A long time ago (1837), in a galaxy far, far away (Denmark), an evil Sith Lord (Darth - sorry... Hans - Christian Anderson) wrote a tale called The Emperor's New Clothes. If you're not familiar with the story, it's about a vain ruler, obsessed with fine clothes, and more importantly, showing them off to his subjects. One day, two scoundrels decide to try and sell him a suit made of a material that appears invisible to those too stupid to see it. Naturally, the Emperor himself cannot see the suit, yet unable to admit it, to save face, allows himself to be dressed in the clothes for a parade through town. The townsfolk have all heard of the special properties of the cloth, too, so are quick to praise the finery of the Emperor's new clothes, as they too were afraid of being denounced as stupid if they admitted they could not see the cloth. It is left to a young child to point out the obvious ("But he has nothing on!"), and shake the Emperor and townsfolk from their pretension. In case you're wondering where I'm going with this opening, have patience. Star Wars is a setting accustomed to the presence of Emperors, and the moral of this fairytale is an appropriate one for this game in particular.
I'm not afraid to admit that I'm a huge Star Wars fan. What it pains me to admit, however, is that barring the release of LEGO Star Wars and Knights of the Old Republic in the last couple of years, there arguably hasn't been a truly great Star Wars game since X-Wing Alliance; or some would even argue back as far as TIE-Fighter. Indeed, RTS fans have found very little joy in the Star Wars cupboard, with barely a handful of titles being made in the genre, and either being rather unappreciated, or rather rubbish. Empire at War tries to redress this balance of the Force. However, as Master Yoda himself says, there is no try. So does Empire at War do, or do not?
Unfortunately, it's "do not".
Empire at War, on the face of it, is a multilayered real-time strategy, featuring a two-tier combat structure (on the ground, and in space), with tactical engagements in these two tiers directed from the logistical movement of units and resources on an overlaid strategic campaign map. Upon first inspection, with the three layers of strategic and tactical management, there would seem to be a lot of depth and subtlety to the game. Regrettably, when you care to analyse each of these layers in any detail, the polished veneer begins to peel off.
'It's essentially Command & Conquer in space, and not in a good way.'
Let's start with the good: the tactical space combat. This is by far the best element of the game, and with the sumptuous cinematic camera, you can almost capture the excitement of the fighter battles in the original Star Wars trilogy at the Battles of Yavin and Endor. The special effects are dazzling, and the damage models meticulous. You can see sections of the superstructure being blown off Star Destroyers and Space Stations; you can target individual subsystems on Capital-scale vessels, like shield generators and turbolasers, to create blind spots in the enemy's defence; squadrons of TIE-Fighters and X-Wings dance like dragonflies in mating season, only with rather more explosions. It's captivating stuff, indeed, but when you sit back for a second, you realise that in terms of actual decision-making, you're doing very little to direct the battle. When you're not munching on eye candy in the cinematic mode, the space combat is reduced to a 2D plane, with very little in the way of room for manoeuvre. It's essentially Command & Conquer in space, and not in a good way.
The battle maps are almost entirely strictly linear, and the outcome of the battle is practically wholly dependent upon the strength of the force you bring to the system. By removing the third dimension in space, you're left with barely any scope for finesse, which makes it almost impossible to win a battle with an inferior fleet by out-thinking your opponent, unlike an RTS such as Rome: Total War, for example. You're reduced to bludgeoning your way through fleet engagements, calling in reinforcements as necessary, thanks to the curiously low unit cap. The sheer spectacle of the cinematic camera is the only redeeming factor; just as well that as redeeming factors go, this one goes a long way, really. It does get staggeringly pretty at times.
When the action moves to the ground, the cinematic camera again makes its flashy presence felt, though here, the action isn't quite so fluid and doesn't put on nearly as pretty a show. The ground portion of the game is highly reminiscent of Force Commander, both in terms of interface and combat mechanics, but anyone who's played Force Commander will tell you that's not entirely a good thing. Again, the outcome of battle is entirely determined by the units you bring with your force. If you assault an Imperial planet defended by AT-ATs, but don't happen to have brought any Assault Speeders with you, good luck trying to win. It can be equally frustrating when a planet is defended by artillery turbolaser units, and you suddenly have half your infantry wiped out from an unseen source in a single shot. Ground battles are much more drawn out and slightly clunky affairs, as you try and capture reinforcement points dotted across the tactical map, again to bring down extra troops from orbit (if you have them) because the pitiful unit cap does not allow you to commit your whole force into battle if you've brought more than a handful of units to the system. You'll be sorely tempted to make use of the auto-resolve function to bypass them entirely - I know I did. The experience is so lightweight anyway that it's far more satisfying just to skip the ground battle and move on to the next planet you want to grind beneath your jackbooted heel.
The strategic layer element of the game is little better. Whilst the interface itself is clean, slick and easy to use, the level of actual strategic management is quite limited. The campaign game mode essentially completely restricts the order in which you can take over planets, and whilst the Galactic Conquest mode provides you with several different scenarios that give you much more freedom in which to tackle the galaxy, there are several flaws in the planetary management model that prevent you from feeling that you're trying to govern a galaxy.
Firstly, the developers have decided to make money the only resource in the game, reducing the sense that particular planets have any real strategic value; secondly, there's no political or social element: the Empire can quite happily occupy naturally Rebel-aligned worlds without risk of uprising or loss of resources; transit times for fleets across the galaxy are negligible, meaning that there's absolutely no incentive at all to leave planets defended, as you can always send a fleet over to retake a planet within a day so you don't lose precious revenue. Planetary facilities can be built in less than a day, so it's possible to build up all your planets to ridiculous tech levels in practically no time at all. The tech tree is also quite limited, and the Rebels are restricted by the Empire's tech level as to how quickly they can progress, as they need to get C-3P0 and R2-D2 to steal technologies, rather than researching them. It just doesn't feel like Star Wars. The struggle between the Rebellion and the Empire in the films took years. Here, in Empire at War, they expect you to conquer the galaxy in days. There's just no reward, or incentive, for thinking strategically.
Fatally, when you compare the level of strategic management in Empire at War to the only Star Wars strategy game to really grasp the grandeur of George Lucas's space opera, Supremacy, it's really quite depressing, because on the criteria listed above, Supremacy has more depth, forces you to make long-term choices and is otherwise superior in every way, and this is a game that was made eight years ago.
Empire at War reeks of lack of ambition and complacency, and nothing more exemplifies this than the inclusion of the cinematic camera. As beautiful and atmospheric as it is, it nonetheless shows how the developers have tried to gloss over the weaknesses in the gameplay by committing the cardinal sin of removing control from the player. "Gamers are like magpies. Distract them with shiny things!" It's almost as if it's a game designed to be watched, rather than played. Every level of the game's execution is lackadaisical, and there's no synergy linking the three elements together.
As I said at the beginning of the review, I love Star Wars. I adore it. I even liked Episodes I-III - though not as much as the originals. Let's be clear about that. But the more I play Empire at War, the less I like it. It's nothing more than two-tier Command & Conquer with shiny knobs on. With such a rich source of material to draw upon, Empire at War could have been, should have been, so much better. Instead, it's a vapid, lightweight distraction for those who can't admit the fact that the Emperor isn't wearing any clothes, and simply play along out of fear of getting fried with Force Lightning. Oh, sorry, wrong Emperor...