry, so it’s easy for a single group of soldiers to destroy an AT-AT or a heavy tank – how sad is that? Shouldn’t they just be able to run them over or step on them? Few units can attack air units at all, so if you come to the party and you’re the only one who brought a plane, you can strafe the enemy into submission handily. The guy who owns the planet gets periodic reinforcements from buildings on the surface just like in space, but if all you have on the surface is a barracks and your enemy is heavy in anti-infantry tanks, you’re still pretty much screwed. The possible exception is that scattered around the map are build points which can have either healing, repair, sensor, or defensive structures built on them, but again the defensive structures are not cross-attacking. Infantry guns are ineffective against mech and planes, anti-vehicle cannons are ineffective against infantry and planes, and (you guessed it) anti-aircraft guns are ineffective against infantry and mech. The whole inability of mixed forces to attack each other is infuriating in the extreme, and the computer AI seems completely incapable of dealing with this problem at all. Individual unit AI isn’t exactly stellar either. Units under fire by something they can’t shoot at won’t do anything about it like scatter or run away, but rather will stay put until they’re gone baby gone. There are also some pathfinding issues, and units possess the general desire to wander away from their post to get slaughtered by much larger forces.
Subsequently, beating the computer on the land or in space is easy, super easy. The single player campaign, which runs a storyline between the end of the third movie and the destruction of the death star at the end of the fourth from either the rebel or imperial viewpoints, presents no challenge at all if you’re just patient, build your forces, and attack en masse in space and with a ground force incompatible with his defenses on the ground. Still, it’s going take you some serious hours to get through all these space and ground games, and small changes in the maps or slightly varying mission goals just don’t make them different enough to want to do them all. You can also play in a sort of sandbox mode against the computer in a random galactic map, and while they’re shorter games, they’re really not any different. Finally, you can play in a skirmish mode – a single RTS battle on land or in space where you both get buildings and reinforcements – but the whole mixed forces issue on the ground and the blandness of space battles eventually pisses you off enough to suck the fun out of that as well.
So, maybe multiplayer might save this game, right, getting away from the AI problem? Only getting through an entire galactic conquest game is like playing 300 rounds of your favorite RTS – it could take weeks or months to complete a single game. You can also play a single skirmish mode on land or in space, but I just don’t see either RTS superior to other titles, unless you’re a SW freak. Up to 8 players can battle it out as two teams on some maps, and that makes up for some of the problems with pure frenzy, but it is still irritating when three planes wipe out a dozen of your tanks without them running away or even firing a shot.
As I read over this review I realize that I sound very negative about this game. I don’t greatly dislike this game, but I am very disappointed in it. The first 20 ground battles and the first 10 space battles were engrossing and cinematic if not particularly difficult. The game has good graphics with intricate little units moving and articulating and exploding in great showers of parts, and it has superb Star Wars sound effects and music (though some of the voices are poor – the guy who does Han Solo sounds like Jack Nicholson). But the computer AI doesn’t cut it, the units do retarded things sometimes, and the multiplayer game is either too long, or too uninteresting compared to other RTS games available out there – I would much rather play Warcraft 3 or C&C: Generals. I realize that I’m coming up against the ten million word limit, and I haven’t even mentioned hero units (units based on characters from the movie that have some special power or advantage), but SW: Empire at War is almost three games in one. It’s two different but both mediocre RTS games glued together with a fair strategy game that all happens to fall under the umbrella of a poor AI. It’s a middling exciting experience figuring out the rock/paper/scissors of the whole enchilada, but once you’ve got that down, why would you come back?