That Galaxy Far, Far Away never seems to get a moment's rest. I suppose there must be death for these things to be really interesting, but wouldn't a smuggling game or a Wookiee cookery anthology just shake things up a bit?
Och, don't mind me - I'm prone to such whimsies, and I'm not at all unhappy to be spending a few hours with the real-time strategising of Empire At War. He's not exactly Old Ben when it comes to the war stories, but he's still got a fair bit to say, much of it regurgitated in a way that is distinctly 2006 - but we'll come to that later.
This latest Star Wars strategy is real-time throughout, which is unusual since it takes on a multi-tired approach, a bit like the Total War games. Unlike the turn-based overview map of a Total War game map, the galactic conquest map in Empire At War is set in real-time - and you can see the comings and goings of fleets as you play. It's an unusual way of approaching things, but it works. It's actually pretty refreshing to be able to react realistically to what's about to happen - to be able keep an eye on nearby troop build-ups, and grind cash like there's no tomorrow (which there isn't, since there aren't any days/seasons in space, right?) Anyway...
This galactic map, which features numerous solar systems from the game universe, is the initial board from which the other tiers of the game spring. Command a selection of units to enter orbit around a planet and you open up the slightly aged space combat section (real-time on a 2D plane), where squadrons of fighters and command ships are single units in a battle between asteroids. Once the heavens are secure you can drop troops down on to the planet itself - and then there's the main course of good old RTS stodge to keep you busy.
Of course there's also the planetary micromanagement side-screens, and a good deal of R2-D2 bleeping noises, but nevertheless this is RTS that we've seen before. Mention of such a recipe will probably put a chill in the belly of many PC veterans, but their fear is largely unwarranted, since Empire At War has been carefully baked to ensure that none of the sections are overbearing, fundamentally repugnant, or sticking to the sides of the tin. On passing the space salt, we can clearly observe it's all rather similar to a now-ancient strategy named Imperium Galactica (of which there were two), which attempted to blend planetary combat, space combat, and epic galactic conquest in a single campaign. Empire At War wants to be this all-encompassing game of galactic conquest, but it never quite manages the Wagnerian sweep that gives Space Opera its name.
Of course you also need to spend a small amount of brain-time on the economics in your wallet and the tactical position of your empire as a whole, which is a bit dull. All this means that like Imperium Galactica, Empire At War doesn't quite manage the orbital trajectory of greatness, and is likely to become a distant gaming comet, only occasionally earning a blip on the sturdiest of fanboy retroscopes.
The hefty Star Wars baggage, of course, has to come along for the ride. The single-player campaign faces you with the situation following the latest films, as factions in the shattered Republic reform themselves into the Rebel Alliance on one side, and the Empire on the other. You can play as either faction, with a storyline largely dictating where you will go next. Vader gets his space war on, and tells the story of how James Earl Jones became the most feared voice actor in the galaxy, while the Rebels get on with all that pre-Skywalker rebelling that will one day lead up to the Deathstar going pop. Obligatory music, sound effects and cameo appearances mean that all the usual suspects are dragged back into the mix - assets such as the droids, space pirates, and Jabba's bounty chums are integral to the proceedings, either as leaders of a faction, or as planetary resources that can make your strategic life a little easier.
The AT-ATs are a bit of a disappointment, but the hordes of little rebel troopers (and fleeing Wookiee civilians) do deliver some charm. The key problem with the ground RTS is that it's just so slow and predictable. With enough reinforcements you can simply blast your way from one choke point to the next, eventually eradicating the enemy and claiming a rather hollow victory.
Back on the top tier - the galactic map - things are satisfyingly straightforward. Tactics are all rather simple, and never complex enough to provide that Chess-like capacity to feint and go for the kill. The movement of forces and the delivery of troops is all a bit pedestrian.
Anyway, the story unfolds in a series of missions that must be completed to advance, all of which lead up to your victory circa A New Hope. (I should mention that you don't have to play the storyline, and can also play freeform galactic conquest once you've mastered things). The movement of troops and the production of resources will keep most folk engrossed for literally minutes at a time, but it's never long before an engagement of some sort.
Initially these come as blind encounters - you end up charging in with far too many or far too few troops to take on what actually lies in wait in orbit, or on the planet's surface. Both theatres of conflict are represented by traditional RTS conceits, with 3D space not even being nodded at. This is no Homeworld - it's a tank rush with capital ships, although generally beautifully framed in planets, nebulae and chattering Imperial commanders. The tiny whizzing groups of fighters belie how useful the special abilities of each craft can be, and taking down a Star Destroyer because you were smart (and not simply more numerous) is a pleasant achievement... at least the first couple of times.
That's the problem with multi-tiered strategy games like this: even in Rome Total War, in which the real-time sections are exquisite, the temptation is just to auto-resolve so that you can get on with the conquest. Unless you're really bent on making all those fiddly battles bend to you whim (as many Rome players are) then you're simply going to give up after a few goes. Empire At War doesn't have the visual flair or the tactical titillation to keep your nose to the grindstone, and those planetary fights become a ticklist of reinforcement balance and turret erection. Now I think about it, they're not just a bit predictable - they're entirely superfluous.
Ultimately, there's no single aspect of the game that really demands your interest. To place it in perspective I've also refreshed my memory of Rome: Total War and Dawn of War. The pace and visual impact of Dawn of War make Empire At War's RTS sections simply disappear into the shadows, and the tactical map of Rome Total War would have been a fine game even without the beautiful sieges and epic battles that underpin it; Empire At War by contrast looks a little but like "My First Wargame". But hey, at least it's not Force Commander.