Star Wars: Rebellion

Rebellion (“Supremacy” in the UK) looks like a quick reskin of a popular new genre – so common for the era – but the 4x genre is actually right up Star Wars‘ exhaust port. These are the games like Masters of Orion and Space Empires – simulators requiring you to start small in funds and equipment and best your opponent in securing both to seize control of the galaxy. In fact, many of the technologies or ships in these games borrow, often liberally, from the Star Wars films. So a game with the benefit of the license should do gangbusters, right?

Planets are grouped into systems of 10 each.

In terms of content, the game offers pretty much everything you can expect, plus a few extra bonuses on the side. First, the expected: You can play as either the Empire or the Rebellion, in a galaxy you can define by size and AI difficulty (the largest galaxy is 200 planets). Each planet you capture offers limited space for building mines and refineries, which collect ore and convert it into points, which then go toward constructing factories or units. Supply lines are not considered, it’s strictly about how many resource-rich planets you can keep control of.

Distant, barren planets can be colonized by your forces at some expense. “Core” worlds with pre-built structures have the additional factor of their inhabitants to consider. If they like your side, it will be harder for your foe to subvert you. If they prefer the other team, you must garrison troops there to prevent uprisings, losses from piracy, and work stoppages at your mines and factories. Planets that support the other side more fervently obviously require more troops to keep things operating and “civil.” As the opposing team, you can run secret missions on those planets to stoke the fires of, ahem, rebellion.

There aren’t as many differences between the two sides as you would think, so you will always be building fleets, armies, and taking over planets, but those that exist are certainly true to the films. For ships and ground units, Rebels are generally faster to build but weaker, with the Empire slower to build but stronger. Recruitable heroes for each side are vastly better at varying skills than regular “buildable” units. The Rebellion generally has better diplomats and sabotage agents, while the Empire has better military commanders and spies.

The Empire can exclusively run Assassination missions to remove heroes entirely.

The primary purpose of these heroes are to either include in land or space garrisons, thereby boosting their defense and effectiveness significantly, or to send on a number of missions that include Recon, Sabotage, Kidnapping, and Diplomacy. Recon for both sides is the primary source of information about enemy activities and their strength on specific planets. A recon mission on a planet you own will uncover enemy agents operating there, or incoming enemy fleets. Recon missions on planets you don’t own give a “snapshot” of the situation at that time – meaning a planet you haven’t visited in a while may have secretly blossomed into an enemy superbase.

Diplomacy missions are the only way to change the minds of a planet’s population toward your side. It’s cheaper for you in the long run, since repeated diplomacy missions can raise support so high that you don’t need garrisons anymore.  However, they take up a hero’s valuable time, and like real diplomacy, do run the risk of getting mired and having no effect. Planets with not enough garrison units will eventually go into Uprising. Production shuts down and the owner must allocate a large garrison and run special missions to stabilize the situation.

The rest of the missions are pretty self-explanatory, with one operation often feeding into another. While some characters are just good soldiers, others are crucial to the success of either army. New ships and war technology, for example, can only be researched by specific characters. If they’re out of the picture, their benefactors are in trouble. It’s quite a rush to have one of your probes suddenly find Lando Calrissian doing ship research on one planet, send out a perfect mission to bag him, and drag his sorry ass back to a planet you’ve set up as a jail – knowing you’ve dealt a measurable blow to the enemy.

Ship battles can start to match the scale of the movies.

There’s a lot to enjoy about Rebellion, which is why its so frustrating when we get to the disappointing. First, the AI is pitiful, even on the hardest setting. It enjoys pumping out miserable and cheap ships that slot alone into sequentially-numbered fleets (giving you an idea of how many ships are out there). Virtually any time they encounter an enemy ship, they will turn ass and flee. They never seem to organize themselves into numbers that would cause a threat, while the missions they run seem mostly reactionary. Just took over a planet? Well, here comes the Start Uprising mission.

Your own AI can be set to manage your garrisons or productions, and is barely capable of either. Expensive, overpowered troops get built and assigned to routine garrisons, while any available space is assigned to new mines or factories – regardless of if you need them or not, regardless of if you need the space for other production facilities. If you’re seeing a theme here, it’s that planning is not the AI’s strength.

So, let’s assume that you actually manage to hustle a pal to play against you in multiplayer, fixing the problem of dummy AI. You still have some rough design decisions to overcome. The game takes place in a “sort-of real-time” system instead of pure turn-based. Pausing the game locks out all controls, so it’s real-time, but actions still won’t take place until the end of the day (a de-facto turn). Only when the next day ticks over will ships advance towards their destinations, resources get instantly mined and processed, construction gets closer to completion, and so on. You’ll be swamped with tasks in the later game and managing an entire galaxy becomes harder to keep track of.

The message system tries to keep you aware of galactic goings-on.

To attempt to offset this, your galactic map (which you play mostly the entire game from) has many options to highlight planets that meet specific factors – like a filter for planets with shipyards, or a filter for planets with idle production facilities, etc. They’re moderately helpful, but only one filter can be active at a time, and they don’t cover all the possibilities you would need (like a planet with weak defenses). You’ll almost have to keep separate notes, or else try and remember why you sent that fleet that just arrived out in the first place.

