Star Wars: Empire at War Hands-On--Single-Player Campaign and Skirmish, Darth Vader Unleashed, and More

We get our hands on this eagerly awaited strategy game and play as the dark lord of the Sith as we crush rebels around the galaxy.

The single-player demo of Star Wars: Empire at War is one of the hottest demos of January, with more than 400,000 gamers downloading it from GameSpot alone. However, the demo gives you just a taste of what to expect from the full version arriving next month, since you can battle it out in only one space battle and one land battle. While there are user-made mods, which let you unlock more content, the full game has been kept under wraps by LucasArts and developer Petroglyph. Thankfully, we recently received a nearly complete version of the game, and we eagerly installed it onto our PCs to see what the rest of this real-time-strategy game has to offer.

No one's really made a great Star Wars strategy game, but Empire at War looks like it will change that.

The single-player game features three modes. The first is a campaign mode that lets you choose to play as the rebels or as the imperials. This mode begins with the familiar Star Wars story scrawl, explaining your goals and objectives in the campaign. For instance, if you play as the imperials, you'll be tasked with hunting down the traitors who leaked the Death Star plans to the rebels. This involves leading Darth Vader into action on a planet, backed up by AT-STs (the two-legged walkers seen in Return of the Jedi) and platoons of stormtroopers. Vader is quite a force in battle; he is incredibly tough to take down, and he can tackle whole infantry groups by using force push to flatten them to the ground and then dispatching them with his lightsaber. He can also use force crush to destroy buildings and vehicles. These force powers are based on a timer, which means you can use them about once per minute. As long as Vader is alive, though, he can keep using them. Once the rebel base is crushed and the initial mission is complete, you'll move on to your next task, which is to build up a ground force and crush the rebels in the Fondor system to progress the story.

The second single-player mode is galactic conquest, which is more of a free-style mode compared to the campaign. Basically, you'll be given the task of conquering the galaxy your own way, since you won't have any story-based missions to guide you. Once again, you can choose to play as either the imperials or the rebels, but you must select a map of the galaxy to play on. The game will ship with eight official maps, and these will let you play with different galaxy sizes, tech levels, and starting credit amounts. For example, the "empire surrounded" map has 25 planets and starts at tech level 3 (which represents that it's fairly late in the game). In this map, the rebels start with 15,000 credits, while the imperials get a measly 9,000 credits. This is in contrast to the larger "empire at war" map that has 35 planets and has both sides starting with the same number of credits. You'll use this map if you want to cover the entire war, from beginning to end. In addition to these eight official maps, the game will support custom, user-made maps that the player community can design.

The third single-player mode is skirmish, and it lets you create a land- or space-based battle, if you don't want to mess around with any of the strategic portions of the game. Skirmish mode will have a small number of two-player maps and a larger number of four-player maps, with four players being the maximum allowed in single-player skirmish. (Multiplayer skirmish will support up to eight players.) Single-player skirmish mode will let you assign varying difficulties of artificial intelligence to fill in the opponent slots (easy, medium, and hard), and you can select each player's faction and color.

Unleash the fearsome imperial war machine on the galaxy, or fight as those plucky rebels.

The interesting thing about skirmish mode is how the battles differ from those seen in the other modes of the game. In the campaign and galactic conquest modes, you generally build units between battles and then allocate those units to upcoming battles, which means there's no unit-building on the battlefield like you'd find in traditional real-time-strategy games. Since skirmish has no strategic mode, you have to create units on the battlefield. You continually accumulate credits in skirmish mode, which can be used to purchase upgrades and requisition new units. As you'd expect, you have to decide how to spend your limited number of credits. You can purchase a lot of fairly weak units or try to save up and buy a handful of powerful units.

To demonstrate, we'll use a space skirmish that we played as the empire. Both sides start with a space station, which acts as the default win condition. If your space station is destroyed, you lose, but if you destroy the enemy station, you win. The space station generates credits over time, and it's used to research unit upgrades and requisition new units. At the beginning, you start with a level 1 station, and it can purchase only a few basic units, these being (in the imperial's case) TIE fighters, TIE bombers, and a small corvette. You generally start with a few fighter squadrons, and those, in conjunction with the station's defenses, are generally enough to guard against an early fighter rush by the enemy. The first thing you have to do is to decide if you want to beef up your fighter force or begin upgrading your station to level 2, which will unlock larger ships as well as tech upgrades, such as enhanced engines for your fighters or improved armor for your warships.

Each new space station level unlocks more powerful units, and at level 5 you get some of the truly heavy warships, such as the dreaded imperial-class star destroyer. We built a couple of these behemoths along with a sizable fighter contingent to protect them from incoming bombers (a good way to neutralize a capital ship is to send torpedo bombers to take out various weapon hard points on the hull). As powerful as these ships are, the game keeps things balanced by making them incredibly slow compared to smaller vessels. It took a while for our task force to travel to the enemy station, but when it got there, it made quick work of the station's many defenses, such as turbo lasers, ion canons, proton torpedo launchers, and concussion missile launchers.

The best way to take out capital ships and space stations is to concentrate fire on their hard points and cripple them.

Empire at War really captures the essence of Star Wars battles, since you have big, lumbering capital ships slugging it out while squadrons of fighters dart around the battle. The graphics have a great look and feel to them, and our only concern at this point is that the frame rate seems to slow to a crawl at times, particularly if you use the game's cinematic mode, which switches the camera angle to a more intimate, you-are-there position so that you can watch action unfold as if it were on a movie screen. (The game could use some better algorithms when selecting a camera position, because it often selects an angle where nothing's happening onscreen or all the action is just off to the side.) Optimization tends to be one of the last things to be addressed in development, so we hope that Petroglyph is working to fix this right now.

Aside from that, we're really keen on playing around with the game, and we're looking forward to the final version when it arrives. From what we've experienced with both the demo and the preview version, it's safe to say that Empire at War promises to be the best Star Wars strategy game yet, and its mix of strategic and tactical gameplay is sure to appeal to Star Wars fans everywhere.

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