When it comes to Star Wars in gaming, LucasArts has it covered. Whether it's first person shooters, third person action, or real time strategy - and even some in between the three - there seems to be a Star Wars game out there for you. While not all Star Wars titles have experienced glowing reviews over the past few years, the RTS title 'Star Wars: Empire at War' did prove to be a solid game in a very competitive genre. Now, the first of its expansion packs is seeing release - Star Wars: Empire at War Forces of Corruption - and as far as expansion packs go, you could do worse.
In the original Empire at War, you could control either the Empire itself or the Rebel Alliance. The difference between the two gameplay wise was the Empire used research and development to produce new technology imposing their will on the galaxy, while the Rebel Alliance used the black market, espionage, information leaks and flat out theft to obtain Empire technology so they could fight the Empire on an even playing field. These two differences produced distinct gameplay for each side in Empire at War. However, what Empire at War didn't portray was the people/creatures caught in between these two forces, particularly those who take neither side but instead aim to take advantage of the situation. This is where Empire at War: Forces of Corruption comes in.
FoC introduces a new force to the 'Star Wars: Empire at War' world - the Zann Consortium - set in the time period just after the Death Star has been destroyed. In a way, the Zann Consortium combines the qualities of both the Empire and the Rebel Alliance - they have selfish intentions for galactic domination like the Empire, but they steal, bribe, sabotage and intimidate their way into power and possession of weapons and technology like the Alliance rather than R&D. The Zann Consortium is lead by a human character named 'Tyber Zann' with most of the story revolving around his personal conflict with Jabba the Hutt, as well as his desire to control the underground of the entire galaxy, and secure a battleship in production rumored to be more powerful than the Death Star. On the way, you will face whoever tries to get in your path, including names made famous due to the demise of the Death Star, such as Luke Skywalker, and Yoda.
With the concept and back story aside, FoC plays very much like the original Empire at War. You have two major modes - the galactic view mode which allows you to navigate your forces and controlled planets in the galaxy, and the traditional RTS combat mode, which covers land and space combat. Basically, you control the movement and strength of your forces in the galactic view, and fight the battles in the traditional RTS view, however unlike some other games with a similar approach, both modes are in a pure real time environment and are not turn based, so while the actual tasks you undertake are different in FoC, the way you do them and the environment you do them in are more or less the same as the original. The only significant addition to the mechanics of the game is the fact you can now "zoom" in on planets 1 stop further, to the point you can now see the planet's map layout - useful for any ground invasion.
As the Zann Consortium, control of the underground is your main priority, and this means corrupting a planet to your way of thinking. To begin corruption of a planet, you first produce a 'Defiler' unit (which are pretty costly at 1400 credit) and drag him to the "spread corruption" slot of the planet you wish to corrupt. Once he arrives at the planet a dialog box then appears giving you options on which methods of corruption you'd like to use - which include creating a black market, creating a militia, and piracy to name a few. Not all corruption techniques are available for each planet, and they all cost you money initially, but corrupted planets add to your daily credit collection rate, and also unlock specific technologies and units - for instance, creating a black market on a planet lets you buy weapons you may not have had access to before.
However, this method of control in the Star Wars galaxy does come at a price - repetition. The Zann Consortium may introduce a new style of gameplay to Empire at War, but the downside to this is they have such a "step by step" approach to planetary control/corruption, that after a few times it can feel as if you're following a recipe. The fact the game's galactic view is in real time and not turn based forces you to carefully and efficiently manage your unit allocations throughout your "empire" at all times, so you are definitely almost always kept on your toes, but what lets the gameplay down a little in the galactic view mode is the fact even varied corruption techniques (like creating a black market and piracy as mentioned above) are little more than words and terms on your screen - they're all just a few mouse clicks away, accessed like you would when ordering a book online without any real interaction other than a confirmation that your command has been carried out. The idea of planet corruption being a technique in Empire at War is great, but I'm not convinced the way it is executed gives the gamer the most fulfilling experience possible. As a result, FoC is much like the original - the best gameplay is the actual RTS combat gameplay.
Secondly, another issue with the single player gameplay is the straight forward nature of the storyline. Even though you have a galaxy filled with ample planets to corrupt, many times throughout the single player campaign mode you'll basically be told "Go do this to advance the storyline", and while it's your choice whether to do that right away or to go do something else, there is rarely something else relevant to do other than small tasks, so for a meaningful single player experience that flows storyline wise, you're best of just doing what the game wants you to do next. For a game based on an environment as open as space itself, it is a little disappointing to see what is more or less a "single player experience on tracks". It isn't exactly what I would call linear, but it is definitely a little rigid.
However, these two issues really don't spoil what is otherwise a very enjoyable and well rounded single player experience. I think Star Wars fans would certainly lap FoC up as it offers an angle rarely portrayed on the Star Wars universe, but at the same time, it retains all of the elements that made the original game enjoyable to play, which was mainly the RTS gameplay itself as pointed out above. For instance, despite the fact your motives and goals have changed controlling the Zann Consortium, the game still does a great job combining land and space combat elements like the original, jumping between the two almost seamlessly, and integrating them both in most of your more serious missions, and while I think the space combat is easily the most enjoyable of the two, the land combat aspects of FoC are far from neglected, with a lot of units and features available. For example, like the original, FoC features "hero" units, this time the leader of the Zann Consortium - Tyber Zann - and 2nd in command - Urai Fen. If you attach either or both to a combat fleet, when you engage in land combat you can utilize their special abilities, such as being able to bribe enemy units to your side, which emphasise the game's corruption focus.
Visually, FoC isn't going to win any awards but by RTS standards, it is a pretty good looking game. The better visuals come in the space combat missions, where you get to see some really impressive battles. There is where one of the game's cooler features comes in - the cinematic camera mode. This allows you to witness battles like they were scenes in a Star Wars movie. You'd want to make sure you're happy with all your unit placement and commands first though, as your ability to execute battle commands becomes secondary in this camera mode. As far as system performance goes, you won't need a beasty PC to play FoC but you will definitely notice some stutters without at least mid range hardware, particularly in space combat.
Star Wars Empire at War: Forces of Corruption, like most expansion packs, is not going to redefine what was already there, but it does put a reasonably interesting twist on what was an already interesting RTS. I think some of the corruption focus could have used spicing up a little, but there is enough here to warrant a purchase for sure. If you're a fan of Empire at War, then you'll enjoy what is on offer here in Forces of Corruption, but if you never latched onto the original release, then this expansion pack probably won't be the deal breaker.