Real-time strategy games continue to challenge players to come up with the best way to combine quick reflexes and good planning to create huge armies that will crush their enemies. But until now, they haven't had persistent galaxy maps with nearly 100 different battlefields; nor have they had a guy who can choke you to death with his mind. That's right--Darth Vader and his evil Imperial forces will clash with the puny Rebel Alliance in Star Wars: Empire at War, the upcoming strategy game from LucasArts and Petroglyph, the latter being a studio composed of some of the most experienced strategy-game developers in the business. We managed to get our hands on the game--and even though Empire at War seems to offer huge depth in the form of a huge, persistent galaxy and battles that can take place on the ground or in space, we took to the game quickly and were able to start quickly and easily, crushing our enemies on land and in space.
To clarify, Empire at War will offer three primary play modes: a single-player, story-based campaign mode that will unlock various sectors of the galaxy as you complete certain missions; a persistent-universe "galactic conquest" mode that can be played either alone or in head-to-head multiplayer for two players; and the quick-and-dirty skirmish multiplayer, which is focused entirely on combat. In skirmish, you and your buddies can choose the map type (space, land, or objective-based land maps in which you can win only by capturing reinforcement points--more on that later) and limit a specific amount of funds you can use to purchase armies, then go at it. This mode will support up to eight players on two teams, and will even let you swap in some computer-controlled players to even things out.
While skirmish should prove to be a good way to quickly get your hands dirty with the game, it's Empire at War's story-driven campaign and galactic conquest modes that should be of real interest to both Star Wars fans and serious real-time strategy fans. Both these modes take place in the game's huge galactic map, which is what you'll use as your strategic interface to plan out your next planetary acquisition--the meat of the game is in capturing different planets, after all. You'll also use the galactic map to commission major new buildings and military units, and to receive missions from your superiors (Mon Mothma if you're playing as the Rebels, Grand Moff Tarkin if you're playing as the Empire). Each planet will have a different indigenous population, different terrain, and different weather.
The population of a planet, once you've taken control of it, can be put to work for your cause (and even used as cannon fodder in battles), while terrain and weather will actually affect the performance of your units (some units will struggle with hilly terrain, and ballistic weapons will suffer in accuracy in stormy weather, for instance). However, each planet will also have a different amount of credits that can be gained, and different planets will also have different hyperspace routes that connect them. Hyperspace routes let you quickly and easily ferry ships and troops back and forth; so well-connected planets are easier to defend, while remote planets with few or no hyperspace routes may be tough to hold on to, especially if you're trying to send a huge fleet of Imperial Star Destroyers to prevent the dastardly Rebels from sneaking in to your backyard. Different planets may also house secret treasures, such as hidden ship designs (the Imperial forces may research upgrades for their ships and armies, while the Rebels must steal everything they can find), or powerful hero characters that can be recruited for your cause.
Empire at War takes place between the two motion picture trilogies; that is, after Episode III: Revenge of the Sith and before Episode IV: A New Hope, so the evil Sith lord Darth Vader has just come into his own, while some farm boy named Luke is just starting to grow up on a desert planet. Still, this time frame has given the development team plenty of opportunities to draw upon classic Star Wars lore, characters, and vehicles. Among the hero characters, for instance, you can expect to see Darth Vader, the bounty hunter Boba Fett, Imperial officers Piett and Veers, and Emperor Palpatine; on the Rebel side, you can expect to see Han Solo and Chewbacca (who are treated as one powerful character, even though each has individual abilities), and a promising young Mon Calamari officer named Ackbar (who is destined to warn his Rebel allies of a certain trap in a certain future space battle).
All hero characters will have powerful special abilities on the battlefield and will be hardier than the average foot soldier. For instance, Emperor Palpatine can inflict terrible damage with his lightsaber and use his "force lightning" ability to zap his enemies into oblivion. Chewbacca will be able to commandeer enemy vehicles, while Han Solo will be able to plant explosive charges. Even C-3PO and R2-D2 will be in the game, as Rebel hero characters who can smuggle themselves into Imperial territory to steal technology. Several powerful hero characters will have multiple abilities both on the ground and in space. Darth Vader can use his "force crush" ability to ravage enemy buildings and ships and his "force shockwave" ability to devastate infantry units; but in space, he'll be surrounded by wingmen TIE fighters who will soak up all incoming fire, making Vader impervious to damage until his squadron can be defeated. Boba Fett will have his customary jetpack on the ground that will let him fly over impassable terrain, capture territory, and act as a powerful scout, though in space, he'll have his Slave-1 ship, which can drop powerful seismic charges that deal damage to all nearby enemies.
