It lacks depth for its 4X section and has balance issues, but Empire At War is still a solid Star Wars RTS game.

User Rating: 7 | Star Wars: Empire at War PC

INTRO:

It can be difficult to argue which subgenre of strategy games that Empire at War is best placed in. If it is an RTS game, then Empire at War has hardly any revolutionary RTS gameplay. In fact, it may have balance issues as a consequence of the developer's attempts to utilize the Star Wars canon. If it is a 4X (explore, expand, exploit and exterminate) game, then its complexity pales in comparison with much more sophisticated 4X franchises.

If Empire at War is to be given the benefit of the doubt, it can be considered as somewhere between the two subgenres, though this is not necessarily a compliment. Yet, if there is anything praise-worthy, it is that it is one of the most decent strategy games that bear the Star Wars brand in a long, long time.

PREMISE:

The game's backstory is an almost copy-paste adaptation of the events in the first two Star Wars movies. It focuses on the strategic maneuvers of the Empire and the Rebellion as well as the battles between them.

In campaign mode, the Rebellion's campaign is practically the series of events as seen in the movies, minus Luke Skywalker and friends' adventures. The Empire's campaign is more disconnected from Star Wars canon, depicting the Empire's crushing of upstart revolutions at any cost.

There are also story elements that would be familiar to fans of Star Wars Expanded Universe, as well as deviations from the canon depending on how the player plays the game. However, most of the story in the Campaign mode is believable or at least excusable, discounting the guffaws for when the player deliberately blows up many planets with the Death Star.

GAMEPLAY OVERVIEW:

The game has three main strata of gameplay. One stratum concerns its 4X gameplay; it has two competing players trying to take control of the known galaxy by consolidating gains and cordoning the opposition, eventually culminating in the elimination of the latter.

One stratum of gameplay concerns battles in space. Space in Empire at War is little more than a simplified 2D plane, but it has enough designs to make space warfare in Empire at War believable and as sophisticated as the battles in other competently done – albeit not space-based - RTS titles.

The last and unfortunately least stratum of gameplay involve battles on land. They are very underwhelming and may even seem to under-represent the struggle for the control of worlds, mainly due to the small maps and the under-utilization of some its own features.

THE 4X GAMEPLAY:

Empire at War's 4X gameplay would hardly impress 4X strategy game veterans.

There is the usual colossal cluster of celestial bodies (e.g. planets, asteroid clusters and artificial ones such as massive space stations) that represent the known galaxy, but the player should not be expecting to micro-manage them like the colonies in more sophisticated 4X games.

In other words, the "exploration" and "exploit" bits in Empire At War's 4X gameplay are heavily simplified. There would not be anything like discovering new races and such as the galaxy in Empire at War is strictly based on canon. Of course, one can argue that Empire at War never promised these gameplay elements in the first place.

On the other hand, the simple gameplay allows the game to be played in real-time without much of a fuss. In fact, matches in the 4X realm of Empire at War can be ferocious as the opposing players furiously move and use assets in an attempt to outpace each other.

There are two game modes that make use of this stratum of gameplay: the non-canonical Galactic Conquest mode (hereby referred to as just "Conquest" mode), and the story-oriented Campaign mode.

The story campaigns are highly scripted and are mainly intended for single-player experiences, but Conquest mode can be played in both single-player and multiplayer. A session in Conquest mode can be played with one of a few different winning conditions.

One of these is the usual winning condition of completely annihilating the opposition. The other two can have issues of gameplay imbalance, as will be described later when relevant.

GALACTIC MAP:

The galactic map and the player's progress in dominating it are prominent elements of the aforementioned game mode.

As mentioned earlier, the galactic map is composed of planets, complexes of space stations and clusters of asteroids that may be known to Star Wars enthusiasts; these objects make up the nodes that is the network that is the galactic map. In-game, every node in this network is called a "planet", though a couple of nodes are not even planets at all.

The nodes are connected to each other via bilateral lines. Thus, the conquest of a node cannot be achieved without having already conquered some adjacent ones. As any node can produce units if they have the correct facilities to do so, isolated nodes that remain under the control of the enemy are still threats.

In the campaign mode, only a handful of nodes in the galactic map are available for play depending on the point in the story; this happens to shoehorn the player into making progress according to the canon of the movies, but such a limitation would be understandable in such story-oriented gameplay.

PLANETS & INCOME:

All nodes have the same fundamental designs. Each node can support a number of facilities on its surface, if there is any, and a number of facilities in orbit around it; the number of facilities that a node can support varies from node to node. A node can also support the presence of armies and/or armadas, which are represented as stacks of chips with icons. Finally, nodes are the main source of income for the player.

Said income is of course in the form of galactic credits, the canonical currency in Star Wars. These particular credits can only be spent in the 4X segment of the game; they are not transferable to any other types of gameplay. These credits can be spent on building more facilities on the nodes, making them more valuable and useful. Otherwise, they are spent on requisitioning more units for the player's armies and armadas.

The income that a node offers depends on its canon in Star Wars history. For example, in Star Wars canon, the planet of Tatooine has been described as having little to offer to those that rule it, so it has very low income by default. In contrast, Coruscant canonically has vibrant trade, so it has generally high income.

Certain other nodes have special benefits that are conferred to the owning player. For example, Bothawui has a spy network that shows the movement of opposing fleets, which is certainly very convenient. Some nodes have benefits that only one faction can benefit from, such as Bestine, which grant 20% discounts to the creation of Acclamator cruisers (though the canonical reason for this is not immediately clear).

Each node has four slots that can be occupied by stacks of units, be they surface units or space vessels. The three slots "above" a node are for stacks of units that are in orbit; if they are space vessels, they will participate in space battles on that node. The fourth slot is only for a stack of surface units, which when stationed there, becomes the defenders of the surface of the node.

There are a couple of nodes with missing surface slots; these are usually clusters of asteroids or gas giants that cannot conceivably have solid surfaces. This means that surface facilities cannot be built on them at all, though this setback is compensated with a capacity for higher level space stations (more on these later).

