A ways down the road from Las Vegas lies a small industrial district...one that used to be home to one of the most influential computer game developers in history. Westwood Studios created the extremely popular Command & Conquer series and helped lay the foundation for real-time strategy games with the classic movie-licensed game Dune 2. The complex that was once home to 150 artists, level designers, and producers has now been parceled out to other local businesses. And a stone's throw away, in an unassuming office that's practically right across the street, lies Petroglyph, a new studio consisting of about 20 staff members, nearly all of whom are from the original Westwood team, including many of the programmers and designers that literally helped create the basis for real-time strategy games as we know them today. And the studio is hard at work on an all-new strategy game that will attempt to further the genre past its traditional gameplay of gathering resources, building a base, and raising an army with Star Wars: Empire at War.
The new game will take place in the Star Wars universe all right, but its actual events will take place between the not-yet-released film Episode III and the 1977 film Episode IV (better known simply as Star Wars, the first movie in the original trilogy). The action will take place in the same galaxy and will include tours of duty on such planets as Hoth, Endor, Tattooine, and Dagobah. You can also expect to see classic troops and ships in the game, like stormtroopers, Imperial snowspeeders, and the impressively huge four-legged walking AT-ATs (from The Empire Strikes Back), as well as speederbikes and AT-STs (the not-so-impressive two-legged walkers that appeared in the battle of Endor in Return of the Jedi). And in space, you can expect to encounter classic ships like TIE fighters and Y-Wings (and their bomber variants), in addition to humongous Imperial capital ships. (In fact, you can expect to see, and play as, both land and space units in the game...simultaneously.)
Typically in real-time strategy games, you slowly assemble your armies by gradually building the required structures and by researching the proper upgrades. Then you bring these armies in to battle in the late game, only to lose them in the next mission. Empire at War's units will be completely persistent, so you'll keep whichever units survived your last battle. So, considering how expensive some of the most powerful units will be, you may find yourself actually retreating. In fact, attacking and retreating may be central to your strategy, especially if you're playing as the Rebels, who might not always have the resources to mount a full-scale assault. Sometimes it may be better to use guerilla tactics, like crippling a powerful capital ship and fleeing into hyperspace before an armada can be sent after you.
These tactical situations highlight some of the major differences between the two factions. The Rebels will begin the game, as you might expect, at a material disadvantage, so they'll have limited resources, limited holdings, and even limited technology. In many cases, the Rebels won't be able to amass large armies for fear of being discovered, so they'll often find it wiser to build only scattered holdings across different planets. However, the Rebels will have a strong advantage in terms of intelligence-gathering. Consequently, the Rebels will have spies everywhere. And in the meantime, the massive forces of the Empire will also be...everywhere. In fact, your gathered intelligence may actually be stored and used like a "quest log" in a traditional role-playing game, so once the Rebels receive fresh information on what the Empire is doing and where it's doing it, they can take appropriate action based on each tip received.
On the other hand, subtlety won't be part of the Empire's main strategy, and in some cases, it won't even be possible for the Emperor's forces to move without being tracked. It's true that the Empire will generally begin the game in a very strong position, with many planetary holdings and the wherewithal to build huge armies. However, the Empire will, as noted, not be able to conceal its movements, nor will it have a firm grasp on exactly where its enemies lie or what they're up to. In describing the differences between the two factions, producer Bret Tosti cites Princess Leia's conversation with an Imperial officer from the original motion picture: "The more you tighten your grip, the more star systems will slip through your fingers." Not every planet is controlled by the Imperial forces, and not every planet is friendly to them. As a result, you may also find neutral planets that you can recruit to your cause. For that matter, you'll even be able to recruit powerful hero characters for your armies, including legendary Jedi, such as the fearsome Sith lord Darth Vader.
Evacuate? In Our Moment of Triumph?
