Star Wars: Empire at War

It’s a new Pletteau Feature! The Bargain Bin Review!

Here’s how it works: I dredge the depths of video game stores / Steam looking for cheap games in the $1-$20 range, like games that were once $50-70 and were either very bad or have been out for a long time (and of course, games that have always been cheap). I then review said title, taking into account the quality of game and its price. I pass this information on to you and we are both richer for it.

Star Wars: Empire at War: Forces of Corruption

Vader’s Super Star Destroyer Executor.

Star Wars: Empire at War is a real-time strategy game that came out in 2006. It is set between episodes III and IV, and lets the player relive some of the greatest moments between those two episodes and further. Later that year, an expansion pack entitled Forces of Corruption was also released (for the full title of Star Wars: Empire at War: Forces of Corruption). Forces of Corruption added in a third, criminal element: you can play as Tyber Zann, a up-and-coming crime lord and leader of the Zann Consortium. It was developed by Petroglyph Games, a company formed by the last group of Westwood Studios employees (Command and Conquer, anyone?) to leave before Westwood was assimilated into Electronic Arts Los Angeles.

The game itself plays a lot like Company of Heroes (which came out after SW:EaW and SW:EaW:FoC). You command units, which are often composed of smaller parts (ie, a TIE-Fighter or X-Wing squadron). It has several game modes, including campaign, multiplayer, skirmish and galactic conquest. Campaign lets you play as either the Rebels, Imperials, or Zann Consortium in your bid to essentially take over the galaxy. Skirmish allows you to play an individual battle in space or on land, and Galactic Conquest lets you take over the galaxy planet-by-planet, often with different objectives.

Aesthetically, the game looks OK (and looked fine for its time, I think). From a distance, the textures are fine enough to play with. You typically won’t get need to get terribly close to the action just because of the whole scope of the game. Cutscenes are handled with a simple zoom of the camera, by the way — no pre-rendered stuff here. Land battles tend to look so-so; you’re often limited to the number of units (as is your opponent), so you don’t end up with too busy a screen. There is some typical C&C rock-paper-scissors kinda stuff going on (each unit is weak against others; eg Y-Wings are effective against Star Destroyers but not against TIE-fighters), which means that you typically can’t just roll in with a navy of Star Destroyers or ten AT-ATs — you’re (especially on the higher difficulty levels) going to get crushed. So tactics ends up playing a huge role, and having a varied ground force ends up being incredibly important. Adding to the tactical level on the ground is that the player can command certain building pads that allow him to add small buildings, like turrets or vehicle repair bays, that can give you a definite edge. The catch is that these can only be conquered by infantry units, making them essential. Each side is limited to a number of units, but capturing reinforcement points can allow the attacking player to call in more reinforcements; these too can only be conquered by infantry. All in all, the land battles end up being quite fun, but many of the maps force bottlenecks and really restrict the path you can take, so it’s fairly predictable. But all maps look different and most have unique features — on Nal Hutta, for example, you typically have to fight local Hutts because they don’t like invaders on their planet. Most locals always side with a particular force, too: you can be attacking Taris as the Empire and the local populace will support you (as the Ewoks will support the Rebels on Endor).

Space battles are where this game really shines, I think. All fights take place above a planet, and the defender typically has the advantage of a space station. You can select certain hardpoints on larger ships (and the space station), such as shield generators, turbolaser batteries, and hangars, and destroying a certain thing will obviously make your battle easier. Destroying a ship’s engine totally stunts its maneuverability, making (especially faster ships) a very easy target. Star Destroyers and large ships typically spawn TIEs or X-Wings or whathaveyou, so destroying a hangar can keep things a bit more manageable. While having the largest navy makes things easy, tactics are important — knowing what to target and with what is key. I underestimated my opponent once and just mass-selected everything to attack the space station. One of my Star Destroyers was bombed by Y-Wings: had I had my TIEs defending the fleet, that wouldn’t have been a problem whatsoever.

Thrawn’s flagship Admonitor.

Adding to the mix are certain heroes. A lot of them can be played either in space or on land: Grand Moff Tarkin, for example, provides a production bonus when played on the ground and another bonus while in space (at the cost of being unable to retreat, which is kind of cool). Others come with their own units: Darth Vader is great on the ground, but having him in his Super Star Destroyer Executor gives you a pretty big advantage. Heroes end up being fairly key, giving you a big advantage in space or on land. It can also give you a target to aim for and turn the battle in your direction.

In terms of audio, the game is everything we’ve come to expect from the Star Wars franchise: the score is of course epic and the sound effects are authentic. The voice acting is good enough, though the vast majority (if not all?) of the voice acting is done by sound-alikes rather than the original actors… but that’s to be expected. The controls are pretty simple to grasp, the vast majority of it just being clicking. Most units have special abilities and these too are accessed by clicking or by a hotkey — but given that there are so many hotkeys, well, it’s easier just to click. The gameplay is pretty straightforward as well, and anyone who is remotely familiar with just about any real-time strategy game shouldn’t have a problem picking it up.

I really liked Empire at War. While there are certainly its downsides, like the poor-texture quality at high zoom levels and the definite two-sided nature of the game (well, three-sided if you bring in the Zann Consortium, I guess), it is at its core a very fun RTS game and, maybe more importantly, a very authentic Star Wars game.

ALSO, while I haven’t gone too in-depth, as usually happens with games like these, the modding community has redone this game extensively. Some mods tweak graphics or gameplay settings, others add completely new features like diplomacy options; some add brand new fleets and units, allowing you to play Empire at War in a completely different time setting (such as Thrawn’s Revenge, which starts up after the Battle of Endor). It’s really cool and definitely worth a look.

You can get Star Wars: Empire at War Gold Pack on Steam for $19.99, which I think is a fair price for this thing.

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