I was thinking today about the best Star Wars games of all time. I would name them as these: TIE Fighter, Knights of the Old Republic, and Republic Commando. I'd add X-Wing, X-Wing: Alliance, Jedi Knight II, and Jedi Academy if we want to extend the list beyond three. And just maybe Empire at War. I've been meaning to comment on Empire at War for a while, and since I'm fairly deep into my first imperial campaign in the expansion I figured this post is about due.
A brief overview for those of you who are interested in my game posts but aren't familiar with the title. Empire at War is basically a Galactic Civil War alternate-history sandbox. The game takes place on both the strategic and tactical levels, both in real time. The strategic (interstellar) part of the game consists of building your forces and planetary bases and maneuvering on the galactic scale. Base building is similar to Rome: Total War - specific buildings are required for specific units and other buildings, but it isn't a "base building" game in the sense of a classic RTS; either a planet has a particular facility or it doesn't. Planets are differentiated from one another by the tactical map associated with that particular planet (e.g., the famous stormtrooper training world of Carida reduces the cost of infantry units), the amount of credits they contribute to the owner's economy, the allegiance and formidability of the natives, a strategic or tactical bonus appropriate to the world, the maximum supportable number of land facilities, and the maximum supportable size of space station.
As a Star Wars game goes that's mostly all you'd want. One potential disappointment is the fact that the Rebellion functions, strategically, pretty much just like the Empire - while the Rebels have a slight informational advantage in terms of concealing the forces at a particular world from their enemies, the core mechanism of expansion is conquering planets. This makes the game play like fairly late in the Civil War (post-Endor), when the Rebellion was legitimate enough that planets would actually declare their allegiance to the fledgling "New Republic" even though the Empire was clearly not defeated. Whether this is a failing sort of depends on your point of view. Empire at War is clearly trying to let you rewrite Star Wars history, so maybe the Rebellion in this game is actually far more formidable than the Rebellion in Star Wars canon. That's kind of cool. On the other hand, it means that you can't play the "where is the Rebel base?" kind of skulk-and-hide that you might want to. The criminal faction in the expansion, the Zann Consortium, actually plays rather more like you'd expect the classic Rebellion to play. The Consortium can conquer planets, but it can also "corrupt" worlds held by other players by setting up a variety of criminal enterprises in the system. Consortium units can travel anywhere within the corrupted network of systems by paying [sometimes very hefty] bribe costs, allowing them to strike without warning anywhere within the web of corruption.
Once combat is initiated the strategic map pauses, and you fight the battle out on the tactical level using whatever forces you have brought to the system, or whichever forces are stationed in the system. Space combat is basically built around a rock-paper-scissors type of system, with roughly four rates of combatants: starfighters, corvettes, frigates/cruisers, and capital ships. Starfighters are represented on the "squadron" level (though the number of ships in a squadron varies from three to seven depending on class) and are divided into space superiority fighters and bombers. Bombers are valuable for their proton torpedoes, which in this game bypass shields, making them potentially devastating to anything larger than a corvette. Space superiority fighters are valuable as dogfighters and interceptors. Both are extraordinarily vulnerable to the corvette-class vessels, which fill an anti-fighter fleet defense role, and are in turn no match for your frigates and cruisers. Capital ships, which can only be built at particular worlds famous for their shipyards (e.g., Kuat and Mon Calamari), will eat virtually any starship alive but are potentially vulnerable to bombers.
The game does a good job, I think, of presenting an interesting and Star Wars-y space combat problem. The tactical problem in space is really dominated by the really big ships and the really small ships. Unmolested bombers can make quick work of even an Imperial Star Destroyer. A few corvettes can create a virtually impenetrable fighter defense, but these pickets are in turn easy pickings for the enemy's heavy combatants, which both outrange and outgun them. A fighter screen can do the same work without that vulnerability, but not as efficiently - and that tactic also opens the door for a few daring corvettes on the enemy's side to punch a gaping hole in your fighter screen. The great skill is to manage your formation so as to create a gap in the enemy's coverage without creating one in your own - usually all with the aim of letting the ponderous capital ships bring their awesome firepower to bear (and the firepower of a single Star Destroyer is truly awesome, I assure you) or letting your bombers begin their run.