Fortunately for both sides, each faction in Empire at War will at least command a grasp that extends past planets and into space. That is, you'll not only wage war on the face of different planets, but you'll also battle in space with the many different fighter ships of the Star Wars universe (along with bigger targets, like capital ships and space stations). These major targets will be outfitted with hard points, which are specific areas along the chassis that have different upgrades slotted into them, like engines, shield generators, and weapons. Because these large vessels are either immobile or slow-moving at best, space battles will resemble naval battles with ships maneuvering to fire broadsides at each other. You may find yourself trying to destroy all weapons on one side of a large ship so that it can't fire on you. Even if you succeed, you'll have to take advantage of your enemy's inability to attack before the ship comes about and opens up a broadside with its undamaged row of weapons. Likewise, you may find yourself targeting the engines of a ship to stop it from escaping or from advancing to the front lines for reinforcements, or you may find yourself targeting the shield generators of a ship with proton torpedoes to open the enemy up to laser fire from your fighters.
In any case, Empire at War will use a simple and hopefully effective way to keep space battles fast-paced and enjoyable. While battles will still be in 3D space, different ship classes (like TIE fighters and Imperial cruisers) will travel along separate horizontal planes. This way, fighters will be able to dogfight effectively without having to edge their ways around capital ships, though they'll definitely be able to switch between planes to go on strafing runs against the bigger targets. All spacecraft will have to contend with the physically modeled confines of the star system, which includes asteroid belts that will cause glancing damage to any ships rash enough to blunder through them.
Both land and space battles highlight the importance of having persistent units, because in Empire at War, you'll be able to send whatever troops you have on the ground up into space, and you can bring your space pilots down to the surface to help out there. You'll even be able to affect space battles from the ground (and vice versa) by capturing a surface-built ion cannon to fire salvos into space, or you can call in fighter-bombers from orbit to make bombing runs on enemy territories. These gameplay features will be integrated into the story, which will attempt to draw on Star Wars lore from the time period that precedes the original trilogy. For instance, one Rebel ground mission might require the Rebellion to recover the prototype X-Wing fighter from a guarded compound for use in space later. The swift fighter craft represented a mainstay of the original movie trilogy, but the game will attempt to explore the universe's history, as well as delve into how the Rebellion first began, through missions like this.
Star Wars: Empire at War will run on an all-new game engine known simply as "Alamo" (named after the hometown of one of its developers), and even though the game is still in the early stages of development, what we've seen already looks great. But maybe it isn't surprising that the staff was able to get a great-looking 3D engine up and running in the brief time it's been together, which has only been about two years. Though the new engine was written from scratch, it was written by Petroglyph staffers who previously created the W3D engine, which powered many of EA's 3D strategy games, like Earth & Beyond, Command & Conquer: Generals, and, most recently, The Lord of the Rings, The Battle for Middle-earth. (The soundtrack will even include selections from both classic John Williams movie scores and former Westwood composer-turned-Petroglyph staffer Frank Klepacki, who also provided scoring for Emperor: Dabble for Dune, among others.) The game makes extensive use of higher-end shader effects--like soft shadows and specular lighting, along with particle effects for dust clouds and explosions--so that space battles seem full of appropriately spectacular explosions. Land battles will take place between all the classic unit types, and they'll attempt to model things to scale. Accordingly, infantry units will look appropriately puny next to AT-ATs. Petroglyph currently plans to base land missions in at least six different environment types, including arctic, swamp, urban, temperate, forest, and volcanic, to correspond with the settings presented in the motion pictures. All will be presented on bump-mapped terrain dotted with animated shadows.
Currently, the team is planning on a comprehensive single-player campaign that can be played as either faction, along with some multiplayer plans that have not yet been disclosed. If nothing else, the game will offer online skirmish multiplayer for up to eight players. Empire at War looks very promising, and its combination of land and space battles, which actually relate to each other, should hopefully breathe some fresh air into the world of real-time strategy. The game is scheduled for release later this year.