Rough Diamond In The Rough
Like Star Wars: Republic Commando (my review of which you should totally check out) Star Wars Empire at War is a Star Wars game that got a bad rap on release and has now been released on GoG again (for 5$ less than on Steam, no less.) The re-release contains both the vanilla game and the expansion, Forces of Corruption, and is well worth your money. The peculiar thing about Empire at War though, is that it's really half of a good game. Well, more like 1/3 a great game, 1/3 an okay game and 1/3 a terrible game. That sounds weird, doesn't it? I'll explain, just keep reading, and know that no game is perfect, but this game is a particularly bad case of imperfection.
Star Wars: Empire at War is a pausable real-time strategy game in which you play as the Empire, the Rebels, or the Zann Consortium (who were added in the expansion) during the galactic civil war era of the Star Wars timeline. That means you'll get to use all your favorite ships from the movies that weren't awful, such as X-wings, the Death Star, Correllian Corvettes, The Millennium Falcon, the Death Star, Imperial Star Destroyers, TIE Fighters, the Death Star, a bunch of ships nobody's heard of, and the Death Star. You also get to use stuff like Stormtroopers, and deploy heroes from the movies, like Han solo, Chewbacca, Boba Fett, Darth Vader, the Emperor, Boba Fett, Luke Skywalker, Kyle Katarn, a bunch of people you may or may not vaguely remember seeing in the movies but whose names you've never heard, and Boba Fett. The game has three campaigns (one for each faction in the vanilla game, and one for the Zann Consortium in the expansion) skirmish battles, and a galactic conquest mode. Multiplayer servers were shut down but you can still play online with Gameranger. The gameplay itself consists of a campaign map, which is sorta like Total War but not really, land battles, which are sorta like Dawn of War but not really, and space battles, which are fairly unique.
Graphics and Sound
Graphics in Empire at War are a mixed bag, like most of the game. The land battles are kind of ugly for the most part, especially the models on the infantry. Basically imagine that one Roman soldier from Rome II that looked like his face was three year old Michelangelo's first attempt at sculpting, and imagine that that's every soldier in the game. Yeah. Vehicles look okay. Buildings and terrain are kind of ugly. The campaign map is a campaign map. The space battles actually still hold up to this day graphically. There's just enough detail in the engine to make spaceships look good, and it doesn't let you zoom in far enough to see the undoubtedly low resolution textures. Explosions look good, lasers look pretty, and that's really all you need for a nice space battle. That and stars, and a pretty planet in the background, both of which the game has.
Sound is nice. Voice acting for the campaign is a mixed bag, with some decent performances and some cringe-worthy. The effects are all that really matters though, and they're solid, as they tend to be in any Star Wars game. In fact, sound effects are the only area where the land battles and space battles are equal, they both sound great.
Gameplay: The King of Mixed Bags
Well now. Empire at War's gameplay. Let's just get this out of the way first: 1/3 of this game is an abhorrently imbalanced, dismally unfinished, woefully buggy piece of trash. The land combat is terrible. Both versions of the game are equal in their awful land combat. The defender will almost always win, because it's almost impossible to lose as the defender if you've got a shield over your base, some artillery, and maybe one squad of infantry to build turrets with. Basically, the way the land combat works is that it's trying to be a really bad version of Dawn of War. You've got squads of guys, who can be given upgrades, and you've also got heroes who are very powerful. Nearly everyone's got some kind of ability they can use. The planets sometimes have terrain features or there might be bad weather and stuff like that. In the expansion, the Consortium can sabotage stuff before the battle. The problem, is that the upgrades are boring, the abilities are boring, the units are horribly imbalanced, the control is imprecise, and there are numerous imbalance issues between the factions. Upgrades consist of percentage increases to damage and armor. Abilities are basically all just stuff that you spam to win. Artillery is the best unit, ALWAYS. If you've got artillery and maybe like, a few squads of anti tank guys to kill really big tanks, you're golden. Just set up, kill everything that comes towards you until your opponent gets the idea and falls back, then move up with whatever you have guarding the artillery. Rinse and repeat. As for controls, your guys almost never go where you tell them, and even if they do, the control is unresponsive, meaning you have to wait a few seconds for them to do anything. Balance is almost always tipped towards the defender, since smart players will always have shield generators and a few units of artillery on their planets, and if they've got that, you can't do anything. Additionally, Factional imbalance is a problem. In the vanilla game the Empire is overpowered, and in the expansion, the Empire is still overpowered, but the Zann Consortium is more overpowered. Not enough for to condemn the ground combat? The game is also bugged. Units get stuck on terrain and behind turrets and buildings, rendering them useless for the duration of the battle. Yeah, no. If you can, skip the ground combat completely, it's not worth your time.