I Want Those Plans
On the battlefield, you can expect to see many of your favorite Star Wars units and vehicles, as well as some new designs that are suggestive of the kind of technology that each side will use at this particular time frame between the movies. Interestingly enough, all units will also have at least one individual special ability that can be used on a countdown timer, just like heroes' abilities. We had a chance to try out the Imperial forces both on the ground and in the air. Now that we've played as the Imperials, we can say that this side is very, very powerful--according to the development team, you're really supposed to feel like you're in control of a massive and powerful army that can crush unprepared foes.
On the ground, the Imperials have stormtroopers, who can take cover behind environmental objects for combat bonuses, scout walkers, AT-ATs (which can crush infantry units underfoot), and TIE tanks, which can self-destruct to cause a damaging explosion. In space, the Imperials have TIE bombers (which can actually provide air support to ground ops), star destroyers (which can create an unlimited number of low-level TIE fighters for space combat for free--also on a countdown timer), and the infamous Death Star, which moves very, very slowly but can eliminate entire planets.
We had no problem tearing through the first campaign ground mission for the Empire by clearing small Rebel encampments off the face of a planet with the help of stormtroopers, walkers, and Darth Vader (whose abilities let him wreak havoc on vehicle and foot soldier alike). In the ground game, you generally don't produce units by building base structures and churning them out; instead, you commission them from the galactic map after you've obtained the technology to produce them (either through research or espionage), then call in for reinforcements, which will be brought down to the battlefield by dropships. In the first mission, we tracked down small pockets of Rebel scum hiding among the trees until we reached their base, which was protected by an offsite shield generator.
A brief visit from Darth Vader and a few TIE-bombing runs later, the shield generator was no longer around to defend the Rebel base, and we were able to claim victory (and we even had an opportunity to watch Darth Vader choke a petty officer to death with his mind in the following cinematic scene). While this mission was a snap to play through, the game will also have other options to help you customize your experience further--in the single-player game, you can pause, slow down, or speed up time to better take in the action. In both single- and multiplayer, you can switch your view to a cinematic camera that swoops in and focuses on a battle's biggest scenes in a zoomed-in view. And in both single- and multiplayer, at any time, you'll have the option to auto-resolve a battle (which will calculate the result of a battle based on the relative strength of your units). Because you're trying to deal as much damage to your enemies while preserving as much of your own army as possible, this option isn't recommended unless you vastly outnumber the enemy and wish to clean them up quickly. You'll also always have the option to strategically retreat your forces--which isn't always a complete defeat, because you may find yourself up against tougher odds than you can handle. In these cases, you'll at least be saving your armies (instead of wasting them on the battlefield and having to spend more credits to raise another army--and having to rely on conquering more planets to get more funds to raise that army).
Space combat seems just as easy to get into and should be just as action packed. We played a skirmish map in which we started with a basic space station and a handful of TIE fighters, and went out to capture resource deposits in space. These resource deposits appear on large asteroids in asteroid fields, and must be colonized with a mining facility before they can start rolling in a faster supply of credits. You can use your credits to either commission more units or to upgrade your space station by conducting research, which will unlock new ship types, such as capital ships. Bigger vessels like star destroyers can be extremely powerful allies in battle, because they have "hardpoints" along their hulls that can be outfitted with powerful cannons, shields, and other additions, but they can also be expensive sitting ducks if not properly defended--and they can neither turn quickly nor navigate asteroid fields without taking damage. Space stations are in a similar predicament--they also have hardpoints for weapons and shield generators, which may make better targets depending on your mission, your goals, and your forces.
From what we've seen, Star Wars: Empire at War will have a lot to offer, including plenty of strategic depth with a huge galactic sandbox to play in, as well as lots of very fast-paced, accessible action. And there won't be any wookiee tanks, droids chopping wood, or any of that stuff, either. This promising strategy game is scheduled for release in the early part of 2006.