Star Wars: Empire at War Review

What would you do if you found an R2 unit with a message for the Rebellion?

Do posters of the Imperial Legions stir your sense of patriotism towards the Emperor?

If your answer to either of those questions is to jump to your DVD rack and watch the Star Wars series again, then Star Wars: Empire at War might be a PC game for you to check out. Before I crack this motivator open and get into the review, here are my review system specs:

Dell Inspiron 9100 Series Laptop
P4 3ghz w/hyperthreading
ATI Radeon 9700 Mobility video card
Nostromo N52
Logitech MX1000 mouse

Since playing the demo, I really wanted to turn up the detail in the full version to see how my Mobility 9700 would do. I might say that it did very well. The game looks good at high detail. I found myself a little disappointed in some of the ship models. I was hoping the higher detail modes would include appropriate models, but it would seem that they left most of the detail work in the texture. This leads to some of the larger ships looking flat when viewed in the cinematic mode.

Even with that complaint, at my native desktop resolution and high detail, I experienced only a little slowdown. The framerate was steady, and it looked great. My issues with the models lacking in detail went away as along as I didn’t use the cinematic mode. The battles looked and played out just like they were in the movies. The corvettes would dodge in and out of the Empire’s larger Star Destroyers, and fighters would spin, dodge and be vaporized by brightly colored bolts of energy. Even with the interface, neither the planet or space battles ‘broke character’ and I was continually drawn in to the various events, feeling like the commander I should be, at my holotank issuing orders.

Land battles gave each planet its own unique terrain, and even used terrain styles that appeared in several of the Knights of the Old Republic game. The cityscape of Taris is easily recognizable, and Hoth is icy and forbidding. The downside is that almost all the battlefields are done in such a way that you will be seeing that very battlefield often. The fourth or fifth time I was on Taris, defending it from a Han/Chewie attack, I was really tired of the layout.

Empire at War failed at one point, and that is the music. It did its job, but even five minutes after playing the game, I couldn’t tell you what it sounded like. As I was writing this review, I pulled up a saved game and focussed on the music through several battles. It is there, and it plays at a decent level, but it is just unremarkable. Even after I closed the game to return to my writing, the music was already gone from my head…and I had gone looking for it.

Sound effects were in full force on this title, and they worked. The classic blaster, turbolaser, anything-laser sounds were in full force here, along with missile blasts, creaking hulls, explosions and more. When three Imperial Star Destroyers activate their special power and open up with the turbolasers, your speakers will duck, thinking that they are being shot at. Lucasarts was behind the production of this game, and that gave Petroglyph access to a large soundbyte library.

It would seem that they re-recorded or added lines for the iconic characters from the movies using different actors. This does not affect their quality, as I didn’t notice until I looked at the credits and didn’t see anyone from the original Episode I cast in them. Vader, Solo, The Emperor all sound like they should in the game and they do a good job of further immersing you in the conflict around you.

I was really bothered by this control system, and it took a talk with my Editor to really sound out why the controls in this game just didn’t seem to click with me. I discovered that the game uses little of what is considered standard in RTS games for the keyboard commands. Really, the only holdover is CTRL+# and # to make and select groups. All the other commands, such as attack move or defend, are bound in different ways or require radically different key combinations to accomplish. We finally came to the conclusion that they had really wanted to try something new with the controls here, and it didn’t really end up working well.

It failed because of the different classes and roles of the units. When attacking with my Imperial Fleets or ground troops, I could either get the big stuff to work like I wanted it, or the little stuff would be in the right place. It took a whole new level of micromanagement to get both to happen when I needed it to happen. As a Rebel, I could get my X-wings to go and fight where I needed them, but the support ships, such as the Nebulon-B, required management to keep them in line and properly supporting the fighters. The game tried to provide a global control system for everything, and it shortchanged both the fleet and ground units because of it.

Now that I have those ups and downs out of the way, we will move on to the primary focus of this review. The primary game mode, Galactic Conquest, has the action occuring on two different levels. The main screen you will be looking at is a galactic view of the Star Wars universe. Depending on the scenario, you can have anywhere from six to forty planets. This view allows you to manage production, move fleet groups around the galaxy, and use special abilities. It is a very direct strategic view of the current conflict you are participating in. No matter how you are playing the game, single or multiplayer, it has two sides, Empire and Rebellion. At the galactic level, the game is always running, unless you use the pause button. The downside is that when the game is paused, you can only look around the map. No orders can be given. The game runs at normal speed, which results in a single day being about three minutes long, to 2x, resulting in a minute and a half for one day to pass. I found both speeds to work really well for me, as the game gives you enough ways to warn when attacks are coming.

The other major part of this game is the battle mode, which can happen in space or on land. This part of the game is your standard RTS with a few new options. The largest difference is the way that getting new units on the field occurs. In Galactic Conquest, you don’t just build the unit and it pops out and is ready to go. If you showed up with a fleet of eight Imperial Star Destroyers, only part of the fleet will be on the field initially, due to command limits. As you complete objectives that change this limit, or lose ships in battle, you can bring in reinforcements from hyperspace. (In the skirmish modes and multiplayer skirmishes, you build units as normal from buildings. Larger ships, once built, will come onto the field from hyperspace). One of the first lessons I learned is to send my space fleet in first, then send in the landing forces. I was originally moving them about as one fleet, and a rogue corvette destroyed half my landing forces before I noticed it. The game does a good job in simulating fleet management in the Galactic Conquest mode. At the game’s core is the standard Control planets/produce units/destroy the enemy functions that make up most strategy games, but it then requires you to think about how and what combination you want to use the units in before dropping them into battle. You are rewarded for good management (such as being able to use your Y-Wings or Tie Bombers as bombers in a land battle) in this game.

The painful part of the game sits within the AI. In the Galactic Conquest, it gives me a run for my money on Hard, and in space it knows right where to apply those thrice @#$%#[email protected] Y-wings. On the ground it makes some very unusual decisions. It would consistantly run right past my troops to attack a larger unit or a stationary cannon, and let my troops rip it apart. It seemed to do its best to ‘tank-rush’ or drop artillery on me, with little regard to the actual situation on the ground. More often than not, this would result in me being able to just outmaneuver the AI in most situations. The only time I would lose a land battle is when I just charged straight in. Compared to how well the AI would challenge me at the other levels of the game, I found this extremely disappointing.

The long term value of this game lies in the multiplayer and the game’s ability to be modded. It is apparently not hard to rework the data files to include new or revised unit statistics, and some intrepid modders have already done this with the demo. Should be interesting to see what kind of campaigns and new units they come up with in the course of their work.

You can play multiplayer skirmishes against the computer AI, or you can fight skirmishes against friends online.  Skirmish mode is what you

Ron Burke is the Editor in Chief for Gaming Trend. Currently living in Fort Worth, Texas, Ron is an old-school gamer who enjoys CRPGs, action/adventure, platformers, music games, and has recently gotten into tabletop gaming. Ron is also a fourth degree black belt, with a Master's rank in Matsumura Seito Shōrin-ryū, Moo Duk Kwan Tang Soo Do, Universal Tang Soo Do Alliance, and International Tang Soo Do Federation. He also holds ranks in several other styles in his search to be a well-rounded fighter. Ron has been married to Gaming Trend Editor, Laura Burke, for 21 years. They have three dogs - Pazuzu (Irish Terrier), Atë, and Calliope (both Australian Kelpie/Pit Bull mixes).
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