The defender in a space battle will usually be defending a space station (and sadly, no planet may have more than one space station), which may range in formidability from a mere deterrence to a fleet-smashing fortress depending on how much has been invested in it. Space stations have fighters and starships assigned to them as garrisons. These garrison ships play an important part in the tactical dynamic of attacking and defending. Each level of station has a fixed number of garrison units it can have in the fight at any given time. The trick is, so long as the station's hangar hardpoint is intact (frigate-sized vessels and up are composed of individually targetable subsystems such as weapons, shield generators, engines, flight control, etc.), destroyed garrison units will be periodically replaced. Thus, the attacker has an incentive to strike hard and decisively, to minimize the impact of these extra units; while the defender is well served by playing a delaying game. There is a finite number of units either side can have on the board at any given time, so players can have reserves ready to hyperspace in as units are destroyed. Garrison units do not count against this ship limit, so the defender has a potential numerical advantage, but this rarely obtains as it is quite difficult to issue every system a formidable defense fleet from the regular navy.
Both land and space combat have their "super weapons," which is only appropriate in a Star Wars game. Your space battle super weapons are planetside surface-to-orbit guns which must be constructed like any other base building. The Rebels have their signature v-150 Planet Defender ion cannon, while the Empire has a hypervelocity mass driver. These weapons are substantial obstacles to anything larger than a corvette, although they are also quite expensive and take up a base slot that could be used for something else. They have a nice feel to them - there's really no counter except to destroy the weapon with a commando raid (if you're the Rebels), use only small ships, or to attack with several times the force you otherwise would have.
Land combat follows a similar basic dynamic but has a few extra wrinkles thrown in. Each land map has several "reinforcement points," which are areas suitable for landing troops. The number of units (measured in platoons ranging from two to five armored vehicles or two to three squads of infantry) the attacker can have on planet at any given time depends on the number of reinforcement points he controls (each LZ allowing a different number of units, so some are more valuable than others), while the defender can start the battle with a full complement of units from his regular army plus the garrison units deployed by his base buildings, which are replaced as destroyed just as in a space battle. Control of the map's landing zones is usually an important piece of victory, as the landing zones constrain the momentum of an attack. It is even possible, if one can manage it, to cut off the attacking units completely by capturing all the LZs on the map - thus, while the enemy may have a very large army in orbit, he may literally have no place to land them.
Star Wars has always followed a World War-style tactical model, so it is appropriate that the land units be classified (more or less) into infantry, light armor, heavy armor, and artillery. Infantry is important for its ability to effectively engage other infantry and its ability to capture locations (such as landing zones) and the "build pads" which are scattered across each map at important locations and which allow you to emplace pre-fabricated turrets and repair stations. Infantry is what changes the front lines of a battle. Light armor (such as the AT-ST) is about as effective as you'd expect in a World War II game; it's no match for a serious armored fighting vehicle, but it's also fast and a simply insuperable obstacle to infantry with no anti-tank teams. Artillery is relatively short ranged (though longer-ranged than anything else on the battlefield) but devastating against soft targets or emplacements and can make quick work of an infantry advance. Heavy armor is largely the queen of the battlefield (anti-tank teams excepted), so there is again a rock-paper-scissors sort of balancing act between the anti-armor and anti-infantry arms of the service. Unless, of course, the Empire deploys AT-ATs - a weapon against which nothing but overwhelming numbers and brute force will truly avail.
One of the nice things about Empire at War's land combat is that it allows for situations in which one side simply cannot win. If you have run out of anti-armor capable units or emplacements it really doesn't matter how many men you have left on the field so long as the enemy has even a token force of tanks or walkers. At the same time, a single anti-armor turret can do for virtually an entire platoon of light armor. If the enemy has brought airspeeders to the fight and you have no anti-aircraft capabilities, you have already lost. A single AT-AT really can win an entire battle if the other side is unprepared. You don't find that sort of model in games very often, and it's nice to appreciate it when it happens.
