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Turning back the clock with Star Wars: Empire at War

We've been all over the Star Wars: Empire at War demo like a nerdy rash -- and it's brought back memories of a simpler time, when real-time strategy meant Command & Conquer and we still liked George Lucas

Nostalgia ain't what it used to be, certainly not since George Lucas redefined the word 'disappointment' with his godawful Star Wars prequel trilogy. But what's that, R2? The new LucasArts real-time strategy game is set in the original trilogy universe? With Han Solo and Grand Moff Tarkin, and nary a Binks in sight? Well, dust off the old Stormtrooper outfit and take us up to NerdCon 1!

Star Wars: Empire at War is old-school in more ways than one, and we're not talking about the brilliant packaging. It's been developed by Petroglyph, many of whose employees developed the original Command & Conquer. We've played a limited demo of the game, and it definitely has more than a soupçon of C&C about it. A calm female voice tells you, "Unit... building," and a little clockwise progress graph shows you how long your Rebel Corellian corvette is taking.

There are three separate sections to the game. On the galactic screen, you see all the nearby planets and can build units and structures on each one you control, from Stormtroopers and AT-ATs to Star Destroyers and space stations. You simply drag and drop fleets of units from one planet to another. If you drop a fleet on a planet with an enemy fleet occupying it, a space battle begins.

This is essentially a 2D affair, with smaller units like X-Wings and TIE Fighters zooming around and under the capital ships. You can zoom in to a high level of detail, and there's even a cinematic mode, where the game picks pertinent close-ups of the important action.

With that battle won, you can deploy your troops on the planet's surface to wipe out the enemy's ground force. This is most reminiscent of C&C, although you have to capture reinforcement points to drop more troops down to the surface. If your space fleet has bombers in it, you can call in air strikes.

These modes take place in the context of a story-based campaign, charting the course of the whole war and featuring all the landmark battles from Episodes IV to VI (a.k.a. 'the good ones'). There are also shorter 'conquests', where the objectives cover a limited number of planets, and a skirmish mode, which is single battles against the computer or a friend.

The game, or rather what we've seen of it, has a lovely cartoonish quality that enables the units to look authentic without appearing out of place against the drawn terrain. It also has a wealth of 'extended universe' detail in the planets and their inhabitants, as well as the heroes and characters you come across. The two factions feel significantly different to offer replay value, too. The control system seems polished, and we confidently expect previous Star Wars RTS travesties to be consigned to the Sarlacc of history.

Star Wars: Empire at War is released on 17 February and will cost around £30. The demo is available to download now from our sister site, GameSpot. A full review soon, expect. -NH

Update: a full review of Star Wars: Empire at War is now live.