Star Wars: Empire at War is a game that I occasionally return to, because it’s something that can be played for a short or long amount of time, it’s fairly repetitive so it’s easy to learn but can reward creative strategies when one is in the mood to put forth the effort, and it does a decent job in its best moments of capturing some of the cinematic thrills of Star Wars battles, both on land and in space. That said, as much as I have played of it over the years, I’ve mostly played as the Empire, and I’ve only ever bothered to finish the Imperial campaign. Outside of the skirmish game modes, the campaigns and galactic conquest modes have an all-too-common problem in strategy games: the long, slow slog of redundancy through the middle game. Especially since there are only two factions, this middle game can be a brutal slugging match, a back-and-forth resource drain, until one side inevitably rolls the other. In practice, this can be a very protracted stalemate. The campaigns drag this out further, with only the gradual addition of new planets (and thus new territories to replenish your opponent’s losses), thereby preventing the sort of end-game roll-up that would otherwise occur in the galactic conquest modes.
But, you know, it is fun, and its big battles still look fairly pretty for a game that is now over a decade old (though the ground troops always appeared rather plastic).
In my most recent time with the game, I’ve been playing as the Rebellion, pushing through the campaign mode. It’s made me reflect on the bizarre game design decisions made for the Rebels, decisions that contradict the spirit of this organization.
First and foremost, the game is about slow but steady resource development and territory expansion. Yet the Rebels are a shadow organization, waging guerrilla warfare and receiving secret funding, especially prior to Endor. This was true for the old canon that Empire of War drew on, it’s true for the new canon, and it can be inferred from the films themselves.
And the game’s narrative attempts to reinforce this, for instance making a big deal about how you can run off with X-wings but have to leave the rebellion-sympathetic engineers behind the X-wing project to their fates because you cannot hold a planet in open defiance of the Empire; a later game quest sees you launching a daring raid to intercept the prison transports holding those engineers en route to Kessel. But the game itself does not acknowledge this. In fact, the game actively discourages a light, mobile, guerrilla force. You will be wiped out if you do not build armies and hold planets. You are encouraged to occupy all planets in a sector before proceeding to the next quest. This results in the bizarre situation in which I took over both Fresia (home of the Incom X-wing project) and Kessel, early in the campaign, early in the war, without any real change of circumstances. The story is directly contradicted by the gameplay. It’s not like I was cheating or using deviant strategies; occupying these planets was officially endorsed/encouraged by the game.
This directly leads into problems with narrative pacing. The game tries to encourage a sense of urgency with its narrative–we have Imperial prisoners being delivered to the mines of Kessel, we have Han Solo leading a brief Wookiee slave revolt on Kashyyyk, we have rumors of a nearly complete Death Star battle station. But the game does nothing to rush you to your next objective. And again, since we should be spending time on resource management and territory expansion, rushing is actively discouraged by the game design. You’ll just get your ass kicked if you rush in. I spent over a hundred in-game days after intercepting some of Han’s initial messages before arriving on Kashyyyk, an illogical amount of time in light of the game’s narrative. Han was there for a quick prison break, not a protracted ground campaign, and why the Empire wouldn’t have quashed him sooner is not addressed in the slightest. We must simply suspend disbelief so that when we launch the raid on Kashyyyk, we actually have the ground forces needed to win the day.
The game attempts to actually highlight different strengths and weaknesses for each faction. The Empire has quite powerful space forces that only get more absurdly powerful as their tech level increases, obviously terminating in the creation of the Death Star, which absolutely eliminates the need for ground combat. And while the Empire can research tech level increases, the Rebellion is dependent on using hero units to steal from Imperial worlds to obtain new technologies and gradually increase the tech level. In line with this raider mentality, Rebels can send small groups of ground forces on raids of planets, bypassing planetary fleets and space stations that would normally have to be defeated first.