When adjacent nodes that are under the control of a player manage to connect to each other, they gain bonuses to their incomes, ostensibly due to the trade that occurs between them. This is a consideration to acknowledge when deciding which node to take next.

POPULATION CAPS:

Empire at War imposes a limit on the number of units that the player can have, which is not a new but quite understandable gameplay-balancing design. However, the factors that go into determining this limit may not be so conducive to gameplay balance.

In the Conquest and Campaign modes, surface units and space units share the same population cap. The player can have mixtures of both at any proportion according to his/her needs (or whims). The nodes under the player's control determine the cap on the units that the player can have.

Different nodes contribute different amounts to the cap, depending on their canonical backstory. For example, Kuat is known for its expansive shipyards that can support entire fleets, so it contributes a lot to the population cap.

A node's contribution to the population cap can be improved by building space stations on it. The designs of the space stations are elaborated later.

SPACE STATIONS:

A space station starts as a measly level 1 establishment that is barely capable of defending itself, though it does prevent cheap attacks in Conquest mode.

Fortunately, it can be upgraded to become more powerful and versatile. The first upgrade to level 2 is quite affordable, but any upgrade after that, up to the maximum of level 5, can be significantly more expensive. In addition, not every node can support a high level space station.

For example, Kuat's canonical history as a shipyard means it can have a level 5 space station, but Dagobah, with its lack of any useful resources, has no reason to have any space station with a level higher than 2. This limitation may seem restrictive, but it is conducive to gameplay balance.

It is likely in the player's interest to create high-level space stations to fortify the front line with, as well as to provide rendezvous locations to concentrate reinforcements in and shelter them from punitive attacks. However, it has to be mentioned here that space stations only protect their own nodes – they will not assist in the defence of adjacent nodes, at least not directly.

Anyway, a higher level space station can build more kinds of space vessels, assuming that they have been unlocked through research. However, in the Conquest and Campaign modes, only the space stations on certain special planets that are known for their ship-building capabilities can build the most massive of ships, namely the Mon Calamari cruisers and the Star Destroyers.

A higher level space station also has more defensive capabilities, such as having hangars that churn out strike-craft regularly and hyperspace beacons that call in lower-class capital ships for additional firepower.

Taking on a high-level space station is certainly daunting, but there happens to be units that are capable of busting space stations, as will be mentioned later.

SURFACE FACILITIES:

Surface facilities provide more versatility to a node than a space station can – which means that nodes such as Bespin and the Vergesso Asteroids would have limited usefulness, as they do not have any surface.

Different nodes have different capacities for surface facilities; the reasons for these differences are usually understandable. For example, the massive asteroid that is Kessel does not have many stable locations, so it has a very low capacity for surface facilities.

There are mines that can be placed on a planet to improve its income. There is not any factor that determines how efficient these mines are, so the player can plonk them down on any node as long as there are slots left.

There are also factories and barracks that allow the production of surface units. They also play a role in surface battles in Conquest and Campaign mode, as will be described later.

For nodes on the frontline, defensive facilities such as shield generators and turbo-lasers may be handy.

Shield generators create force fields around bases on the surface, protecting them from incoming fire, whether it is from the surface or space. The shield generators are rendered useless if hostile ground forces manage to get under the shield, which they can do without much of a problem as the shields do not fry them upon contact.

Turbo-lasers are the most powerful and long-ranged turrets in surface battles, but they cannot be easily replaced if they are destroyed; in fact, in Conquest or Campaign mode, they are permanently lost if they are destroyed. More importantly, they are powered by power plants that can be separately targeted and destroyed, upon which the turbo-lasers are rendered useless. Turbo-lasers also have minimum firing distances, so they cannot be expected to hold down territory by themselves.

Then, there is the Magna-pulse cannon emplacement, which is practically a super-weapon that is used in surface battles (to borrow an RTS jargon that was pervasive in the past decade).

There are also surface facilities that play a role in orbital battles. The Imperials have the Hypervelocity Gun, whereas the Rebellion has the Ion Cannon. Their presence on the surface essentially unlocks super-weapon abilities. The Hypervelocity Gun is a weapon that simply severely damages its target, whereas the Ion Cannon disables a ship for an uncomfortably long time.

Having more than one of these on a planet does not grant more uses of the super-weapon abilities, but they do reduce the cool-down time on the abilities.

Finally, there are surface facilities that produce units. In Conquest mode, they do more than just unlock units for production, as will be described later.

INTERSTELLAR RECONNAISSANCE:

The player can readily see the assets on nodes that are under his/her control as well as the forces that are stationed on it, among other details such as income levels. However, the player cannot do the same for nodes that are under the enemy's control.

To obtain information on the enemy's holdings, the player must send recon units over to them. These recon units are expendable, because they are spent as soon as the player sends them over to enemy-controlled nodes. The revelation will not last forever either; eventually, the player will lose access to information on enemy-held nodes that had been visited by recon units earlier.

In the case of the Rebellion player, they get a single but re-usable reconnaissance unit that gives them a significant edge early in a Conquest session. However, the Empire player can still attempt to outdo the former with quantity instead of quality later. This can lead to an uncomfortable shifting of balance in reconnaissance abilities as the match progresses.

INTERSTELLAR INVASIONS & TRANSPORTATION:

A node cannot be taken over by any means other than force; there is no diplomatic option at all, though this is keeping in line with the source material.

Before the player can invade or transport units about, the player has to create them and form them into stacks of chips. Creating, combining and splitting stacks is fortunately quite easy to perform, though the real-time nature of the 4X gameplay in Empire at War means that the player may either want to pause the game when playing in single-player or hurry up when in multiplayer.

Invading enemy-held nodes is as simple as moving a stack of units onto it. However, on the flip-side, a stack of units cannot be moved onto an enemy-held node without being considered as attacking it.

If a stack of units is moved onto an enemy node with a space station or defending armadas, a space battle automatically commences. However, the invading player can choose to retreat before the battle starts in earnest, though he/she would have wasted his/her time.

However, unless the node does not have any surface at all, it cannot be conquered by simply having its orbital defences swept away; a ground force is needed to complete the conquest. Otherwise, while awaiting the arrival of said ground force, the forces in orbit are considered as blockades on the node.

