Every Star Wars title makes a few awkward concessions to the movies—whether it's working in catchphrases like "I've got a bad feeling about this," or making room for powerful Jedi without letting them wipe every enemy off the screen. In Empire At War, the franchise's latest and definitely greatest real-time strategy game, the Empire chases down the Rebellion in the years leading up to the first Death Star. But the model doesn't quite fit: The game pits warring empires against each other, yet it tries to convince players that the rebels are sneaking around between hidden bases, while the Empire is an invincible juggernaut. And strategy buffs will complain that by making the game accessible to a wide and amateur audience, the developers stripped down the tactics; instead of worrying about detailed resource management, you simply make money through conquest, then spend it on your military.
But the brand also has its upsides—namely, that the troops and vehicles are so much fun to control. It's incredibly satisfying to direct a squadron of rebel speeders, or send a lurching column of AT-ATs against an enemy base. The space battles also look and feel fantastic. Your X-Wings can swarm like gnats around the Imperial Star Destroyers, weakening them section by section. And while the Rebellion has iconic heroes—Han Solo even comes with his own one-liners—it's hard to resist playing the Empire. On the dark side, you work your way up to building a Death Star and wiping out any planet that resists you, and true to the movie, you even get to throw the big switch to set it off.
Beyond the game: The clever but buggy "cinematic view" lets you watch the battle through dramatic close-ups and exciting vantages. Unfortunately, the computer cameraman has a knack for missing the best shots.
Worth playing for: The diverse worlds and aliens, from the wasp-like Geonosians to the surprisingly mobile Hutts, bring life and detail to each battle.
Frustration sets in when: Not every indigenous population or pirate's nest is worth routing, and as you wade through the unimportant battles, it's tempting to lean on the "Auto-Resolve" feature to finish them off.
Final judgment: Sure, you could find a deeper or better-tuned strategy game—but this one has AT-ATs.