Star Wars: Empire at War (PC)
Remember the Star Wars RTS game Rebellion? Probably not. I think I was one of maybe eight people who actually bought and/or enjoyed that one. Rebellion hewed closer to the Civilization model of gameplay more than the Age of Empires model, which is probably why it wasn’t a terribly popular game. Instead of concentrating on how individual units move on the battlefield, Rebellion tasked the player with coordinating the production and movement of entire fleets across the galaxy. Though there was a mode that allowed skirmish-level interaction in space battles, there was no such option for ground battles. In other words, the player wasn’t pitting snowspeeders against AT-ATs and Rebel foot soldiers against Imperial stormtroopers; the player simply ensured that ground-based defenses were built and troops deployed, then the computer determined the outcome the battles.
Galactic Battlegrounds and Force Commander, on the other hand, were both solely concerned with playing out those ground battles. Unfortunately, Galactic Battlegrounds is merely Age of Empires II with a thin Star Wars patina slapped on the game engine. The facade wore especially thin in the areas of resource collecting and utilization of key Star Wars characters. The resource collection mechanics from Age of Empires (food, ore, gold) do not translate well into the Star Wars universe, even when gold is replaced with “nova crystals.” Likewise, the special abilities of the monk unit in Age of Empires are mapped almost directly to Darth Vader in Galactic Battlegrounds. To make matters worse, the sight of Darth Vader hacking away at a building with his lightsaber is enough to totally dissipate any remaining sense that the game is taking place in the Star Wars universe.
Then there’s Force Commander, which is a prime example of how not to implement a video game: it won’t even run on my system, despite my best efforts to find patches and workarounds to the various technical issues I’ve encountered.
Enter Empire at War, which was either released last Friday (10 February 2006) or will be released this Thursday (16 February 2006); GameStop says the 10th, Amazon.com says the 16th. Empire at War combines the galaxy-wide strategy of Rebellion with the skirmish-level combat of Galactic Battlegrounds, and it appears to do a very good job with both.
A few months ago, Miscellaneous G™ and I were discussing the various shortcomings of Galactic Battlegrounds and I put forth an “if I ran the zoo” scenario describing in particular how resources ought to be handled in games that take place in the Star Wars universe. My primary assertion was that the Imperials would, like most governments, acquire resources through taxation. The rebels, on the other hand, would have to use less overt means. While a certain percentage might come from wealthy members of the Rebellion, a significant portion would be gained by smuggling and/or stealing directly from the Imperials. To simplify things, available resources should be measured in currency (rather than carbon, ore, nova crystals, etc.) and the ability to build or acquire different units would be dependent upon the amount of available currency.
This is pretty much how Empire at War handles resources, but the concept is taken a step further: the Empire spends currency to develop new technologies, while the Rebellion must spend currency to recruit spies who will steal those technologies. Additionally, the Rebels hire smugglers (such as Han Solo and Chewbacca) to siphon resources from the Empire. Should Imperial bean counters discover an accounting discrepancy, they can hire bounty hunters to eliminate the smugglers.
The resource management mechanics I just described are largely a part of the galactic-level scope of Empire at War, as are planetary defenses, mining (which can supplement income), fleet and infantry production, and military deployment. When actions taken on the galactic level result in combat, however, the game switches to what I call “skirmish mode.” In this mode, the game operates like Galactic Battlegrounds, but without all the unfortunate artifacts from Age of Empires II. These skirmishes, which can actually be quite involved and large, take place on the surface of the planet or in space. In the heat of battle, it is possible to switch to a “cinematic view,” which strips out all control interfaces and displays the battle in a manner that resembles a movie.
I have not played the full Empire at War game yet; everything I’ve gleaned about the gameplay thus far is from playing the five tutorials and single mission included in the downloadable demo. It’s pretty safe to assume that I liked what I saw, since the game has been added to my Amazon Wish List. I’m not going to run out and buy it right away, though. I’m going to try to finish several games I currently own, including the crop that I recently acquired. Call it a test of resolve, to see if I can keep Mr. Instant Gratification under control.