So the Empire has a strong fleet that can eventually bypass ground assaults. The Rebellion has a weaker but more agile fleet, and it can bypass space battles with the deployment of small ground forces. This balancing of strengths and weaknesses is diminished by how it actually plays out in-game, though. At least for me, there has been very little use of the raiding feature because the ground forces are typically too small to accomplish anything. Especially since the Empire will quickly fortify most worlds (as I do with my Rebel-controlled worlds), the smaller ground forces have no chance of victory. At best, they could be deployed to take down a specific target. But they had better succeed–very little of what occurs, besides the placement of turrets and the absolute destruction of buildings, is saved in perpetuity after a battle. So simply showing up to harass the Empire or soften defenses for a future battle is often going to be more costly and counterproductive to the Rebels than any benefit it could produce. And the weaknesses of the Rebel fleet are quickly compensated for when you develop your resources adequately: building and upgrading space stations over your own worlds adds to the maximum population allowed, so you can soon throw more and more space ships into battle. It was not raids but overwhelming fleets followed by overwhelming armies that would consistently turn the tide of battle for me.
Finally, the morality of the Rebellion is rather quickly tossed out the window. I get that the Rebellion has often been portrayed in a more morally complicated light. In Legends, we had the splintering of the Alliance with Bail Organa and Mon Mothma on one side and Garm Bel Iblis on the other. In the new canon, that splintering has Organa and Mothma versus the radical terrorist forces of Saw Gerrera. Rogue One reveals that Rebel agents often did bad things to advance the cause they believe in. But I think any interpretation of the Rebels would stop short of them razing dwellings and slaughtering indigenous populations out of convenience, vengeance, or the hope of some sort of material reward. Those sort of tactics represent a good portion of what the members of the Alliance to Restore the Republic hate about the Galactic Empire. And yet that’s exactly what the game encourages, via certain sub-objectives and in-game rewards.
Rebels decimating Twi’lek communities would be a betrayal of the spirit of the EU Rebellion, but in light of the new canon it seems directly contradictory to the very nature of what the Rebellion is (and, for that matter, who its allies are).
It can be just as troublesome when you are on a planet where the natives have allied themselves with the Rebellion (for instance, Mon Cala and Geonosis). While the game never explicitly encourages the tactic, it is incredibly easy to use the natives as scouts, exploring terrain and capturing landing sites. It’s just as easy to use them as shock troops to destroy buildings and fight enemy units. As long as their dwellings remain intact, you’ll have a fresh supply of militia forces to send into battle. They’re weak. They will be mowed down, wave after wave, to chip away at the Empire. But it costs you nothing, and you’ll have that many fewer losses recorded at the end of the battle. The temptation to sacrifice dozens or hundreds of these local troops in battle while you simply fortify the landing sites with your own fresh forces is strong indeed, and I do it basically every chance I get.
So what would I have done differently, if I could have proposed ideas for the game? I would not ever, under any circumstances, have objectives or rewards associated with the extermination of indigenous communities (for the Rebels, at least). I would also limit the number of indigenous warriors who will fight for you–either a hard cap, or some limitation associated with the proportion of local losses as compared to your ground forces. And I would include the local losses in the balance sheet summary of battle at the end of each battle. I’d also give raiders better ability to camouflage, evade detection, and sabotage; easy, lasting damage and successful extraction would greatly increase the value of raids and give the Rebels a more distinctive flair. I think I’d also expand wartime objectives beyond simple battle outcomes and control of resources/territory. The Rebel alliance should have an incredibly tough time to hold down worlds. They should have to retreat often and strike weak spots in an overstretched Imperial military. Rebel planets should not be obvious, and there should probably be some sort of Unknown Regions to hide in and some sort of planetary influence to attempt to sway on occupied worlds (like in Star Wars: Rebellion). The Empire would always have the advantage in a pure head-to-head battle. But the Empire would have to keep garrisons on planets to keep them loyal, whereas the Rebellion could use diplomatic heroes to gain influence; this influence system could provide a completely different source of resources and funding for the Rebels, in line with their canonical presentation. I would keep the tech-stealing mechanic, though; that works well. And the Empire would have to spend time scouting out worlds in the Unknown Regions to find the Rebel base(s), with information quickly becoming old; this might require including more planets in the Unknown Regions. So in short, I’d like a more tactically focused game, like Rebellion, but with the intense battles and simpler UI and prettier graphics of Empire at War. Uh, okay, maybe that’s unreasonable.
But is it? It seems like such a game could certainly exist nowadays. At the very least, I think the next Star Wars RTS, if there is one, should definitely avoid the assignment of Rebel missions to butcher natives. That would be a start.