Every so often, I play a game that’s more fun than its mediocre mechanics would suggest. Ni no Kuni was one such. Star Wars: Empire at War is another.
Empire at War was a 2006 RTS whose Galactic Conquest mode, a freeform campaign, had clear pretensions of being Total War in space — without the depth. I walked away disappointed.
I found EaW’s skirmish mode more appealing. Unlike Total War skirmishes (or, for that matter, Galactic Conquest, where all recruitment occurs on the strategic map), EaW skirmishes play out as a more traditional RTS. Each side starts with a starbase, which produces new units and can be upgraded to unlock new build options. Asteroid belts are scattered around the map; once secured by fighter squadrons, they can be mined for income. There are a handful of unit types: fighters, bombers, anti-fighter ships, and capital ships of varying strength, such as Victory-class Star Destroyers, Imperial Star Destroyers, and Mon Calamari cruisers. There are also various hero units drawn from the Star Wars franchise, such as Vader in a TIE Advanced, the Millennium Falcon, and Admiral Ackbar.
This adds up to produce a simple, decent strategy game. It’s important to build up the starbase and unlock higher-level units. It’s also important not to be overrun here and now, and upgrading the starbase is expensive and will tie up production for a long time. The result is an interesting short-term versus long-term trade-off.
Above all, EaW‘s saving grace is its ability to channel the Star Wars experience. When the John Williams music blares, and a Star Destroyer emerges from hyperspace onto the Rebel flank, and Vader and Boba Fett sweep the field clear of X-wings, the dated graphics fade away; and I forget all my quibbles with game design.
One episode can sum up my relationship with EaW. In my first few minutes with the game, Han and Chewie in the Falcon managed to solo (no pun intended) four of my TIE Interceptor squadrons and drive off their supporting cruiser. Was that an example of finely balanced strategy design? Perhaps not. Was that a cool Star Wars moment? You bet.