So there I am, a thirty-three year old man buying a copy of Star Wars: Empires at War. The wife is laughing at me the whole time
Star Wars: Empire at War Review
So there I am, a thirty-three year old man buying a copy of Star Wars: Empires at War. The wife is laughing at me the whole time—she hadn't laughed this hard since she noticed the Dungeons and Dragons label on my Neverwinter Nights disk. And I don't care if you are thirty-three or thirteen; no guy wants to hand that fifty-dollar Star Wars game to the cute girl behind the counter.
But the humiliation quickly fades as I pace around my computer desk waiting for installation to finish. Soon I would have Darth Vader at my beck and call, crushing the throat of the Rebellion beneath his black-heeled boot. Oh yes, Luke Skywalker would suffer.
I dove right into Galactic Conquest mode, which gives you a choice of several galactic maps and complete control of your faction. If you are a veteran strategy gamer, I recommend the Conquest mode, as the Campaign mode is basically a spoon-fed trip through a Star Wars amusement park. If this is your first strategy game, the Campaign will gladly hold your hand through the initial stages of the game and tell you a poorly written story while you learn.
The game revolves around a dense map of that galaxy far, far away. It's like a board game with all the planets you know and love such as Tattoine and Dagobah. Several characters from the movies (though not nearly enough) play a role in both the strategic conquest game and in the tactical battles.
Initially the Strategic portion of the game seems very compelling. Each planet you control generates income, which is used to build fleets, armies and military structures. You can also send characters from the films on special missions around the galaxy or even have them participate in the tactical battles.
But in the end, the campaign feels more like a game of Chess where the all the pieces are pawns. If you move your Boba Fett piece on top of the Han Solo piece, they will both go into a penalty box for a couple of minutes. If you put your C3-PO piece on a certain square, you will get a new technology. Some pieces, like the Mon Mothma, give numerical bonuses to your fleets. Believe me, it is even more boring than it sounds.
But you didn't buy Empire at War to play a board game, anyway. You came for the X-Wings and the AT-AT Walkers.
The Space Battles are probably the best part of the game. Large Cruisers and Dreadnoughts hammer away at each other while Tie-Fighters and X-wings dart between all the massive capital ships. As capital ships take damage, big chunks of them blow off. Ships can become crippled or disarmed.
It really looks and sounds like Star Wars, but it quickly loses its charm. Almost every fleet battle revolves around a tedious space station siege where you first knock out the station's hanger, then shield, then hull. You will do this about five thousand times over the course of the game.
But what really kills Empire at War are the tactical land battles. The battles unfold on tiny maps and make me feel like I am a child again, playing with Star Wars toys in the back yard. I was picking up my Storm Trooper doll with a mouse instead of my hand. With a click I could make my Storm Trooper doll shoot at my Luke doll and LucasArts was kind enough to provide the laser sound so I wouldn't get spit all over my keyboard.
And sure it was fun playing with my Darth Vader doll for a while, but I am a grown man, and that Darth Vader doll is nothing more than a poorly balanced RTS unit with about as much character as a pike man from Age of Empires.
Maybe you want to relive the glory of playing with toys on the privacy of your computer. Maybe you are sixteen and this is a good way to wean yourself off action figures so you can finally get a date. But then a bad toy will introduce itself into the mix and ruin the experience for even the most hardcore Star Wars disciple.
The designers took it upon themselves to design an uber-artillery unit for both the Rebellion and the Empire. About mid-game, land battles consist of HORDES of PSUEDO STARWARS STYLED artillery that blow everything away instantly. I never saw a single piece of artillery in the original movies, but you will see them blitzkrieging across Hoth like Panzers through France if you play Empire at War.
Artillery has no real business in Star Wars--a star wars battle should consist primarily of infantry units with some AT-ATs and maybe a land speeder or two thrown in mix.
I understand the need for variety, but the source material has plenty of variety already--there were several units of specialized storm troopers in the movies, and of course the "Hero" units are there as well. Think about all the variety that existed in the big Ewok battle from Return of the Jedi. You have Rebel troopers, Ewoks, Han Solo n' gang, Storm Troopers and Scout Troopers, Scout Walkers speeder bikes, Some droids, a shield generator that had to be blown, and I even saw a quick shot of a full AT-AT. That's plenty of variety for a video game--no need for space cannons to be invented by the developers.
Empires at War is a poorly designed RTS that would have been laughed off the Gamestop shelves without its Star Wars skin. While playing it, I kept thinking back to Star Wars Rebellion. Star Wars Rebellion is this horrible old game published back in 1936 or something that has terrible graphics and an impossible interface. And yet, there was something engaging about the way Boba Fett stalked Han Solo across the galaxy. Rebellion didn't have playability, but it did have Character. Empires At War has neither.
After playing a few hours of Empires at War, I ended up reinstalling that old Rebellion disk. My wife walked in about then and saw the ancient graphics in 640x480 resolution and said, "You paid fifty bucks for that?"
It was very difficult explaining to her why I was playing a Star Wars game from the DOS era when I had just spent fifty dollars on a new Star Wars game that day.