Star Wars: Empire at War
First, an admission, rm not a Star Wars fan boy. Never have been, never will be. Sure, I enjoy watching the movies now and then - yes, even Episode I - but I've never wrapped myself in a poster of Leia in that outfit. Similarly, I've never been compelled to strap on a latex mask lined with lady napkins (absorbs the sweat apparently) and spend my weekends wedged into a conference hall with a collection of wet-lipped spods all pretending they're from a planet with a dozen Ys in its name. I did own a Return Of The Jedi sticker album once, but I was five at the time, so I don't think that counts.
Without doubt, the celluloid romps that chart the Rebellion's struggle against the Empire are hugely entertaining, as are .many of the plethora of shooters and smattering of RPGs based on the events of a galaxy that's well over two-and-a-half miles away from here.
But if there's one thing I've never enjoyed, it's a Star Wars RTS. In fact it's testament to just how poor these games have been that isometric eyesore Star Wars: Galactic Battlegrounds still stands as the pinnacle of Star Wars-related real-time strategic gaming. Pathetic.
Not Any More
Of course, that's all about to-change. Yes, 85 per cent - in case you've somehow resisted the temptation to turn to the last page of this review for a sneaky peek at score. Which means Empire At War is a pretty damn good game in my book.
In case you don't know, the developer behind this highly ambitious game is Petroglyph, formed from many of the programmers, artists and scripters who created the legendary Command & Conquer. Which means there's experience aplenty behind Empire At War. And boy,. does it show.
By the time you've reached the end of the near half-hour tutorial, you're left in no doubt that here lies an RTS of genuine ingenuity, imagination and ambition. Behind the slightly shaky visuals is a gaming mechanic married from many of the genre's most innovative and impressive titles, yet Empire At War still manages to remain remarkably intuitive despite its ambition.
Kicking off just before the events of Episode IV: A New Hope, you take control of either the Rebellion or the Empire in a campaign of expansion, conquest and, research. There are thPee parts to each campaign. The first is pfayed from a 2D tactical map which displays the state of the galaxy, a vast swathe of space dotted with planets that must be subjugated or liberated, depending on your allegiance.
Here, you get to move your forces around the galaxy, build units, planetary buildings and defences, space stations and starships. You can attack pretty much any -pftanet and should you succeed in capturing it you'll bolster your income and gain access to bigger armies. Spies, bounty hunters (yes HE is in it) and smugglers can also be sent out on clandestine missions to hamper the enemy. Every decision, every move, every kill and building destroyed affects the overall state of play for galactic domination.
However, some planets remain out of bounds. Why? Because as well as being freeform. Empire At War's two main campaigns are also story-driven affairs that you can dip in and out of at will.' There's never a time when you don't have a story-related mission to pursue, but it's up to you to choose whether or not to first conquer other worlds and boost your tech tree, or whether you rush straight in to each key rfiission with whatever's at your disposal. And while the strategic map's interface looks -about as appealing as Jabba pom, it still proves very easy to navigate.
Clearly, Petroglyph has taken a long hard look at Total War's campaign map, and while Empire At War's is considerably smaller, it's still every bit as vexing and compelling. But here's the catch. Unlike Rome's turn-based strategic map, this one is real-time, meaning you never have to wait to issue your orders. And it works superbly, with planets (each has its own benefits and bonuses) constantly changing hands as you and your foe launch daring raids into Bach other's territories.
So, let's move onto the second part of Empire At War, the space battles. I'll be honest, the first couple were less than impressive, raising my pulse to near-comatose levels as a couple of small ships buzzed around the screen pinging little green dots at each other. "Rubbish!" I cried. But I was wrong. Very wrong.
Within a couple of hours of the start you begin to acquire the big boys, massive capital ships that, despite looking like giant doorstops, pack more firepower than your average American household. Suddenly you're embroiled in some of the most retina-exhausting space combat scenes ever to grace a videogame, skirmishes so impressive they even manage to surpass Homeworid's space-based slugfests.
Capital ships pound each other mercilessly while fighters swarm around«them, dogfighting with each other and picking " off tlie larger ships' defences. You can order your armada or individual vessels to target specific hardpoints on enemy cruisers, rendering them impotent as you disable their turrets and engines.