Blockades prevent the node from rebuilding its orbital facilities and remitting its income to its owner. However, blockades do not prevent the building of surface facilities and the raising of ground forces, so the owning player can still attempt to resist any attempts by the enemy to completely conquer the node.

As stacks cannot be moved about enemy nodes without being considered as invading them, the nodes at the rear of a player's territory would be quite safe and can be vacated of any defensive forces so these can be sent to the frontlines instead. However, this only applies to the Rebellion player; the Imperial player has to contend with a sneaky ability that the Rebellion has, which will be described later.

Consequently, if a player has been forced behind chokepoints that the enemy is quick to fortify, he/she has little way to progress other than to attack these chokepoints outright. Fortunately, the galactic map has very few viable chokepoints, which help make matches fluid and perhaps even amusing when the player has managed to take away nodes that the enemy has failed to guard.

Space and surface battles have to be fought to conquer a node, but in Conquest mode, or the Campaign mode when critical (story-based) missions are not involved, the player can opt to have the game automatically resolve the battle. This is more useful if the odds are in the player's favour, but as with so many other auto-resolution features before it, Empire At War's is often inefficient in deciding losses.

In the Conquest or Campaign mode, the player can unwittingly have surface units participate in space battles by including them in the stack of units in the orbit of a node when it is attacked. Therefore, it is in the player's interest to ensure that surface units remain on surfaces while awaiting shipment to other nodes.

REBELLION RAIDS:

Generally, the invading player must clear orbital defences before making a ground attack, but the Rebellion can perform "raids" that bypass orbital defences. If the Rebellion can create a small stack of ground units (usually no more than 3), it can move this stack (which is conveniently marked with a star icon) into enemy-held nodes without provoking a space battle; the Empire player is not able to see this stack at all. This stack can then be used to attack the surface.

Of course, the catch here is that the Rebellion player only has these three units to work with. He/She may obtain help from rebellious natives, but if he/she loses these three units, he/she is immediately defeated. Moreover, the defending player may have orbital support, which can make the raid more difficult.

On the other hand, there are no limits on the composition of the raiders. There can be artillery and heavy tanks in the raiding party, which can cause some disbelief as these huge vehicles would have been terrifically difficult to smuggle. This can become a balance issue as the Rebellion player can shuffle a powerful raiding party about to frustrate the Empire player.

Furthermore, if the raid is successful, any space station on that node is immediately removed, as the Empire player is considered to have lost control of the planet and by extent, its assets, which includes the space station.

Raids are intended to balance against the Empire's generally better starting conditions in Conquest mode, but this means that the Imperial player must spend some of his/her resources to plan and deploy defensive garrisons. This may seem fair to some players, but it also means that the Imperial player cannot have much flexibility in utilizing his/her greater resources without having to deal with devastating raids.

PIRATES:

In the Conquest and Campaign modes, the player may come across forces that are not aligned with either the Rebellion or Empire. The game refers to them as "pirates", fittingly or not.

They have some special units and even space stations of their own, though these are generally pathetic compared to the more advanced hardware that the two established factions use.

In campaign mode, they serve as small-fry antagonists. In Conquest mode, they occupy initially unaligned nodes, thus acting as barriers that slow down the players' progress. However, once they have been dealt with, they never return in any way.

THE DEATH STAR:

As seen in the movies, the Death Star busts planets to bits and converts them into near-useless clusters of asteroids, regardless of canonical consequences. That it can blow up other planets in addition to Alderaan can cause a bit of disbelief in Star Wars purists, but for purposes of gameplay, it is a very entertaining and potent scorched-earth weapon.

In fact, one particular permutation of Conquest mode has the Empire gaining the Death Star very early on, but the Imperial player will outright lose if it is successfully engaged and eliminated by the Red Squadron.

On the other hand, there is no other way to destroy the Death Star other than to have Luke and his (mostly doomed) buddies hit its embarrassing weak spot. Even if its escort fleet is annihilated, the Death Star can still survive and retreat into allied territory.

SPACE BATTLES - OVERVIEW:

Space battles are perhaps the most exciting part of Empire at War. They are also the more sophisticated of the two types of battles to be experienced in the game.

For the majority of a space battle, the participating players will be moving space vessels about and trying to destroy each other's armadas. Each player has access to a hyperspace zone where new units or reinforcements would arrive in. In the Campaign or Conquest modes, the defender tends to have larger landing zones, which can make attacking harder than it should be.

In the Campaign or Conquest modes, the arriving units are drawn from a limited pool of reinforcements (depending on how many units that the player has in the stack that he/she has used to invade a node), but in skirmish space battles, the arriving units are units that the player has requisitioned.

Space battles have their own unit caps. This prevents players from bringing overwhelming armadas into a battle in Conquest or Campaign mode immediately from the start.

Generally, a player wins when he/she has depleted all of the enemy's reinforcements and destroyed the enemy's space station, if any; the latter task can be daunting, as mentioned earlier.

There are buoys in space that can be controlled and fortified by converting them into turrets. At best, these act as a first-line of defence and at worst, an early alarm; they are not powerful enough to stop anything more than hostile probing. The locations of these buoys are also fixed and they are rarely concentrated in any one area.

It also has to be noted here that turrets are not built instantly and are vulnerable to attacks while they are being built.

Fighting and maneuvering are not the only things to do. Some maps in space have already-built edifices, such as mining facilities, that can be taken over to yield some credits that can be used during this space battle. However, the credits cannot be transferred over into the 4X segment of the game.

Some maps have special regions such as nebulae or asteroid fields that allow for flanking opportunities. For example, nebulae can hide ships from any form of detection, but also prevent these ships from looking out of the nebulae.

In some maps, especially the ones in the campaign mode, there may be landing zones located in sneaky locations, such as in blind spots that a space station's vast viewing range cannot cover. These can make space battles very interesting.

HARD-POINTS:

One of the most interesting aspects of space battles is that space vessels that are larger than a corvette have locations on them that can be separately damaged from their main hull. These locations are called "hard-points" in-game.