Another painful design element is the interface itself. Your standard screen is the entire galaxy, color-coded by faction ownership, with C-3PO or his evil double as your “assistants.” They, and your planets, harass you through an in-game email system, which alerts you of everything from an enemy fleet attacking somewhere, to one of your regional governors taking a dump. The messages are categorized among production, diplomacy, etc, but the more planets you get, the more messages you’ll be bombarded with throughout the game’s days. Again, you can’t pause game time to sort through them.

The main galaxy screen is divided into multiple sectors with ten to twelve planets each, and selecting a sector opens a slightly more detailed window of these planets. Selecting a planet opens up another window detailing what’s on or orbiting the planet. From there you get separate windows for fleets, garrisons, etc. Here’s the kicker – only two windows can be open at a time (to facilitate “trading” between the two). Clicking a new window replaces or removes the original. It’s like a DOS shell version of Windows, with extremely limited functionality.

You can fold up to 12 windows down to a taskbar on the side, allowing you quick access to those planets, but the two active window limit still applies. If you’re imagining moving windows around your galactic desktop and cascading them in order – forget it. Still, even if you could do this, it doesn’t change the fact that the entire game is played through static windows and popups. If you’re ready to let out a whoop and a cheer because a window has appeared telling you you’ve captured Darth Vader, you might like the game. If you require something a little more “immersive,” well, no.

Key events from the film will happen at random times. They don’t always match the plot.

Ground battles are simple affairs of random chance, unless you stack the deck ridiculously in your favor. You can even the odds with pre-assault orbital bombings (usually at the cost of popular support), but it ultimately comes down to who has the greater number of stronger units, who will still take unexplained casualties from one “dug-in” squad. Once you think you’ve amassed a force worthy of the planet’s defenders, you simply click a “ground assault” selection and instantly receive the results of your attempt.

Space combat has the option of following a similar approach, or you can choose to take control of these battles as the commander. You will then be taken to a 3-D representation of space with some low-poly models for the ships of both sides. Your options are rudimentary, and basically consist of ordering the fighters to attack fighters, and the capital ships to attack other capital ships. There are a couple of maneuvers and battle plans that don’t mean a damn thing, and the only real advantage of this mode is the ability to tell your ships to concentrate their fire on one larger ship – which the AI would not even consider if you chose the quick resolution option. This mode is less about pulling out a victory through smart tactics, and more about making sure the engagement goes like it should on paper.

There are a couple of other little niggles as well that either make the game sound that much cooler or that much more of a headache, depending on what kind of player you are. First are the absolutely KILLER travel times. Sure, the ships have lightspeed, but that doesn’t change the fact that you’re looking at months of travel before your ships reach their destinations. From one system to another across the galaxy – around 150 game days. It offers some strategic thinking, and pretty much nullifies the ability to play a reactionary game, but it’s still a hefty punch in the nose. You can increase the speed of the game to 2x normal, but at the result of getting hammered with messages and likely losing track of the rest of your universe. So any long trips pretty much mean sending your fleet out with a “Godspeed” and forgetting about them until a message announces their arrival.

The Death Star is totally invulnerable – except to trench running fighters, natch.

In the standard game, you must take over the enemy HQ to win (Coruscant for the Rebels, a mobile Rebel HQ for the Empire). The “full game” option requires you to also capture two leading heroes from the opposite side and hold them to win the game. This almost certainly ensures that you will have to capture the ENTIRE FUCKING GALAXY to win. Otherwise, they’ll always have new places to hide, and it doesn’t do any damn good to get a message from your probe that someone important was spotted on Planet X when it will then take 59 days for your strike team to get there. Have fun.

You can build the Death Star as the Empire, but the requirements are are intentionally astronomical. One factory would take around 2800 days, assuming you even had the resources. You’re meant to build a planet full of shipyards (which grant stacking time-reduction bonuses), somehow keep it safe from the Rebels, and virtually shut down your other projects to get it built. When it’s finally done, you can, indeed, destroy planets – at the cost of every inhabited world in the galaxy immediately turning against you. Unless it’s the last blast taking out a fortified Rebel HQ, it’s not worth it.

This all means that games tend to end in abrupt cutscenes rather than dramatic final battles. Both times as the Empire, I slowly took over the galaxy and choked out any production the Rebels had. I finally stumbled across the Rebel HQ hiding (undefended, as they couldn’t afford any units) in some corner of the galaxy. The same unarmed scout ship that found it was enough to take it out, so the ending cutscene just suddenly started up. As the Rebels, I had such an overwhelming force descending on Coruscant (plus Vader already captured) that victory was totally assured. The Emperor might as well have begrudgingly trudged out with arms raised for the shackles, muttering “sure, sure…”

Rebellion has some fantastic ideas, and one benefit of the Star Wars license is that it makes for a shorter learning curve than most similar games, if you’ve seen the movies. You’ll be more familiar with the tech and the terms. Still, it’s a tough game just to play (before you even think about beating it). It’s the deepest Star Wars simulation yet made, but you’re going to need the mind of an accountant and the patience of Yoda to beat it.


The Good

Deep simulation, a number of neat ideas. True to the films.


The Bad

Interface not very efficient, simple AI, entire game is essentially moving icons around.


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