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This review is largely of the main game, Empire at War, as I do not own the expansion so can only give limited information about it.
I suppose it had to happen really - we have the Stars Wars shooting games, the Star Wars lightsabering games, the Star Wars racing games, the Star Wars flying games, and even Lego Star wars, so Star Wars the command a big army and blow the living daylights out of your opponents was a natural enough follow on. As with many Star Wars games however, this one seems to have relied heavily on the name and on the novelty of a strategy game with X-wings in it, and not so much on good game design.
The general idea of Empire at War (EAW) is to take command of either the Rebel Alliance or the Galactic Empire across three areas: resource management, space battles and land battles. You fight over the entire galaxy (or a smaller portion if you want), battling to control planets that confer certain advantages and provide you with "credits" - the money that allows you to buy stuff. More money means more units, which means you're more likely to win battles. In practice however it is not that simple - and not in a particularly good way either.
There are three game modes; Campaign (where you fight to control the galaxy and do some additional story missions on the way), Galactic Conquest (where you simply fight to control the galaxy) and skirmish battles (where you fight single battles). There is certainly plenty to do in the game.
Online you can fight in Galactic Conquest or Skirmish battles across either the Internet or a LAN connection.
Generally this works quite well. The planets you own have certain numbers of 'slots' for building on, and certain levels of space station (up to level five) that can be built in orbit. Building a barracks allows you to recruit soldiers, building a mining facility gives a credit production bonus and so on. Every minute or so there is a new "day" where credits are added to your account, which you can then spend on whatever takes your fancy. Or rather, anything that has guns on.
You then move troops around by hyperspace routes between your planets, allowing planets away from the frontline to send troops forward to where they are needed. Move to an enemy planet and (assuming they haven't left it undefended) a battle will ensue. You must control the space above a planet before you can invade (although the Rebels can launch little raids).
Into the mix you get most of the characters of note from the films, who confer advantages or are just tougher at fighting. Advancing up tech levels through research if you are the Empire or nicking technology if you are the Rebels unlocks more heroes and more units.
The trouble is that it is a bit fiddly to organise production of troops, with only one unit produced per planet at a particular time. While you are fiddling around trying to get your frontline defended, the computer will happily bombard you with incessant attacks as it is able to move as many units at once as it wants. On the higher difficulty settings I found this tested my patience somewhat.
Probably the best designed area of EAW, space battles are generally quite good fun. The defending force may have built a space station in orbit around the planet, which provides extra firepower and fighters in addition to the main fleet, making life hard for the attackers. You fight with various types of unit: the small fighters and bombers, the slightly larger destroyers whose main aim is to guard the capital ships from the bombers, frigates that bring comparatively cheap firepower to the battle, the hulking capital ships, and finally long range missile ships that cause havoc and generally drive everyone nuts.
The main novelty here is the fact that larger ships and space stations have "hard points" such as laser turrets, engines and shield generators that cease to function when destroyed, so that it is not just a case of blowing everything to smithereens. Nebulae and asteroid fields provide hiding places for ships, but damage the larger ones, and there are turrets that can be captured for additional firepower.
In skirmish battles each side gets a space station, which is used to purchase ships and upgrades. Capturing asteroid mining facilities gets you credits and then a fight ensues, with ever-larger ships being brought into play until one side loses their station and the battle ends. Unfortunately, battles are generally chaotic affairs where tactics are largely thrown out the window and whoever can maintain their sanity longest tends to win, with captures of asteroid bases going round in circles and neither side able to gain a decisive advantage because of the population cap. Still, it sort of works.
Land battles are a somewhat dodgy affair, feeling like they were somewhat half-baked in the development stages. Troops don't really move very convincingly, and battles involve little strategy and more just throwing troops into a messy and patchy battle. Whoever has more troops tends to win.
The "strategic" (I use the word loosely) element comes from controlling deployment points, from which your spaceships can land your troops, but only a certain number at any one time. Also you can capture "build pads" which let you build a variety of turrets or troop healing thingies. Weather can affect the effectiveness of your troops (rain deflects lasers, wind blows rockets off course etc.) and the local people and wildlife may fight for you or against you.
In skirmish mode you build building to produce units and upgrades, giving the game a vague feeling of a Command and Conquer wannabe. Then the object is either to control reinforcement points or to destroy the enemy base.
The main problem with the game is one of balance. Although it fits well with the story, I found that generally the Rebels are quite heavily outgunned in space battles unless you set the difficulty to easy, in which case fighting becomes a pushover. This may however just be because I am rubbish at the game, I don't know.
Worse however is the all-conquering power of artillery and long-range gunships, on both sides. I have found on numerous occasions that before I am even able to command my units in a space battle, the computer has fired a massive swarm of missiles at my ships and wiped out their shields, so that when the capital ships move in, although I should have won the fight I am simply torn to pieces. It's not fun!
A similar story is found in land battles with artillery, which can slaughter hundreds of your men with one volley. I find that even when they are supposed to be the ones attacking, the enemy has just set up their artillery and waited for me to run into the teeth of their guns. Again, not very fun.
Couple this with the incessant attacks and the game is pretty much unbearable on any setting except easy. But then again, it's possible that I'm just bad at it I suppose.
The Forces of Corruption expansion grants a new storyline, a new faction called the "Zann Consortium" and makes a few tweaks to the gameplay of the original to make it a little better. There are also 13 new planets, and Alderaan has become an asteroid field after it's brush with the Death Star.
The Zann Consortium is basically a very large and powerful criminal organisation, who have all the usual criminal powers; able to corrupt planets, slow down production, nick credits, cloak their ships, and trade with black markets.
The new story focuses around the Zann Consortium, which operates during the events immediately after the Battle of Yavin, where the first game pretty much leaves off. Tyber Zann, leader of the Consortium begins the story imprisoned on Kessel, but is freed by Han Solo and Chewbacca, escaping on the Millennium Falcon. His first task: take revenge on Jabba the Hutt...
ALL IN ALL
To be perfectly honest Empire at War is not really that bad, it's just that it's very hit and miss as to whether it is enjoyable or drives you to the point of insanity.
Both games have similar requirements:
- 1GHz CPU or equivalent
- 256Mb RAM
- 32Mb Graphics Card with hardware T+L
- 2.5Gb HDD space
- 8x speed DVD drive