For example, frigates have engines that are large enough to be destroyed, but have few other vulnerable hard-points. In contrast, massive capital ships like Star Destroyers have many more hard-points to represent their greater amounts of hardware.

These hard-points are tied to the durability of the ships. By default, ships with hard-points do not take hits to their hulls, even if it looks like they are. Instead, these hits damage the nearest hard-points, the damage being distributed if the hits are not spot-on. Spot-on hits on hard-points generally damage these exclusively, thus leading to a faster knock-out of these devices.

Although space vessels can be directed to fire at a specific hard-point on a targeted enemy ship, they will only manage to fire half or more but not all of their weaponry at said hard-point; the rest of their firepower would hit other hitpoints, or even other ships. However, there are units with special abilities that can circumvent these limitations; these are typically one-of-a-kind "hero" units.

Ships with hard-points appear to have health bars, but these are actually just rough estimates of the states of their hardpoints. Damaged hard-points may be repaired by space stations or repair buoys if they are still functional; this appears to replenish the aforementioned health bars.

However, destroyed hard-points cannot be returned to operational status; the reduction to the health bars is permanent. This also means that a ship becomes weaker and lousier at combat as more of its hard-points are blown out. Once a ship has all of its hard-points destroyed, it is immediately destroyed.

Space stations have the most hard-points compared to any other space vessels in the game, especially if they have been upgraded to massive level 5 space stations. Of these hard-points, the shield generator is the biggest and toughest, followed by the hangar, which will continuously produce strike-craft until it is destroyed. Understandably, to the attacker, these are the most troublesome hard-points on the space station and so will draw the most fire.

SQUADRONS:

Strike-craft, namely fighters and bombers, always move about in squadrons. As these squadron units take more damage, they lose members and thus combat strength. Individual members in squadrons can be repaired, but any losses are permanent.

Squadron units are very vulnerable to anti-fighter weaponry, such as the laser batteries on Corvettes. However, their small sizes and nimbleness allow them to move past hazards that would have been dangerous to other space vessels, such as asteroid fields. Squadron units are also generally nimble enough to dodge any weapons-fire other than anti-fighter weaponry and the attention of other strike-craft.

SHIELDS (FOR SPACE VESSELS):

Most space vessels have shields that prevent incoming fire from damaging their hulls, as long as they are still intact. Shields that have been depleted but not completely drained will eventually recharge. Completely drained shields will not return until after around a dozen uncomfortable seconds, but when they do, they return at around a third of their capacities.

In the case of strike-craft and corvettes, their shields will always recharge as their shield generators are integrated into them; however, their shields are nowhere near as powerful as those of bigger ships.

For bigger vessels, their shield generators have exposed parts due to engineering considerations and thus these can be destroyed separately. If the generators are taken out, the ships will never again regain their shielding.

Not all weapons-fire are blocked by shields; torpedoes and missiles happen to go through them completely. However, torpedoes are very slow and cannot chase strike-craft at all, while missiles are quite weak.

IMPERIAL SPACE UNITS:

The Imperials do not have dedicated strike-craft units; instead, their strike-craft are launched from the hangars of their capital ships. This is in line with Star Wars canon, as TIE fighters and bombers generally do not have hyperspace-jumping capabilities during the timeline of the movies and have to depend on their motherships for interstellar transport.

Capital ships have limited but still many reserves of TIE strike-craft, but only a few squadrons can be active per capital ship at a time. The capital ships can launch new TIE strike-craft to replenish the ones that are lost, but the player can still lose them faster than they can be replenished. Eventually, if the battle is particularly heated, the capital ships will lose all of their strike-craft reserves. However, they can lose their strike-craft reserves altogether if their hangars are destroyed.

TIE strike-craft can be ordered around like other squadron-based units, even far away from their mothership. However, if their motherships are taken out, they will die off one-by-one for no reason.

Imperial cruisers have a predilection for a large number of energy weaponry, especially turbo-lasers. This means that even the most ungainly of them can still hope to hit much smaller craft, though they are still terribly inefficient at doing so.

However, because they use a lot of energy-based weaponry, these Imperial vessels generally have to go through the shields of opposing ships before being able to hit anything their hulls. This can be a problem as the Rebellion has some ships that are designed to soak a lot of shield-busting weapons-fire. Therefore, TIE Bombers are especially valuable for the Imperial player.

For all their impressively-sized ships, the Imperials have only a couple of corvette-class ships, neither of which are effective against capital ships or even other corvettes. The Tartan Patrol Cruiser provides early-match deterrence against raids by early-match Rebellion vessels, but is practically outgunned later in the match.

REBELLION SPACE UNITS:

It is worth noting here that many of the Rebellion ships that are seen in this game actually made their debut in this game, and not any other media based on Star Wars – not even Expanded Universe. In fact, a few of these would never be mentioned outside of official canon that is dedicated to the ships in Star Wars fiction.

The most prominent of these is the Assault Frigate Mk. II, which is not featured in any Star Wars medium outside of Empire at War. This can give rise to the suspicion that it has been made up just to fill holes in the strategic composition of the Rebellion armada.

However, RTS veterans may still appreciate the inclusion of the barely canonical space ships. Returning to the example of the Assault Frigate Mk. II, it is a much-needed filler in between the Nebulon-B frigate (which is its figurative little brother) and the Rebellion's cruisers.

Temporarily boosting the strength of their shields is a common ability among the big Rebellion ships, which can pose a problem to Imperial players. Crafty Rebellion players will make use of this ability to stall any attempts by the Imperial player to concentrate firepower on a single target.

The Rebellion has two combat-oriented corvettes that complement each other quite well; they can even threaten individual Imperial cruisers when massed. When the tables are turned against them, they can always power up their engines to escape.

Such a special ability can give the Rebellion quite an unfair advantage in mobility, but this is perhaps a deliberate design that is in line with the source material.

MISCELLANEOUS NOTES ON SPACE BATTLES:

Both sides have access to a unit that is specifically made to battle space stations and punish players who bunch their ships together. Any side has a different name and model for this unit, but either side's version of it is practically identical to its counterpart; they have even the same statistics.