Wow, that was a long paragraph, wasn't it? Well fortunately, we're going to move on to what's good about Empire at War, because it's mostly a good game. It's just that one third of it sucks. The campaign map is still pretty cool. All the factions have unique ways they do stuff. For example, the Zann Consortium can corrupt planets and therefore get some money from them, and also see their defenses. The Rebels can raid planets with small attack forces, bypassing space defenses entirely, which really just sucks because it makes you play the ground combat. The Rebels do however progress their technology bit by bit, stealing it from the Empire, which is cool because it lets you say "hey, I really need this bit of technology, but not really the rest, so I'll only take this piece of tech." The Empire can build the Death Star, or, in the expansion, a reasonably handsome member of the Blue Man Group named Thrawn. The UI is slick and intuitive. It's good that the stuff you can do on the campaign map is interesting, and that the UI is so slick, because you spend a great deal of time on the galaxy view.
Now on to the part of this game that you could literally make an entire game about: the space combat. Before you invade a planet's surface, you have to defeat it's space defenses. And that's what the space combat is about. It's amazing. Now yes, the defender does get some advantage, but bear in mind that that's the case in almost every RTS known to man. I only rag on the land combat for it because it's literally impossible to lose as the defender at times. In space, you can still lose if you're careless. Very easily. Basically how it works is the factions warp in ships. The ships all serve different roles in the game. Imperial Star Destroyers are good at blowing the crap out of frigates and other capital ships, but will quickly get torn apart by bombers without protection from corvettes and fighters. Rebel corvettes are fast, and good at killing fighters, but Star Desroyers can immobilize them with a tractor beam, and a Consortium Victory frigate outfitted with mass drivers will butcher them quickly. Consortium Kedalbe ships can take on any ship one on one, but a capital ship backed up by a couple of frigates and some bombers can probably bring down 3 of them, as the Kedalbes try desperately to deal with all the threats at once. The balance is excellent, and while the Rebels are harder to play than the Consortium or the Empire, a skilled Rebel player can easily hold his own in a fight with either faction. In addition to the excellent balance, the combat is enhanced by the hardpoint system: bigger ships and space stations have hardpoints, which are everything from weapons to engines to hangers. This makes for some great tactics, since it allows players to target key systems on opposing ships. It's actually possible to blow up everything on a ship except it's engines, and have literally just a mobile piece of debris, and doing that actually has tactical advantages at times. It's a shame that the land combat is so awful. If it wasn't this game would probably have been an instant classic.
Each campaign does have a plot. The Rebel plot begins with you stealing the X-wings and ends with you blowing up the death star. The Imperial campaign begins with Darth Vader killing a Rebel spy and ends with you destroying the rebellion. Normal stuff. The Consortium plot is actually very cool and has some nice characters, and thus I won't spoil it. But excluding the Consortium campaign, the main plot is typically overshadowed by the plot you yourself generate in your exploits. The game has a huge campaign map, and thus some cool stuff can happen in it. Like the time I defeated a full fledged imperial army, complete with AT-ATs and artillery, with nothing more than an angry mob of Mon Calamari civilians. That was like the only time I've ever had fun with the ground combat, just watching their entire invasion force get disassembled by wave after wave of very angry Admiral Ackbars. You'll develop awesome war stories of your own during the campaigns, and that in my mind makes up for the stock plots in the Rebel and Imperial campaigns.
Galactic Conquest Mode
Galactic conquest is like the campaign, except with set goals, no plot, you can play any faction, and sometimes you only get to play around with a few of the planets. It's very fun though, even in single-player, and I imagine if you got some friends together and played one between you guys, it would be awesome.
Skirmish mode is half good, half awful, the space skirmishes are cool, the land skirmishes suck, it's what you'd imagine. The expansion has some maps that support three factions, which makes for even more fun in the space battles, and more misery in the land battles.
Empire at War has 2/3 of a great game. Sadly, it will only ever be a pretty good one due to how awful the other third is. It's well worth 15$ though. And if you get bored with the campaigns, the galactic conquest mode and the skirmishes, the wonders of PC gaming allow you to mod it, with mods like Republic at War practically overhauling the game. Overall, well worth your time and money.
Be sure to leave any feedback you have in the comments, it's always helpful. Also, I'm very sorry about the quality of the top image, it was the best I could find.