You gan also erect monstrous space stations, hulking masses of steel bristling with weaponry that'll give even the most awesome fleet a run for its money. And in the latter part of the game, you become enmeshed in see-sawing cosmic wars that test your strategic skills to haemorrhaging point while dazzling you with their blistering brutality. Oh and don't worry, they're dead easy to control.
So far, so good, then. But of course, there's a but And-the 'but' is Empire At War's land battles. And we were doing so well, too.. Here's the problem." While the tactipal . map and space battles are sublime, cleverly drawing on the RTS genre's most impressive recent innovations (strategic map, simplified resource model, huge battles etc), Empire At War's ground battles remain firmly entrenched in a dogmatic adherence to dated conventions, which roughly translates To: 'They're a bit shit' OK, so there's no resource management or unit construction to worry about liere, just reinforcements to call down from orbit should things go tits-up. Fm guessing this was done to free up more time to enjoy the combat. Only problem is, there's not much enjoyment to be had.
Suddenly, it's like you've been sucked back a decade and you're playing C&C again, with many missions rapidly degenerating into tiresome yomps around levels capturing reinforcement points (that let you call down more troops), while eliminating countless blatantly positioned pockets of resistance until there are no enemies left to slaughter.
To compound the problem, the visual spectaculars of the space battles are replaced with static troops that stand in front of each other firing their guns. It's about as exciting as watching televised paintballing (should Channel 5 even decide to stoop that low), just without the sweating, I he'aving fat boys complaining t about pink dye and mud on their new Nikes.
Hide & Seek
But it gets worse. Cast your mind back to the birth of the RTS and you'll remember how infuriating-it was when you reached what you thought was the end of a'Jevel, only to find that somewhere - probably tucked away under a large stone on the other side of ihe level - there were three enemy soldiers left that needed to be found and slaughtered before the mission was deemed a success. Well, get ready tostart yanking out your nasal hair with fury, as that's exactly what you can expect to find here.
Throw in some suspect path-finding that often sees your troops getting in each others way and plodding around with the grace of a one-legged sumo ballet dancer - and so negating the use of any noteworthy tactical manoeuvres - and you see why these land battles are hardly the stuff that wet dreams are made of.
Thankfully, there is a smattering of more intelligent missions, and it's" also a nice touch that each unit excels against specific enemies and struggles against others. But it's not quite enough to paper-over the fist-sized cracks.
Perhaps the most infuriating thing in all this is that had some more thought gone into these surface battles, Empire At War would be smugly buffing its Classic award right now. The two story-driven campaigns are magnificent unravelling a back-story that perfectly complements the-filrfis. There's also a freeform campaign that's every tort as entertaining - in some ways, more so. Voice-acting is above reproach and all of your Star Wars favourites make an appearance including Boba Fett The Emperor, Han Solo, the droids and Darth Vader. Youeveh get to control them and harness their special abilities and powers. Yes, Empire At War boasts almost everything a Star Wars and RTS fan could hope for. There's innovation, excitement, intrigue and enough tension to give you an aneurism, but those pesky land battles just manage to sully an otherwise top-class piece of software.
However, when you're blasting an eriemy fleet to pieces with the Death Star, outmanoeuvring your enemies throughout the galaxy and controlling all your childhood heroes on screen, you soon learn to live wfth the land-based detractions, many of which (any nonplot'-based missions) can be auto-resoived anyway.
So, at last, it's here. A genuinely entertaining Star Wars-based RTS, one that's finally bucked the trend of the countless duds that preceded it Whatever next? Me in a sanitary towel-lined alien mask? I wouldn't count on it. Then again, never say never...
Just Like The Movies
Watch your battles from George's chair
A useless addition this, but a welcome one nonetheless. A feature called Cinematic Camera Mode means you can watch your battles from the viewpoint of a one unit.
Though no orders can be issued from this perspective, it does make space-based skirmishes look lush, while taking impressive screenshots has been a piece of piss. Look, see?
Once again, though, there's a problem with the land battles, where for some reason, the camera always takes forever to pan around to the action, spending more time thinking it's filming a nature program about grass growth than capturing the close-quarters laser blasting action. Pity.
Download Star Wars: Empire at War
Systems: Windows 9x, Windows 2000 Windows XP, Vista, Win 7, Win 8, Win 10.
Game features:Single game mode