Anyway, this unit fires slow-moving but long-ranged missiles that are devastating against capital ships and static space objects. Its special ability is even more devastating; within a short time, it can launch an astonishingly thick barrage of missiles that can wreck tightly packed fleets that are far away.

This unit is practically a hard counter against space stations, which are otherwise devastating against any fleet that attempts to fight them on their own terms.

SURFACE BATTLES - OVERVIEW:

Surface battles would seem more boring than space battles, because surface battles do not give its participants the same freedom of movement as space battles would. However, it does have a few redeeming designs, at least in Conquest or Campaign mode.

In Conquest mode, a node cannot be conquered without successfully winning the land battle for it (if the node has a surface). In Campaign mode, a node can be conquered by successfully completing the story-based mission that is associated with it. However, in both cases, the player has to move a stack of surface units onto the surface slot of a node.

In these two modes, the players cannot build any new buildings onto the map, or rebuild any existing buildings that had been destroyed.

In Conquest mode, the existing buildings are actually representations of the surface facilities that the owning player has built on the node that is being attacked. The attacking player can destroy the surface facilities by destroying those buildings.

In addition, surface facilities that allow the creation of surface units happen to act as automatic dispensers of garrison units that can be used by the defending player like any other units. This certainly makes them more interesting and useful than they would be in land battles of the Skirmish mode.

Speaking of those, in skirmish land battles, these buildings are a lot more mundane. They have to be built and used like the base buildings that have been seen in so many other RTS titles, e.g. they produce units and such in return for fees of credits.

Certain maps have weather effects that can affect surface battles. For example, Nal Hutta has a lot of rain that reduces the accuracy of any units that use laser weaponry. Therefore, weather is an important consideration when fielding units for a surface battle in any game mode.

Some maps have special terrain features such as dense forests that block the progress of vehicles or bogs that disallow the movement of any units other than those that can hover. However, the maps for surface battles are so small that the effects of these terrain features on the participants' progress through the map are quite limited.

In fact, it would appear that a lot of the official maps make use of chokepoints more often than any other known map designs.

In Conquest mode, and some missions in Campaign mode, the player can provide ground forces with off-map support by having bombers or cruisers in orbit when they conduct ground missions. For example, having a Y-Wing squadron in orbit gives the Rebellion player access to bombing runs that can be periodically called down. Having any more Y-Wing squadrons would not do much of anything however. In addition, the target for these off-map strikes must not be shrouded in the fog-of-war.

Surface battles have their own unit caps, depending on the conditions of the map. To fill up this unit cap, the player (regardless of whether he/she is the defender or the attacker, and regardless of any mode for that matter) has to land reinforcements at landing zones. Each player starts with one that is always in his/her control, but can capture more and deny these from the enemy. However, in Campaign mode, landing zones are often disabled in favour of highly scripted scenarios.

Some maps in surface battles have buildings that periodically spawn squads of indigenous people. If they are canonically aligned with either faction (usually the Rebellion), they automatically come under the control of that faction without adding to the unit cap. However, If the natives are aligned to neither side, they are hostile towards either. Examples of these include the Hutts on Nal Hutta.

In some maps, these natives can tilt the battle unfairly in the favour of one particular player. An example of such an occurrence is a surface battle on Kashyyyk in Conquest mode, in which the Wookiees can be a bit too powerful an addition to the Rebel player's army.

SHIELDS (IN SURFACE BATTLES):

There are two kinds of shields that the player will see in surface battles: mobile personal shields that some units have, and massive but not entirely impermeable shields that are created by base shield generators.

Personal shielding is usually exclusive to certain vehicles, such as the Rebel T2-B and Imperial 2-M Repulsor Tanks. Giving shields to these two units can seem to be a design mistake, because they already have the advantage of splendid mobility; having rechargeable shields makes them a bit too effective at hit-and-run attacks.

Base shield generator mainly protects a base from energy-based weapons, but they will not stop enemies from simply moving into the shields; by default, they also cannot stop missiles and bombs, at least until they are upgraded. The edges of the shield can still be used as defensive lines, but unless these are located at narrow chokepoints, fast enemies can still rush past them.

However, one particular disadvantage of shield generators can seem to make them far less useful than they seem. For whatever strange reason, the power plant for the shield generator is often placed outside of the base shielding in many maps. This forces the player to divide defensive efforts between protecting the power plant and the main base itself, which can seem to be an unacceptable trade-off for the protection that is provided by the shielding.

BUILD POINTS:

In any surface map, there are peculiar tiles that resemble sockets. These can be captured by any infantry unit that comes near them.

After these tiles have been captured, small structures can be built on them to solidify the player's control. The most common structures are laser turrets and missile turrets, which are effective against infantry and vehicles respectively, as well as AA turrets.

There are other special devices that can be built in lieu of the turrets. The Gravity Control Generator is one of them, and it is practically a hard-counter against hovering vehicles. Another notable device is the Bacta Tank, which may look silly sitting in the middle of the battlefield as it is a device that is more at home in medical bays.

Turrets and devices that are built on these points cannot win battles on their own though; at best, they are expendable, only to be built when it is expedient to have fall-back points.

REBELLION SURFACE UNITS:

Some of the Rebellion surface units, such as the Rebel soldiers with their silly-looking headgear, would be immediately recognizable to Star Wars fans.

However, there are many units that have been designed just to fulfill tactical roles in the ranks of the Rebellion's army, thus making their debut in Star Wars canon in this very game. The T2-B hover-tank is a notable example, as it happens to be have been designed to stall the advance of Stormtroopers.

Some of these units have backstory that explains their presence away as successors of units that had debuted in earlier Star Wars RTS titles. Some examples are the T4-B heavy tank and MPTL-2a self-propelled artillery. The significance of their inclusion would be lost on other players, but players who have experienced earlier Star Wars RTS titles and have an interest in their canon may be pleased by the homage.

Speaking of the MPTL-2a artillery unit, it may be a bit overpowered as it comes with droids that can help it spot targets if other units could not. Of course, the droids are very easily despatched, but its Imperial counterpart does not have the luxury of having convenient aid from spotters.

