It had to happen eventually. The only thing LucasArts loved more than pimping out its Star Wars franchise, was staying on the cutting edge of technology. So when galactic conquest simulations became the new buzzword, you could have bet dollars to doughnuts that you’d be seeing a galactic conquest simulation Star Wars game. This is that game.
Actually, this is a better fit than most genres Star Wars has tried to squeeze into. 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 sieze 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?
Well, in terms of content, the game offers pretty much everything you can expect and 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 near 200 planets) Each planet you capture offers limited space for building mines and factories, which collect ore and convert it into points, which then go toward building structures or units. Distant, barren planets can be colonized by your forces. “Core” systems with populated worlds have the additional factor of their inhabitants to consider. If they like your side, things will be naturally easier for you, and 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.”
Next, the unexpected: There aren’t as many differences between the two sides as you would think, but those that exist are certainly true to the films. Each side has a number (decided by the size of your universe) of recruitable heroes that are vastly better at varying skills than regular “buildable” units. The Rebellion generally has better diplomats and espionage agents, while the Empire has better military commanders. The primary purpose of these heroes are to either include in land or space garrisons, thereby boosting their defense and effectiveness, or to send on a number of missions that include Recon, Assassination, 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, with the amount of information retrieved dictated by the percentage success of the mission. Diplomacy is 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 even need garrisons anymore. However, they take up an officer’s valuable time, and like real diplomacy, do run the risk of getting mired and having no effect.
The rest of the missions are pretty self-explanatory, and often one operation feeds 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 benfactors 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.
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. I played as the Empire against the Rebellion; who benefit from a mobile headquarters. By the end of the game (some thousands of game days later), the Rebel HQ was right where it was at the beginning of the game. The AI enjoys pumping out miserable and cheap ships that form into sequentially-numbered fleets (giving you an idea of how many ships are out there), who then fly into orbit where they encounter a single medium-sized enemy ship, turn ass, and flee. 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, and 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.
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 incredibly poor design decisions to overcome. The most obvious is the decision to have the game take place in a “sort of real-time” system instead of pure turn-based. Running a galaxy is not an easy task in any way, and you’re required to take care of a lot of micromanagement without much of a break to help. Worse yet is the inexcusable possibility that you may need to walk away from the game for more than a day. Upon your return, you’ll be damn lucky to remember everything that needs to be done on each specific planet. I had some scribbled notes after one session like “Bolster defense at Coruscant” and the cryptic “2 officers to Mon Cal” but they made very little sense by the time I had returned. There was simply too much to keep track of.
To attempt to offset this, your galactic map (which you will play mostly the entire game from) has many options to highlight planets that meet specific factors – like a toggle for planets with shipyards, or a toggle for planets with idle production facilities. 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). But the major problem is that the real-time system means you can’t pause the game to toggle through your deficiencies and correct them accordingly before moving on – pausing throws up a big “Game Paused” screen over your view and stops all input of commands.
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 literally like a DOS shell version of Windows, with extremely limited functionality. You can fold windows down to a taskbar on the right, allowing you quick access to them, 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.
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 awfully poor models for the ships of both sides. Even here, 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.
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 forty to seventy days of travel before your ships reach their destinations. From one system to another across the galaxy – around 150. 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.
Also, the game requires you to 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.
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. And, through time and persistence, you can build the Death Star and start blowing up every planet in your way. Still, it’s a bitch of a game just to play (before you even think about beating it) without offering much in return. If you’ve got an imagination that can get excited by seeing little windows pop up telling you about major galactic events, have the patience of Yoda, and the mind of an accountant, you might have some fun here. Otherwise, it’s better than its reputation, but still a tough game to recommend.
Deep simulation, a number of neat ideas.
Interface not very efficient, simple AI, entire game is essentially moving icons around.