Star Wars games seem almost uniquely immune to the standard suspicions most gamers have about movie-licensed stuff. You can probably suggest a few reasons for that - the degree of sarcasm in your tone inversely proportional to the number of Star Wars toys you currently own - but although there are plenty of apologists for some of the more rubbish facets of George Lucas' creations (step forward, Ellie!), the fact remains that Star Wars has a far better track record than most franchises when it comes to making decent videogames.
What hasn't been created, however, is a truly standout Star Wars strategy game. There have been some noble attempts at putting you in command of the war in the galaxy far, far away, and some less noble attempts to boot, but nobody has really nailed it yet - which is why I was so interested to take an early look at Star Wars: Empire At War, which promises to bring the galaxy spanning conflict between the Empire and the Rebels to life in a manner far more ambitious than anything attempted so far.
Set a few years before the events of Episode IV, and thus bridging the gap between the two trilogies to some extent, Empire At War sees you taking control of either the Imperial or the Rebel forces and waging war across the galaxy, with both space battles and skirmishes on the surface of various famous planets from the movies and various tie-in properties modelled. That's the first thing that jumps out and grabs you as really interesting - the fact that you'll spend time commanding Star Destroyers, X-Wings and TIE Fighters as well as sending troops and AT-AT walkers around on the ground.
That in itself is an interesting move, and one which looks set to give the game much more variety than other such titles have boasted. Early impressions of both forms of combat are solid, too. Ground combat is the more familiar of the two, and all of the staple units of the Star Wars universe are present and correct - but the whole affair is spiced up by the addition of famous "hero" units, such as Darth Vader on the Imperial side, who can seriously affect the outcome of any battle and whose unique individual powers warrant careful marshalling by the player. It's too early to say how well balanced or otherwise the sides are, but there are no glaring flaws from this point of view - and the Imperial side, in particular, is an absolute blast to play. Crushing Rebel scum has always been more fun than running around with poncy Jedi types, after all.
The space battles, however, are definitely quite different from what's come before. An almost entirely different battle system has been created for these, as you'd expect, and although it's no Homeworld, it's both deep and well conceived. The essence of Star Wars battles has been captured well, with squadrons of one- or two-man fighters swooping around at great speed while lumbering capital ships make their ponderous turns and sweeps and unleash merry hell at each other. Those capital ships are tough to take out, and simply rushing them with loads of fighters is almost pointless - you'll need to target individual hard-points on the ships to cripple them, and focus on punching through their fighter escorts to get near in the first place. This is arguably the finest mode in the game, and even as a cynic regarding recent additions to the Star Wars pantheon, I have to admit to being pretty excited to see how it evolves as the game progresses.
The Galaxy In Your Eyes
Tying both of those game modes together is the other great thing about Empire At War - namely the decision to create a Total War style campaign, where rather than simply being led by the hand from battle to battle, you actually define the sweep of the war across the galaxy by your own actions. Interestingly, Petroglyph has opted to create standard single-player campaigns for both the Imperial and Rebel sides as well, but for most players I suspect that the real meat of the game is to be found in the full-size campaign.
This can be played on a variety of maps, starting from different scenarios with different levels of difficulty, but the concepts remain the same - you need to strategise your unit deployments in order to conquer the galaxy, choosing where to engage, where to hold the line and where to retreat, and all the while trying to build up your armies, your technology base (an interesting point is that the Rebels largely seem to be able to advance their technology only by spying on the Empire) and your territory.
In this mode, much like in Total War, it's not just whether you win battles that counts, it's how you win them. If you win a narrow victory at the loss of many units, you've probably just wrecked your chances for victory in that sector, because the enemy may counter-attack and hit your significantly weakened forces. You don't get to manufacture units on the battlefield in this mode - instead, you'll build and deploy units between battles, and as a result there's no resource management as such in battles (in fact, the only place in the game you find any element of resource management is in the skirmish mode, and even then it's massively simplified).
Arguably the best thing about this galactic conquest mode, however, is the fact that it will work in multiplayer - and players will be able to save games midway and resume them, which means that you could duke it out with a friend for control of the galaxy over the course of several gaming sessions, rather than having to complete the whole thing in one sitting.
Many Bothans Died To Bring Us This Information
The game has been developed by a new studio, Las Vegas-based Petroglyph, but although the name is new, the team is not - it has risen from the ashes of Las Vegas' most famous development firm, Westwood, which was absorbed into EA Los Angeles some time ago. As such, the team has experience aplenty in the RTS field, and they're no slouches in the graphical department either. The game isn't necessarily the best RTS we've ever seen, but it does throw around plenty of units on screen and has some great cinematic camera angles, as well as a level of attention to detail on the various units which Star Wars fanatics will no doubt appreciate.
Early impressions suggest that Empire At War could be the game to finally add a brilliant RTS title to the Star Wars trophy cabinet. It's slickly presented and feels extremely solid to play - belying the team's vast experience at Westwood - and the combination of both the space battle mode and the depth of the galactic conquest mode are fascinating prospects for fans of strategy games and fans of George Lucas' check shirts alike. We'll bring you an in-depth review closer to release; for now, this is definitely one to add to your watchlist. If you have a watchlist, obviously. If not, you could probably just write it on a piece of rice paper and eat it, or something. If only the Bothans had thought of that, eh?