Your land super weapons are bombing sorties (assuming you have any bombers in orbit) and, in the expansion, orbital bombardment. Star Wars has never had much land-air integration, and this game is no exception, but the periodic use of bombers or bombardment does open up some interesting strategies. Sorties are only available periodically, so a battle has to drag on some time before they're available, but they can also flatten pretty much anything in a single run. Thus they can be used to clear choke points, add anti-armor punch to an otherwise light attack, or smash a base building that would otherwise be beyond reach.
One frustrating thing about land combat (and to a lesser extent space combat) is that the build pads (or the defense satellites, which are far less numerous than build pads) can only be built upon during a battle. These are an important part of the battlefield; they help to give it shape and substance, and they also increase the cost of a battle (since each emplacement costs a small amount of money), which is an important strategic consideration. A base can be made significantly more or less defensible based on the geography of these emplacements. So it's well worth your time to build on them after you've effectively won a battle, but that means trekking infantry all the way out to each one, which is silly.
The other interesting thing about land battles is that most worlds have natives who are friendly either to the Empire or Rebellion (and a few have natives who are just plain hostile) and are produced, garrison-like, from native dwellings on the map. Depending on the world in question the natives may be mere unfortunates who are caught in the crossfire or a serious tactical consideration. On most worlds they're mere civilians armed with blaster pistols, good for little more than harassing attacks or capturing undefended locations (since they live all across the map, though, they can be highly useful for capturing advance landing zones or fortifying locations in advance of your main force). A few worlds, such as Kashyyyk (the wookiee homeworld), have natives who are actually quite fearsome. And on some the natives are formidable through sheer numbers. Endor, for instance, is virtually impossible for the Empire to conquer if the Ewoks are backed by even a handful of Rebel troops. The Ewoks are not formidable fighters, but they are numerous, and if properly supported can overrun the initial imperial beachhead with ease.
Combat is a nice mix of the small and large scale. The Rebels have the unique option of slipping a small force of ground troops past a planet's orbital defenses and attacking its land facilities directly, so there's always the specter of a small-scale action - and as I said, it's difficult to adequately cover your systems, so even the front lines can wind up being essentially small unit actions. The feel of the game sort of switches organically in smaller actions from formation management to individual unit management. I was once down to defending a base with two squads of stormtroopers and a pair of speeder bikes, defending against the exhausted remnants of a Rebel attack that were just unwilling to give up and retreat. The action mostly consisted of the scout troopers trying to buy time for the stormtroopers to get some emplacements ready, and had a very nice edge-of-your-seat feeling. Or again, I once defeated an Acclamator-class assault ship with a single Corellian corvette by luring the Acclamator's fighter screen away and then leading it a merry chase through an asteroid field until the rocks pounded it to rubble. That kind of shift to the individual and heroic happens quite naturally, and is a nice shift.
And finally there are the heroes - the obvious ones like Luke Skywalker, Emperor Palpatine, Obi-Wan, Darth Vader, and the like; and the less obvious ones like Captain Piett ("You are in command now ... Admiral Piett") and Mon Mothma. The game does a good job of balancing the innately hero-driven aspect of the Star Wars universe and keeping things relatively realistic (and therefore keeping your troops relevant). Some, like Darth Vader, have a presence in both land and space. Others are only combatants in land battles (e.g., Obi-Wan), space battles (Capt. Piett), or not combatants at all (Mon Mothma and Grand Moff Tarkin). Basically heroes are exceptional at what they're good at, and just like everyone else otherwise. Rogue Squadron can do for a large number of TIE fighters, but they aren't that great against a Tartan cruiser. Some of my favorite moments have been with the Jedi, like the time Yoda cut through an entire platoon of stormtroopers only to be stepped on by an AT-ST. Or the time I discovered the Emperor himself on a planet, and he turned my prize heavy armor company against me using the Dark Side of the Force ... and then as he was plastered by my proton torpedo artillery he croaked, "I did not foresee this!"
So, not the best Star Wars game ever. But pretty close, really.