Liberate, conquer, or corrupt the Star Wars galaxy in a strategic war for dominance.
PC Release: September 4, 2007
By Ian Coppock
Tonight’s review of Star Wars: Empire at War marks the end of strategy month, and this game’s Star Wars motif in no way hints at what next month’s review theme will be… nope, not at all. It’s an interesting time for Star Wars fans to be alive; some people (probably not Expanded Universe fans) might go so far as to call it a Star Wars renaissance, on the order of the early 90’s when Timothy Zahn’s Thrawn trilogy was released. Though there are lots of upcoming Star Wars games to look forward to, tonight’s review looks back at Empire at War, a strategy game set in that most beloved galaxy far, far away.
Star Wars: Empire at War is a real-time strategy game developed by Petroglyph, a Las Vegas-based studio best known these days for their 8-bit series. Empire at War was the first Star Wars RTS developed since Galactic Battlegrounds in the early 2000’s, and remains the most recent such game set in the Star Wars universe (Battle Orders for iOS doesn’t count).
Like Age of Empires II and other real-time strategy games, Star Wars: Empire at War emphasizes building bases, training units, and relying as much on tactics as force to win a match against an enemy army. Players can assume control of either the Rebel Alliance or the Galactic Empire, each with its own retinue of units, buildings, and technologies. The Forces of Corruption expansion pack adds a third faction, the Zann Consortium crime syndicate, whose troops sport exotic black market weaponry. All of this content is rolled together in the Gold Pack edition of the game being reviewed here tonight.
Each faction in Empire at War also has its own playstyle reflective of its cinematic counterpart. The Galactic Empire is a military powerhouse whose tactics focus on taking and holding territory. Each of their units, from a platoon of stormtroopers to the mighty AT-AT walker, is useful for players who like to win through sheer force. The Alliance, by contrast, fields lighter units that are better for hit-and-run attacks. Beset by AT-ATs? Use some snowspeeders. The rebels are great when it comes to fast raids and cheap, innovative solutions against waves of imperial troops.
The Zann Consortium, a faction unique to Empire at War and an entity almost certainly rendered non-canon with Disney’s acquisition of Star Wars, utilizes units with weird and creative weaponry, like metal bullets that can pass through shields and second-generation Separatist battle droids. These weapons make for some cool gear, though the idea of a crime syndicate waging conventional warfare is comically ridiculous.
Battles in Star Wars: Empire at War are waged on a galaxy map comprising upwards of 50 planets, ranging from movie staples like Tatooine to lesser-known locales from other Star Wars video games, like Knights of the Old Republic‘s Taris. In most modes, whoever can capture all of the planets wins the game. Each planet offers its own perks for the player occupying it; shipbuilding worlds like Kuat are useful for building big warships, while wealthy worlds like Bespin and Coruscant give the player extra resources. Some planets have natives that will side with one faction or the other other—aliens on Outer Rim worlds tend to fight for the rebels, while the well-do-to human suburbanites in the Core side with the Empire and its housing associations.
Capturing a planet in Empire at War is a two-stage process: players have to first engage in a space battle and destroy the enemy space station. Players can use space stations to build fleets of ships, from squadrons of TIE fighters on up to mighty Star Destroyers. Players can only field so many vessels at once, but if the battle starts to turn south, they can call in more ships for backup. Similarly to ground units, space units in Empire at War utilize a variety of weapons to take down different classes of enemy ships. Bombers are great against capital ships, corvettes can decimate fighter squadrons, so on and so forth.
Once the space around a planet has been secured, it’s time to head to the surface and eliminate the enemy’s ground game. Players can fly their troops and vehicles into battle using landing zones. The more landing zones a player owns, the more units they can shuttle in for battle. The match ends when the invading player manages to kill all the enemy units and any structures they might’ve built, or when the defending player manages to kick their would-be-conqueror back into space. Each battlefield is sprinkled with build pads that players can use to erect turrets and repair stations. Players can build training academies and other facilities on their worlds to produce units between battles.
Empire at War‘s idea of resource gathering is quite a bit faster than that of Age of Empires or other RTS games. Rather than having players task gatherers on a resource, Empire at War direct deposits credits into each player’s account at the end of an in-game day (every few minutes). Players can make more money by capturing wealthy worlds or building mining stations on their planets, which automatically generate money for their owner. As a result of this resource model, combat in Empire at War tends to happen quickly and with ferocity. It may sound intimidating, but Empire at War‘s thorough tutorials and wide range of difficulty options make the game accessible to space commanders of all skill levels.