The most entertaining units that the Rebellion has are the Speeders, which are the T-47 airspeeders as seen in the movies. At first glance, they may seem overpowered; they can zoom in and out of the map to make strafing runs against their targets with near impunity. They are also hard-counters against AT-AT walkers, which can do nothing as the Speeders tie them up.

AA units and buildings can reliably hit them, but to deal with them quickly enough, the Speeders have to be caught while trying to tie up an AT-AT; otherwise, their constant zooming about makes them very difficult to destroy, even with AA fire.

IMPERIAL SURFACE UNITS:

More so than the Rebellion's surface units, most of the Imperials' surface units would be familiar to Star Wars fans.

The much joked-about Stormtroopers are the core of the Imperial player's ground forces, for better or worse; there are few other foot-soldiers that the Imperial player has. Functionally-speaking, they are no more different than the Rebellion's soldiers.

However, the Imperial does have access to a very early-match scout unit, which is the Scout Trooper. Having a hover-bike gives this soldier astonishing speed that players who frequently perform reconnaissance would appreciate.

What the Imperials lack in infantry variety, they make up with vehicles. A couple of these are infamously known Imperial hardware, such as the AT-ST and AT-AT walkers.

As seen in the movies, the AT-ST is a mobile anti-infantry weapons platform, while the AT-AT is an armored personnel carrier and heavy armour rolled into one. The AT-AT has a reserve of three squads of Stormtroopers, which can be handy when securing objectives and building points.

The other Imperial vehicles are less iconic, but otherwise fulfill important roles. There are the aforementioned 2-M hover-tanks and the AT-AA walkers, which also have the ability to mess with the guidance system of missiles, though this ability is of questionable canonical relevance.

For artillery work, there is the SPMA-AT, which does not appear in any other Star Wars medium other than being referred to as a more practical variant of a certain vehicle seen in the less well-received trilogy of the Star Wars movies.

The most entertaining yet disappointing Imperial vehicle is the TIE Mauler. It is practically a land vehicle that is built using the famous Twin Ion Engine technology. It is a unit that is quite difficult to use effectively, as it is a fast but weak light vehicle that also happens to be able to run over enemy infantry and self-destruct in a spectacular manner.

RESEARCH:

In the Conquest or Campaign mode, though mainly Conquest mode, the Empire and the Rebellion start with units that are low on their tech trees. They have different ways to unlock the upper branches their tech tree.

For the Imperials, researching should be a simple activity, as there do not seem to be many prerequisites other than fees to be paid. However, for the Rebels, they depend on units that have to be sent into enemy territory to supposedly "steal" technology. This is practically a pre-requisite for the undertaking of research projects, which may seem to put the Rebels at a disadvantage in moving up their tech tree.

HEROES - OVERVIEW:

Considering the designs of units that have been mentioned earlier, one would already have doubts about the gameplay balance in Empire at War's battles. Unfortunately, the "hero" units may well reinforce these doubts further. However, they are undeniably entertaining.

In the Campaign mode, named hero units are generally used to advance the storyline. They are more of a bother than a hindrance as they are used for some objectives of very aged designs, namely those that require that they survive missions.

In Conquest mode, they are more useful and easier to work with. This is because they are made available as soon as the player has fulfilled the necessary prerequisites; in fact, the player starts with one hero unit right away. Moreover, losing named heroes in battle is not a permanent setback; they will return eventually, though some return faster than others (who happen to be more powerful). Some named heroes also have different variants for space battles and surface battles, such as Darth Vader.

Heroes that lack variants for space battles may be attached to the biggest capital ships that the player has, if they are involved in space battles. For example, Mon Mothma would be attached to the biggest Rebellion ship, even if it is a hero unit.

However, if there are no capital ships, they appear as transport vessels, which are especially vulnerable.

Having such heroes in space battles is risky, of course, as the player may well lose the hero together with the ship if it is singled-out and destroyed. However, their presence may impart bonuses to the fleet, such as in the case of Mon Mothma.

In one-off battles, they are purchased like any other unit, but they are of course very expensive. This is especially so for Force-using heroes, who can generally blow through infantry, deflect all small-arms fire and shake buildings to bits.

IMPERIAL HEROES:

The Imperials may seem to have an unfair advantage when it comes to Heroes; they have more hero units that are powerful combat units than the Rebels do.

In Conquest mode, the Imperial player starts with Emperor Palpatine, which is perhaps not a good design decision as he is terrifically devastating against early-match units.

However, considering that Palpatine can also be held back to speed up the development of the player's holdings, the player may have to make some difficult decisions on whether to risk him in early-match conquering of territory or having him stay put to match the efforts of the Rebellion player, who will certainly use their starting hero unit (i.e. Mon Mothma) in this manner.

Darth Vader expectedly makes an appearance in the game. In ground battles, he is an outrageous melee powerhouse. In surface battles, he appears in his experimental TIE fighter and is escorted by more mundane TIE fighters that he can replenish periodically. He is a lot less powerful in this form, but his squadron can blow through pesky X-Wings efficiently in the long-term – perhaps too much so.

Boba Fett, who is another popular villain/anti-hero, appears in Empire at War too. However, he is better balanced than most Imperial heroes, though his ship's anti-strike-craft bombs would practically mandate opposing players to send either the Red Squadron or Millennium Falcon to eliminate him.

General Veers, who is not as well-known as the other Imperial characters, commands a practically overpowered prototype AT-AT. That it is immune to the tow-cable attacks of Speeders pretty much requires the Rebellion to send a lot of Plex Missile Soldiers to kill it, which is not easy considering that it can maintain two units of Stormtroopers indefinitely.

(This problem was later addressed by a patch that makes Veers' AT-AT as vulnerable to tow-cables as the others.)

Captain Piett's personalized Star Destroyer is also a regular unit that has been given a boost in statistics, but instead of being a powerhouse with tremendous durability, it is intended to be used against individual, hard targets – namely heroic Rebellion ships.

As if Boba Fett is not enough, the Empire player gets another commando-like hero unit in the form of Mara Jade.

