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MACWORLD: Star Wars: Empire at War Review

July 27, 2007

Star Wars: Empire at War from Aspyr Media is the Mac gaming giant’s first game exclusively for Intel-based Macs. As such, it has left a sour taste in the mouths of many PowerPC Mac users. But according to Aspyr, it had no choice—it was either do that or not make the game at all, according to the company’s director of development. Regardless of whether it should have or even could have been produced to run on PowerPC-based Macs, Empire at War stands as a fantastic real-time strategy game set in the Star Wars universe; if you have the equipment to run it, you ought to consider it. Star Wars: Empire at War eschews the prequel trilogy but also avoids directly the “original” trilogy of Star Wars films—instead, it’s set a few years before the events seen in the trio of films starring Mark Hamill and Harrison Ford. But the setup is the same—the Rebellion is stirring, and the Galactic Empire doesn’t want to see it happen.

The game features a story mode, a galactic conquest mode, and a skirmish mode. The story mode is laden with twists and turns, taking you through a complete adventure. In conquest mode, you can pick what side you want to play as, wending your way through series of missions or just go outright for galactic domination. If you’re just in the mood for a quick melee, you’ll find the skirmish mode most rewarding.

At its most very basic level, Empire at War is split between two principal gameplay modes: One involves your maneuvering of space fleets between stars and planets, taking on enemies in the vast reaches of interstellar space. You need to do this to achieve ground supremacy by building fortresses and deploying troops.

In addition to intricate real-time space battles, you’ll also control the flow of fleets from one system to another, and your control of individual planets will affect how many resources—galactic credits—you can throw at the problems you’re faced with. Mining materials from asteroids can also help you generate credits.

As a general on the ground, you lead units into battle for domination of planetary surfaces. Although there’s a fair amount of difference graphically between land and space, the basic mechanics are pretty similar—Empire at War doesn’t dabble in the six degrees of motion that made interstellar combat so interesting in Homeworld II (also by Aspyr), and that’s a letdown. But it also makes the game a bit more approachable. Still, the idea of going through a nebula field instead of over it or under it is distressing for anyone who recognizes that space is more than just a two-dimensional tabletop.

If you’ve played strategy games long enough you’re undoubtedly familiar with the concept of the Hero unit—he or she imbues your forces with special attack or defense capabilities. And Petroglyph, the developer of this game, has carried over that functionality with Hero units that will be instantly familiar to Star Wars fans: Darth Vader, Han Solo and Chewie and so forth (even R2-D2 and C3PO make appearances). While your Heros greatly bolster your forces as they go into combat, your opponent can counter with bounty hunters, who will take them out—obviously, to keep the mythology intact, not permanently, but long enough to turn the tide of battle against you. Some of the special units you can create as you amass credits and build additional installations are really imaginative—imagine sending in a Rancor to pummel an enemy squadron, for example.

RTS games can often get bogged down in micromanagement as resource manipulation and engineering become important factors in building your armadas or your armies. Empire at War is no different. Interstellar resource management takes a bit of getting used to, especially compared to the very approachable skirmish mode, and frankly, I was lost a bit at the beginning as I stepped through the tutorial. Fortunately, a tutorial is provided to help you get the basics, and it really does help. You’ll discover that each side in this conflict has strengths and weaknesses. The Empire, for example, is fantastic when it comes to material output and production, and can raise lots of money very quickly. The Rebellion, by necessity, has to rely more on subterfuge, spying and so on, and does that very well. A technology tree and other comparative strengths and weaknesses between forces is outlined in a map that Aspyr provides along with the documentation.

One of my favorite twists in the game is a cinematic mode. If you’re fairly comfortable that the masses you’ve launched against the enemy will be able to handle themselves in battle, you can click on an icon in the heads-up display to activate the cinema mode, which draws you into the action directly, setting up camera views from the perspective of the units actually doing the fighting. It’s loads of fun watching capital ships get blown up by squadrons of fighters and frigates in space, though it’s not quite as spectacular as the movies’ special effects.

Multiplayer gaming is present, too. The game doesn’t provide for multiplatform gameplay, and I’ve found very few other players to play against online, using GameTap, a multiplayer gaming service. It’s a disappointment, but if you do find Mac opponents to play with, you will probably have fun. Personally, I find the skirmish mode against the computer to be all the fun I need.

For the real Star Wars enthusiast, sound is pitch-perfect. You’ll get all the sound effects and orchestral accompaniments that you expect—nay, demand—from a Star Wars game, and the voice acting is really top-notch. Graphically it’s hit or miss. The space battles look fantastic, but the ground battles aren’t the best I’ve seen. Violence is persistent, obviously, but it’s also pretty mild—the game netted a T rating for Teen by the ESRB.

Two final notes on the game’s Intel-only status: While it may not work on PowerPC-based Macs, Empire at War for Mac does support GMA 950-based Macs like the Mac mini and MacBook, which many cutting edge games do not. Also, contrary to popular speculation before it was released, Empire at War isn’t Intel-only because of TransGaming’s Cider technology—that product wasn’t involved in bringing this game to the Mac.

A playable demo is available for download from links on Aspyr’s Web site. And if you buy the game, make sure to download the latest patch, also available from Aspyr. The 1.05 Rev A patch fixed graphics problems with the original release.

The bottom line

A fun and decidedly different RTS based in the Star Wars universe, Empire at War is an Intel Mac-only treat for those of us with the Force.

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