In Replaying the Classics, StarWars.com revisits Star Wars games of yesteryear, examining why we loved them then and why they stand the test of time.
It’s a great time for Star Wars fans who play games. Another batch of beloved titles, including Knights of the Old Republic II and Republic Commando, were added to Xbox’s stellar backward compatibility program in April. And right now, a ton of classics are available at a discount in Steam’s Summer Sale — including Star Wars: Empire at War, in a newly optimized edition featuring online multiplayer support. Plus, thanks to Steam’s huge mod community, additional content can be easily downloaded via the Steam workshop.
Originally launched in 2006, Empire at War was the first-ever game from Petroglyph. The Las Vegas developer had been founded in 2003 by veterans of the defunct Westwood Studios, maker of such titles as Dune II, Blade Runner (’97), and the award-winning Command & Conquer series. Given the green light to work on a Star Wars project, Petroglyph took its decade-plus of experience with real-time strategy (RTS) games and put it to the test, crafting an real-time strategy game with three separate fronts: infantry skirmishes, space warfare, and galactic conflict. Feel like you could take on the whole Empire yourself? Get ready.
In Empire at War, players command the Rebel Alliance, the Empire, or — thanks to the included Forces of Corruption expansion — the criminal underworld. Each faction comes with its own unique single-player story campaign, exploring the Galactic Civil War through a Legends-era narrative about the construction of the first Death Star and culminating with the iconic Battle of Yavin. The game’s story mode features animated cut scenes with full voice-over, giving added context to the action.
What’s most impressive, coming back to the game more than a decade after release, is how easy it is to jump in and play. Sure, it looks great and tells an original story in the Star Wars universe, but it’s also an inviting experience for newcomers to the RTS genre. It’s a delicate balance, but Empire at War pulls it off: it brings something novel and exciting to those who have played this kind of strategy game in the past without alienating players who haven’t. A single click of your mouse will let you highlight an individual unit; click and drag to quickly select a large group of troops and vehicles. Combat is tactical but largely automated, and land and space engagements can be “auto-resolved,” letting players focus on the parts of the game that interest them most in a given session. Systems like base construction, resource allocation, and training new units can be managed from the galaxy map, where you amass your fleet between missions. So, compared to similar games, there’s a lot less multitasking when you’re in the heat of battle.
After you’ve experienced all the campaign content Empire has to offer, the sky’s the limit for where the war might be fought next. “Galactic Conquest” builds on the gameplay style established in story mode, giving players full access to all three battlefronts as well as resource-management elements; it’s also the perfect way to revisit your favorite heroes and planets.
In addition to the three campaigns, Galactic Conquest, and online and LAN multiplayer components, the game also has an alternate “Skirmish” mode, featuring a more straightforward RTS experience, either on land or in space. Players can take command of legendary war machines like the X-wing, TIE fighter, AT-AT, and Star Destroyer. Familiar faces like Luke Skywalker, Obi-Wan Kenobi, Darth Vader, and Boba Fett are all playable, too. Battles can be fought in over 80 locations from the galaxy far, far away; if you’ve ever wanted to send the full might of the Empire to conquer the swamps of Dagobah, you’re in luck.
While Empire at War didn’t have the resounding cultural impact of something like the Old Republic series, critics spoke fondly of the game upon release. 1UP deemed it “the best Star Wars since Episode VI,” adding,“It’s worth it for fans of [the movies] to see their dreams unfurl in pyrotechnic, high-tech 3D glory.” GameSpot praised the game for being the first truly great Star Wars RTS, calling its graphics and sound “uniformly breathtaking.” Yahoo! Games said that “Empire at War captures [the emotions of the films] perfectly, and backs them up with a robust large-scale strategic game and no end of single and multiplayer content. What more could you ask from a Star Wars game?”
Maybe it isn’t as well known as the Jedi Knight tetralogy or Rogue Squadron series, but Empire at War is the very definition of a must-play Star Wars game — one that captures the spirit of the films even as it takes the real-time-strategy genre to new and unexpected heights.
Star Wars: Empire at War is available now on Windows PC via Steam, where fans can snag the game for 60% off through July 5.
Alex Kane is a journalist based in west-central Illinois. He has written for Polygon, the website of Rolling Stone, Syfy Wire, Variety, and other publications. Follow him on Twitter at @alexjkane.