Finally, there is Grand Moff Tarkin, but he is only available in the campaign mode. However, this is perhaps for the better, as the benefits that he can confer to the Imperial player is just too much for the gameplay balance of any other game mode.

REBELLION HEROES:

In Conquest mode, the Rebellion player starts with Mon Mothma. Being a person that is strong in character but not in body, she is not a combat unit at all. In space battles, however, she acts as an upgrade for the biggest vessel, imparting defensive bonuses to the entire fleet.

Perhaps for the worse, she appears in ground battles as her own unit – which enemies may well target for elimination. This can be a problem, as Mon Mothma is practically useless, especially when compared to the dreadfully tough Palpatine. In fact, the Rebellion player would be at a disadvantage in Conquest matches with the "kill-the-leader" winning condition.

C3-PO and R2-D2 are unlocked very early in Conquest mode and can be used to perform free reconnaissance for the Rebellion player. The duo is also needed to "steal" technology, i.e. start research projects. Unfortunately, in actual battles, they are quite useless – utterly so in space battles, in fact. In surface battles, the duo may have abilities that seem useful, but are in fact quite difficult and even impractical to utilize.

In contrast, the duo that is Chewbacca and Han Solo can seem utterly overpowered. Both of them, when on foot, go through Stormtroopers like they are scythes through wheat. Each of them has risky anti-vehicle powers, but the benefits are worth the risk; Han Solo can disable vehicles for an astonishingly long time, and Chewbacca can outright hijack any vehicle, including even AT-AT's.

They are just as obscenely powerful in space; the Millennium Falcon is easily the most durability non-capital ship in the game, packing tremendous shields and thick hull; it also has a special ability that gives it temporary invulnerability too. If unchallenged by overwhelming numbers, Slave One or Darth Vader, it can eventually destroy any individual regular ships on its own.

The Correlian corvettes may already be quite overpowered against their Imperial counterpart due to their special ability. However, the inclusion of the Sundered Heart in the game can bolster this advantage a bit too far; the very first mission in the Rebellion campaign may well show this.

As mentioned earlier, combat ships cannot concentrate all of their firepower on a single target by default. The Rebellion hero unit that is Admiral Ackbar's flagship, Home One, circumvents this limitation with its special ability that forces all Rebellion ships in the vicinity to fire on a single target until it cracks or until the significant duration of this power lapses.

The Red Squadron is perhaps the most well-balanced Rebellion hero unit, as it is designed as a precision-strike unit that cannot win fights on its own – unless the enemy is composed of just TIE strike-craft, in which case the Red Squadron goes through them very quickly.

Obi-Wan Kenobi is also well-balanced, because he does not have an offensive special ability to bolster his already impressive Jedi combat prowess further. Instead, his special abilities heal infantry units and grant protection to critically important units, which would have the player considering whether to hold him back to support battle groups or have him spearheading assaults.

Kyle Katarn makes a cameo appearance as another Rebellion hero unit that is fortunately well-balanced. However, he is quite mundane, as he has yet to accept his destiny as a Jedi Master in this game.

OTHER HEROES:

Both the Empire and Rebellion have access to lesser, unnamed hero units, which are generally only available in Conquest mode. Unlike named heroes, they must always be obtained by paying recruitment fees.

The Fleet Commander is practically an upgrade to a capital ship, much like Mon Mothma as have been described earlier. The Field Commander is an actual unit that appears in surface battles, acting as a map-wide buff to associated forces.

Then, there are Smugglers, which can be placed on enemy-held nodes to leech income from them, though they are easily removed by named heroes. Finally, there are expendable bounty hunters, which can eliminate unnamed heroes outright or incapacitate named ones temporarily, though the player has to pay for both the recruitment fees and the bounties (which can be steep for named heroes).

A.I. SCRIPTS:

Unfortunately, the A.I. for computer-controlled opponents is one of the weakest designs of Empire at War.

Firstly, the A.I. does not see any further than the front-lines. It tends to focus its efforts on nodes on the front-line, and is incapable of making sneak attacks behind the front-lines by exploiting holes in the space defences of adjacent nodes.

The A.I. is also similarly rigid in surface battles. It will always attempt to remove anything it encounters in its way and will not make any effort to bypass defences even if it is prudent to do so, e.g. have fast vehicles simply bypassing infantry to do hit-and-run attacks on buildings.

The A.I. is at its worst in the Campaign mode. Enemies tend to be single-minded, making them quite easy to smash if the player has brought along many reinforcements or a variety of units to make use of the game's rock-scissors-paper system. If not for artificially imposed challenges such as the need to keep hero units alive, the Campaign mode would have been quite easy as a consequence of the A.I.'s shortfalls.

Playing as the Rebellion against an A.I.-controlled Empire is particularly easier than playing as the Empire against the Rebellion. This is because the A.I. tends to be woefully unprepared for Raids in either Campaign or Conquest mode. It does learn from its mistake of leaving nodes open without garrisons, but it will always make this mistake at least once in any session. Merely taking one particularly important planet via a raid can break the A.I.'s back.

SKIRMISHES:

If the player does not like the 4X stratum of the gameplay, then he/she can choose to play one-off land battles and surface battles. In-game, they are called "skirmishes", which would not be a surprise to RTS veterans.

In these game modes, the facilities that the player build in the Conquest or Campaign mode are simplified into nothing more than the buildings that one would build in generic RTS titles. However, the player has little control over their placements; they appear to come into existence at fixed locations.

This is especially the case for the space station in skirmish space battles: these always appear in the corners of the map.

Unfortunately, skirmish battles also highlight the lack of sophistication in the gameplay designs of Empire at War, especially for surface battles, when compared to those for more established RTS titles.

As had been mentioned already, the space battles in Empire at War occur on simplified 2-D planes, which are a far cry from full six-axis 3-D space.

Surface battles in Empire at War have very few practical aerial units; there are only the Rebellion's Landspeeders. This means that terrain-based chokepoints in maps have far more strategic importance than they deserve. Moreover, there is not much in the way of terrain topography to be factored into tactical considerations.