Players have a few other options to consider if money’s running short or their fleet took a beating in the last battle. Empire at War allows players of all factions to hire smugglers to steal credits from enemy planets, and the Zann Consortium can co-opt an enemy player’s cash flow by bribing opponents’ planets. The rebels can bypass space battles and land a small army on enemy planets; with the right tactics, it’s possible to take a planet from right under the opponent’s nose. Each faction also has a gallery of powerful heroes whose abilities can turn the tide of battle, including Darth Vader, Luke Skywalker, and Legends favorites like Kyle Katarn and Mara Jade. The Zann Consortium borrows a few infamous bounty hunters, like Bossk and IG-88, to serve as its heroes.
Winning the long game in Empire at War requires a strong economy, but its emphasis on planetary footholds means that players also have to know how to stretch and concentrate their forces. Does the player fortify core systems and leave outlying planets vulnerable? Or try to stretch their forces equally across what might be dozens of worlds? That choice, as always, depends on how well the wider match is going. That tension of wondering which world will be hit next can make Empire at War a thrilling strategy experience. The tactics each faction uses are faithful to their cinematic counterparts, lending that Star Wars adventure vibe to each game. A rebel raid against impossible odds feels very much like a plot point in a Star Wars film.
And speaking of plot points, Empire at War comes with a few story campaigns to flesh out its single-player content. The Empire and Rebel stories deal with both sides of the conflicts leading up to the Battle of Yavin, while the Zann Consortium’s narrative is a grand space heist set between The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi. None of these stories are particularly well-written or feature stellar voice acting (and they’re certainly no longer canon), but they contain exciting levels with unconventional design. Whether it’s detonating a giant space bomb over the Empire’s fleet, or breaking into Emperor Palpatine’s vault on Coruscant, the missions in Empire at War‘s story campaigns don’t hurt for interesting variety. It’s just a shame that the narratives don’t pack the same punch.
No matter the story and no matter the mode, Empire at War‘s gameplay has aged surprisingly well over the last decade. It’s an easy real-time strategy game to pick up and learn, given how fluid its unit production, combat, and resource gathering mechanics are. Though Empire at War still plays well, it’s easy for its battles to become repetitive, as the rinse-and-repeat of fighting in space, landing, and taking planets gives the aforementioned unpredictability element a black eye. The game also suffers from a few embarrassing bugs, including a real gem of a glitch that causes the game to crash if an Empire player uses the Death Star on a planet that Han Solo and Chewbacca occupy. It and bugs like it happen with relative rarity, but they still happen, so be on the lookout.
Additionally, Empire at War‘s visuals have not aged so well over the years. This is one of those games where zooming in too close on a unit’s face reveals little more than squiggly lines and maybe the hawk’s beak of a “nose”, while character model colors look pretty smudged. The game’s environments are brightly colored but similarly morose when it comes to textural sharpness and use of detail. Soldiers look more like mannequins than real people.
The game’s sound design is also hit-and-miss; the audio in space battles is absolutely glorious, what with the thunder of Star Destroyer cannons (technically space battles shouldn’t have audio, but Star Wars has never adhered to that law of physics). Even though both space and ground battles implement lots of sound effects from the Star Wars films, they often sound distant or too soft. The sound design does manage to save itself with its soundtrack, but to be fair, it’s all from the films’ scores rather than any original content.
Star Wars: Empire at War does not provide a strategy experience as in-depth as that of Age of Empires or Command & Conquer, but its gameplay is more fast-paced than that of either title. For anything that can be said about the game’s visuals or bugs, Petroglyph did an admirable job adapting the Star Wars source material to the real-time strategy formula. It’s fun to wage a war for the Star Wars galaxy, building up planets and engaging in huge last-ditch battles for supremacy. The game also has a thriving modding community; someone went and made a full-length Clone Wars-era mod called Republic at War, which can be downloaded from Mod DB.
Empire at War hedges its bets not on providing a deep, highly customized real-time strategy experience, but on being able to leverage that format to produce adventures on par with those of the Star Wars films. It’s not a perfect game, but it still largely succeeds in producing that potential for epic space battles and memorable campaigns. Star Wars fans should buy it, and strategy gamers on the fence about its shallower tactical focus might very well be won over by the chance to fire the Death Star.
You can buy Star Wars: Empire at War – Gold Pack here.
Thank you for reading! My next review will be posted in a few days. You can follow Art as Games on Twitter @IanLayneCoppock, or friend me at username Art as Games on Steam. Feel free to leave a comment or email me at firstname.lastname@example.org with a game that you’d like to see reviewed, though bear in mind that I only review PC games.