Star Wars: Empire at War

Jack of all trades and (Jedi) master of none? That’s the danger facing Empire at War. Trying to tie together different modes of play is a dangerous task, and one we’ve seen result in both glorious success (Deus Ex) and heroic failure (Boiling Point).

Happily, Empire at War’s aims aren’t ludicrously ambitious. Real-time strategy is the order of the day, and the rather exciting idea is to blend tactical ground battles with space-based warfare, then overlay with a topping of planetary strategy.

This three-games-in-one formula puts you in charge of either the Rebel Alliance or the Galactic Empire, and naturally you must crush the other side.

There’s little extraneous detail, but Empire at War’s very simplicity may be its saving grace. The strategy map runs in real-time, like the battles themselves, so the pressure is on to knock up a fleet and army, then send them off to fight for Tatooine, Coruscant or Manaan.

A space battle is triggered if the planet is defended by an orbiting space station or an enemy fleet. And naval engagements only occur in orbit, not in deep space, a move that streamlines the overall game and injects pace.

The battles look Homeworld spectacular, but ships move and fight on a 2D plane. Again, this makes control easy and keeps events ticking along at a Lucas-style lick.

Capital ships are accompanied by flocks of fighters and bombers that can be separately ordered to move and attack. Most ships also have special abilities such as ion cannon attacks that take out enemy shields.

Big ships and stations are also studded with hardpoints such as laser turrets, shield generators and engines that can be separately attacked to render your foe toothless, immobile or vulnerable.

It’s easy to be carried away by a new Star Wars game, and it’s often useful to ask ourselves how excited we’d be if this game wasn’t Star Wars? Then again, Empire at War is different. Few other games have tried to meld three theatres of conflict. And how many games let you build – and use – the Death Star?

Empire at War may risk attempting too much and succeeding at too little. But the play we’ve had on some near-gold code suggests it’ll be far better than that. It won’t change the world, but its streamlined approach to strategy could be just the antidote for too much tactical brain-ache.