Star Wars: Empire at War
Mr Boxer takes a look at LucasArts' newest Star Wars title.
By Steve Boxer
Star Wars games tend to generate a frisson of excitement just by their very existence - a vast majority of gamers are devotees of George Lucas' epic double-trilogy, and the films have become more like games with every iteration. Hell, thanks to his creation of Industrial Light and Magic to provide effects for the films, Lucas has probably done as much as anyone to promote the rise of 3D graphics. But for years, LucasArts' games didn't live up to the hype. Recently, though, they have improved drastically and, on paper, Star Wars: Empire at War offers the most mouth-watering concept yet behind a Star Wars game.
It's an over-arching real-time strategy effort which takes in the entire Galaxy, and puts you in command of either the Empire or Rebel Alliance forces. It's stuffed with different game modes, including a Campaign mode set in the period leading up to Episode IV, an open-ended Galactic Conquest mode (which, for the first time, ignores the jealously preserved history recounted in the films) and a quick-and-dirty Skirmish mode, which lets you take on your mates on planets, or in space.
In other words, it's the united effort - taking in space and planetary battles - that Star Wars-loving gamers have always craved. And, happily, it's very well thought out and pretty well executed.
Campaign mode - essentially story mode - is the meat of the single-player game. It's two-pronged, taking in space and planetary surface battles, and puts you at the controls of a pleasantly varied set of missions which all make eminently good sense within the context of Star Wars. It must be said that the land missions are much more satisfying than the space-based ones. In the latter, the crucial mechanic involves selecting the right ships to take on whatever obstacles you face, and you often find periods when you don't feel 100 per cent in control of proceedings. The lack of buildings in space (beyond space stations, which are crucial for generating fleets and protecting your planets) also makes space missions simpler and less involving.
There is one key concept which applies to both ground-based and space battles, and is at the very heart of Empire At War: reinforcements. Wisely, the game encourages you to build space fleets and ground assault forces before you launch into conflicts, and you can call up reinforcements in the course of battles. In space, you can call them in at any point at which you've cleared the fog of war, while on land, you can call them into reinforcement points, each of which can accommodate only a restricted number of units. Which stops you from blitzing the opposition with vast task-forces, although you can fool the game by letting the enemy capturing and then taking them back.
While space missions involve carefully marshalling your forces, keeping vulnerable ships out of range of enemy vessels that will destroy them, and targeting hardpoints such as, for example, shields or weaponry on space stations, ground-based missions are as satisfying as those of old faves like Command & Conquer. They eschew resource-gathering, thankfully (although you can elect to turn resource-gathering on in Skirmishes), and feature another interesting concept: Build Pads. These are the only areas where you can erect structures like turrets or healing stations; they will appear when you have taken out enemy turrets and the like.
The one slightly annoying aspect of the ground-based missions is a slightly lame Guard command. Many missions involve preserving the lives of special units (generally R2-D2 and C-3PO or pilots) and you can, allegedly, click a squad and instruct them to guard those units. But they don't perform those duties very effectively and the pilots, in particular, are apt to get themselves killed in annoyingly gung-ho fashion.
In the manner of a board game, you are given a map view showing the galaxy and it is here that all the games business other than the battles themselves takes place. As with the admirably logical interface you get when battling, it is pretty self-explanatory. Planets are either controlled by you or the opposition, and you can keep yourself occupied for hours with generating units for land battles, or sending smugglers to operate on enemy planets, which generates extra credits for the creation of forces.
There are a number of different slots above the surface of each planet, in which you can place raid or stealth fleets or amass forces for ground assaults (which can be combined by dragging and dropping). And you can zoom in on planets for micro-management of its associated forces and units. Space stations can be upgraded to produce different types of ships. If you play as the Rebel Alliance, you have to steal technologies from the Empire; as the Empire, you have the chance to research new technologies.
Empire at War really does put you in charge of the Dark or Rebel forces (including giving you direct control over Death Stars), although, of course, it won't let you run around pretending to be Han Solo. And it does so in an utterly logical and convincing manner. And, best of all, when you've completed the story mode, you can set about conquering the entire galaxy in Galactic Conquest mode. The eminently customisable Skirmish mode should also prove pretty popular online, although it doesn't feel like a hugely important aspect of the game.