Finally, Star Wars fans get their grubby mitts on a Star Wars RTS that doesn't plain suck. Or do they?

User Rating: 8 | Star Wars: Empire at War PC
While great Star Wars games are plentiful on other genres, the RTS has proven rather elusive to nail down. Enter Petroglyph, formed by former Westwood employees who left the company after it was assimilated into EA Pacific. Their first crack at a Star Wars strategy game proves to be a good one. Empire at War successfully combines epic space battles, land based engagements and running a galactic empire into a well presented and often satisfying experience that any RTS fan will likely enjoy.

Gameplay in Empire at War consists of two separate, but intertwined sections. The first is the galactic map, where you run your empire as you see fit. Presented before you is a 2D map of the galaxy, with all its various planets and travel routes. This is where you run the simple management issues, such as building and moving fleets, training troops, outfitting planets with various structures and seek out the enemy. Zooming in on a planet with the mouse wheel provides a handy, although bare bones information window for the planet in question. Listed are units stationed on or around the planet, available structures, local flora and fauna etc. The second section involves the actual fighting, be it in space or on a planet. Every time you run into an enemy controlled planet or fleet, a message prompts you to either engage in combat or throw the dice and let the computer calculate the outcome for you. The latter choice is always the riskier one, so it's use is not recommended. Space battles are the real meat and potatoes of this game, especially when compared to the cookie cutter land battles. An interesting aspect, and one that turns out to work great, is the fact that capital ships and space stations all have hardpoints that represent individual systems, such as hangar bays, shields, torpedo bays and laser cannons. You can have your ships target these specific points simply by clicking them. This adds a nice strategic flair to the combat, as shooting out a ships engines actually slows it down, while wiping out the hangar bay means less fighters harassing your own ships. Some ships have special features that are important to take into account when deciding the order of attack. For example, the Imperial Interdictor-class cruiser has a gravity well that keeps enemy units from fleeing a losing battle. Also a nice touch that more strategy games should adopt is the ''Cinematic'' button. When pressed, the game literally evolves into a film, changing cameras and angles to let you see the fighting from dramatic angles. The feature works very well, with only a few times the game missing important events (like the downing of a capital ship) only to show you blank space. Unfortunately, the awesomeness doesn't carry over to the planetary based engagements. They frequently devolve into nonsensical click-fests, devoid of any strategy or tactical thinking. Land units have no hardpoints, there seems to be no balance of power (just watch as a squad of Rebel Plex-troopers take down an AT-AT and cringe in horror), and the maps are just utterly terrible. Instead of giving us a planetary surface on which to freely roam and command units, for some odd reason Petroglyph decided to make each map a corridor crawl. I'm not kidding you dear reader, the planetary surfaces are literally just a bunch of interconnected corridors, with a few ''rooms'' spread in between. This takes out all meaning from the battles, as you no longer have to consider what forces you commit and how you distribute them on the frontlines. You just gather up a group of units, run through corridor after corridor and click at enemy units until either victory or defeat is proclaimed. And let me tell you, even at the easiest setting the latter is almost always the pre-eminent conclusion. This game is seriously hard, especially when it comes to ground engagements. No matter what, your forces always seem to be the inferior ones, with a group of AT-STs invariably losing to a squad of four rebel troopers. Baffling! Also, while a nice concept, the idea of having to ferry troops from space back planetside to join the fighting is cumbersome. You can at most only land four squads of any given unit on a single landing zone, after which you have to capture a new landing zone to ferry in more troops. The problem with this is that the enemy gives you such a hard time of acquiring those additional LZs, you almost never actually succeed in getting to them before your original force is wiped out. The only good thing I can gleam from this part of the game is that the ''Cinematic'' camera also works here, although not as well as in space. You frequently end up looking at the boots of your Stormtroopers all the while they are busy kicking some Rebel behind. Also a great idea is the addition of heroes. There are a bunch of major and minor heroes, ranging from Vader and Luke to Mon Mothma and Captain Piett. Each have their own unique strengths, and if used wisely can mean the difference between victory and death.

Graphically Empire at War is beautiful. Particularly worthy of mention are the space battles. Watching as capital ships get into firing positions and fighters scurry in between them, lasers racing across the sky, ion torpedoes tearing ships apart and seeing the pieces drift into the reaches of space never gets old. I almost always end up enabling the ''Cinematic'' camera and just sit back and enjoy the show. It is that good! Even though once again the land battles get the short end of the stick, they are still fun to watch. I was particularly impressed as a speeder employed it's grappling hook to trip an AT-AT (a la the Empire Strikes Back), crumpling it into the ground and having it's head explode. Also, zooming in on units reveals the amount of detail poured into this game. Each is crafted meticulously and resemble the originals nicely. From a technical standpoint, EaW is also solid. There is nary a frame rate hiccup or graphical glitch during my lengthy play sessions.

The sounds in EaW are top notch, as is the custom with most any Star Wars game. Sound effects and music are lifted from the movies, and thus are of superior quality. Hearing an X-Wing open up on an unsuspecting TIE Fighter sounds just like in the movies, and John Williams' classic score never ceases to amaze me. Even though there is not much of it, voice acting is also quality work, and the actors sound like their silver screen counter parts. Although not as intensive aurally as Company of Heroes, Empire at War is certainly no slouch.

In the end, while Empire at War delivers a great strategy title set in the lovable Star Wars universe, it ends up feeling like it could have done so much more. Particularly disappointing are the land battles, that manage to do just about everything wrong, with the exception of heroes. When contrasted with the superior and thrilling space battles, you can't help but feel that in some ways, EaW was a missed opportunity. Nevertheless, with a robust single player portion (with campaign, skirmish and galactic conquest modes) and a good multiplayer portion, this game is definitely worth checking out for strategy buffs. As for Star Wars fans, it's a must buy.