Some heroes are also not available in certain skirmish battles; for example, Palpatine is not available in one-off space battles. This is a lost opportunity to make one-off battles more sophisticated, e.g. Palpatine could have been implemented as a special upgrade to an individual ship.

MISCELLANEOUS COMPLAINTS:

As mentioned earlier, credits are the resources that are used in the 4X, land-based RTS and space-battling gameplay strata in Empire at War. Although the player will eventually realize that the credits that are gained in any one stratum cannot be transferred to another stratum of gameplay in Conquest or Campaign mode, the game could have been better off if it informed the player of this in the tutorial.

Some surface units happen to have the useless ability of "Hunt for Enemies". This is practically the toggling of search-and-destroy A.I. scripts, and these are not very smart at doing what they do. This ability may give the impression that the developer has run out of ideas for the special abilities that these units would have.

GRAPHICS - OVERVIEW:

For a game of its time, Empire at War might have looked impressive. However, that is because the game uses camera distances and angles that hide the fact that the graphical designs of the game were nothing revolutionary for its time.

The game mainly uses pre-rendered graphics and icons for its 4X gameplay. They may seem simple, but they are otherwise adequate for visual clarity.

There are not any special models that depict the facilities that have been built on a node. Instead, there are only silhouettes of their actual in-game models to look at.

The nodes in the galactic map are represented by static icons with colours that change as they change ownership, so the player can gauge his/her progress in conquering the galaxy with a mere glance. As most of the planets look quite similar to each other (e.g. almost all of them are near-spherical), the game includes text labels under them for convenience of recognition.

In battles, bars for health and shields appear above the models of units. For the bigger units, they can be quite easy to see. For units with small models such as infantry and strike-craft, the developer has opted for an aggregated health bar, which is a wise design.

GRAPHICS – SPACE BATTLES:

Although Empire at War might not have utilized state-of-the-art graphics at the time, it did make clever use of camera perspectives, plenty of particle effects and model transitions for its space battles. As a result, space battles appear convincingly hectic and impressive.

Frigates, cruisers and capital ships have their textures and model parts replaced with nastier-looking ones as they take damage, while any hardpoints on them that have been destroyed billow smoke and fiery gases into space.

They certainly look more convincingly stricken as they get closer and closer to destruction, upon which their models shatter apart in spectacularly catastrophic manners, accompanied by plenty of blue particle effects. Afterwards, their model parts become part of the skybox for the map, simulating pieces of debris that are falling down onto the celestial body in the background.

Unfortunately, there are far fewer model transitions for strike-craft and corvettes as they take damage. Hard-points also do not have transitions in their models before they are destroyed, thus requiring the player to hover the mouse cursor over them, or at least the ship that they belong to, to look at their individual health bars.

Most of the particle effects that the player would see in space battles are those for weapons-fire. Opposing ships exchange a lot of turbo-laser pulses and plasma bolts with each other, while the ominous blobs of red that are proton torpedoes slowly but inexorably move towards their target.

However, incoming missiles can be difficult to spot, as they lack particle effects that are as gaudy as those for other weapons-fire.

To simulate boundless space, the models of ships can appear to move under or above each other, though this is just clever visual trickery. Besides, the relative positions of ships are unimportant, as ships can damage each other as long as they are within range of each other.

GRAPHICS – SURFACE BATTLES:

The graphical designs for the maps that are used in surface battles will be the first thing that the player sees, and unfortunately they can be disappointing.

Although the graphical assets for the environments are convincingly based on objects and scenery that have been seen in Star Wars media, they lack the vibrancy of the latter.

Even on the highest graphical settings, textures look drab and the edges in the polygons of models are all too clear when examined closely. This would not have been a complaint if the game sticks with the default camera settings for normal gameplay, but it uses other camera perspectives for in-game cutscenes, which highlight the inadequate graphical designs for cinematic moments.

Despite having a theme of violent conflict, Star Wars has always tried to be family-friendly. Unfortunately, while this worked for the movies, it would not work in the surface battles of Empire at War.

Having infantry models simply keel over when they die, even when they are hit with powerful ordnance, can be underwhelming. The absence of blood and gore where it is expected, such as when TIE Maulers run over infantry, can also cause disbelief.

Vehicles do blow up with gratuitous explosions, but these pale in comparison with the dramatic demise of space vessels.

The maps for surface battles could have been more impressive if they had been bigger. The official maps are woefully small, often to the point of disbelief. Maps often resort to using hills or dense forests to wall off their borders, if they are not outright located on an island surround by oceans.

SOUNDS:

For better or worse, most of the game's sound designs are adapted from the original trilogy of Star Wars movies.

This is most apparent in the intro for the game, which has the usual oblique scrolling text and John Williams' scores accompanying it. Then, there are the various sound clips for blaster-fire, turbo-lasers and the X-Wings' screeching, among other sound effects that would be familiar to followers of the Star Wars movies (and its games).

All of these would sound like a lot of fan-service to those who are enamoured with Star Wars, but to others who are not outright fawning fans, they may seem like a lot of recycled or slightly tweaked audio. They may even suspect that the composer for the game, Frank Klepacki, has been lazy.

The voice-overs are mostly performed using voice-talents other than the actors and actresses of the movies. For example, Tom Kane, who worked on many Star Wars media except the original movies, voiced C3-PO, and much of his voice-overs had been run through a synthesizer. However, some of the original movie's cast, such as Temuera Morrison, did provide voice-overs.

Again, the voice-overs are there for purposes of fan-service, as the writing for their lines are nothing short of campy, albeit flavoured with the Star Wars brand. Still, they are at least quite convincing in their portrayal of the canonical characters.

CONCLUSION:

Empire at War may yet be one more game that exploits the Star Wars brand to sell. As a strategy game, its constituent parts of gameplay can hardly be considered as revolutionary and at best, just competent, discounting the many questionable designs, especially for units, that affect gameplay balance.

However, the Conquest and Campaign modes meld these gameplay elements into a surprisingly more than decent package, and its space battles are some of the best portrayals of the interstellar warfare in Star Wars fiction.