Star Wars: 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. This makes the game approachable.

Still, the idea of going through a nebula field instead of over it or under it is distressing for anyone who recognises 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 defence 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 Heroes 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 favourite 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 - although 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.

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 and 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.

As well as the PC flavour, Star Wars: Empire at War is available for Intel-based Macs.

Star Wars: Empire at War: Specs

  • Windows 2000/XP
  • 1GHz processor
  • 256MB RAM
  • 32MB graphics card
  • 2GB hard disk space
  • PC CD-ROM
  • Windows 2000/XP
  • 1GHz processor
  • 256MB RAM
  • 32MB graphics card
  • 2GB hard disk space
  • PC CD-ROM

OUR VERDICT

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

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