If you thought Star Wars finally ended last year with "Episode III: Revenge of the Sith," think again. The space opera appears destined to live longer than Jedi Master Yoda as a series of video game spinoffs.
The latest, "Star Wars: Empire at War," (Rated T, $49.99) occasionally captures the cinematic excitement but lacks the variety to keep gamers coming back for more.
After the familiar music score and scrolling text kick things off, you lead either the Rebel Alliance or the Empire in the ongoing turf war for control of the galaxy.
You don't get to be ruler of the universe without a fight.
Conquering a planet involves amassing large fleets of space cruisers, soldiers and armored vehicles. Usually, you'll have to assault opposing space defenses, then conduct a ground assault.
You'll have to always be thinking about your ability to spread forces evenly to continually gain territory - and prevent losing it again.
There are several styles of play.
Skirmish mode is a free-for-all turf battle against computer or human opponents on the Internet.
I sharpened my skills in campaign mode, where it becomes clear there's lots of managing to be done. I was constantly zipping from one planetary system to another, building forces, upgrading space stations, reacting to enemy attacks and plotting my next move.
The vague story in campaign mode picks up after "Sith" but before "A New Hope," with the Empire's apparent glide to galactic domination sidetracked by some pesky group called the Rebel Alliance.
Like the often odd dialogue of the films, perfect with this game not all is.
Many of the characters' voices don't sound right. Instead of the mechanized villainy of James Earl Jones as Darth Vader, we get... Scott Lawrence? Try as he might, this Vader's missing a certain sinister sound.
At least we get to control him and more than a dozen other heroes, including Emperor Palpatine and Obi-Wan Kenobi.
The visuals are less than stellar by today's high PC game standards.
Imperial Star Destroyers, Mon Calamari Cruisers, even the vaunted Death Star look menacingly great from a distance. But zoom up close, as you'll often want to do during battle, and you'll see some rather ugly, blocky graphics. The rippling, colorful explosions at least make up for some of the overall unsightliness.
There's a movie mode where the action unfolds at different camera angles, but it's mostly an unused feature. Being so busy controlling the ebb and flow of battle, why would I want to sit back and watch myself lose? A way to edit and create your own dogfight flicks would have been far more interesting.
A lack of variety limits the longevity of "Empire at War." With only two sides to fight for, the very thing that makes Star Wars such an enduring tale of good versus evil ultimately prevents gamers from enjoying a richer, more engaging experience.
Two and a half stars out of four.
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