Monday, February 20, 2017

Review: Star Wars: Shadows of the Empire

Star Wars holds a special place in my heart, since I loved the movies and the expanded universe when I was rather young. Naturally, I also played many Star Wars video games, and in total I've probably played more Star Wars games than games set in any other universe.

Recently, Humble Bundle offered their Star Wars III bundle, and as it contained some of the games I played growing up, along with many that I hadn't played, I was quick to snap it up. Among those games was Shadows of the Empire, which is one of the leading candidates for the first Star Wars game I ever played.

How did this childhood memory stack up after all these years? experience was decidedly mixed. It was nice to revisit Shadows of the Empire, but the game has aged poorly, and I'm forced to admit that it probably wasn't all that great a game even back in its day. But, let's break it down:


These have obviously not held up well over the course of time. Textures are simplistic, models are low polygon count, there's heavy use of fog to reduce draw distances, and lighting is strictly ambient. But for their simplicity, they are functional, and you'll never have any trouble distinguishing enemies, terrain, and the various pick-ups.

The repetitive textures have the potential to contribute to disorientation in some of the more maze like levels, but since none are very large, you won't get lost for long.


If you come into this game expecting it to play like a modern FPS, you will be in for a rude awakening. The controls are, to be generous, quirky. Most notably, under the default controls, your mouse both moves your character forward and backwards and rotates the camera side to side. But wait! What about looking up and down? For that, you have to press and hold a button to enable the mouse to shift your view up and down. By default, your camera will return to the default position when you release the key. I suggest switching the controls to one with view lock, since there's a few sections where looking up or down is important.

The other major quirk with the controls is that the game autoaims for you to a certain extent, which partially compensates for the difficulty in adjusting your viewpoint. This causes problems when it's trying to hit the wrong target, or if it locks onto an enemy that's just out view instead of one you can see. Since you generally only face one or two enemies at a time, this isn't too much of a problem.
Quirks aside, the controls are largely solid once you've gotten used to them, though you have to take care not to move when you're simply trying to look to one side. Jumps are floaty, but that's also something you can adapt to.

The biggest actual problem I had with the controls was in the early section of the Gall Spaceport level. There, I found some of the ledges you have to traverse to be rather slippery, and downward slopes were treachorous. Since this level also takes place in a canyon with steep drops, this led to many unnecssary depths. Take it slow, make sure you're moving directly to your destinations, and you'll mostly be okay.

Finally, there's no in-game tutorial for the controls, so you'll have to consult the pause menu frequently until you memorize them.


For all the faults I just mentioned, Shadows of the Empire is actually fun to play. It offers a good mix of level types, with some having you piloting vehicles, while others have you making your way through facilities on foot.

The first level has you piloting a speeder in the Battle of Hoth, facing four increasingly difficult waves of Imperial forces. You even get a chance to trip up AT-ATs with a tow cable, which is the first time you could do this in a Star Wars game. In fact, this level was so popular that it led to the creation of the Rogue Squadron game, which remains one of my favorites. The only weird thing is that, despite destroying all Imperial forces sent against you, the shield generator is still destroyed through the power of plot.

A later level has you chasing speeder bikes through a city and out into a canyon, and while I found the controls for the swoop to be very sensitive and difficult to control, it has the potential to be a lot of fun once you've gotten a handle on them. Also, I remember this being the hardest level for me when I played it years ago, so finally getting it and successfully pushing enemy speeder bikes into walls and such was a great experience.

The foot levels are, on the whole, less interesting. If you take your time, attack enemies as soon as you can see them, and make sure to grab health pick ups, there's little challenge to them. The exception is the high speed train level running through the Ord Mantell junkyard, where you have to leap from car to car as you run through a landscape littered with the detritus of the Empire. The floaty controls make it more difficult than it strictly needs to be, but it's still a fast paced, intense experience that contrasts nicely with the other foot levels.

Each foot level has one or more bosses, and these represet a real challenge. You'll need to learn and respond to their patterns if you want to stand a chance of surviving, let alone defeating them. It's immensely satisfying the first time you bring down an AT-ST without damage, too, and the challenge only grows from there. You end up facing two of the bounty hunters from Empire Strikes Back, two different combat droids, and a giant sewer monster the size of a building.

The game is also short, with only ten levels in total. This is something of a mixed bag on its own, since while it means that you can get through the game in a few hours of dedicated play, it also means that it doesn't overstay its welcome.

That said, Shadows of the Empire does offer you reasons to go back and replay each level, since there's a number of Challenge Points hidden in them, and it can take some real thorough exploration to get them all. Also, your starting lives on a level depends on how you did on the previous one, so the fewer times you die and the more Challenge Points you collect, the more you'll have for the next level. This can help make some of the later levels easier, too.


Shadows of the Empire has an excellent soundtrack, and consists of tracks taken from the films with new ones composed specifically for Shadows of the Empire. They're all well suited for the levels they appear in, and help set the mood of each appropriately.


I've left this for last because, while Shadows of the Empire does have a story, it's fairly thin. The player character, Dash Rendar, is essentially meant to be a cooler stand-in for Han Solo while the latter is frozen in carbonite following the events of Empire Strikes Back. There's also glimpses of a plot by the crime lord Prince Xizor to kill Luke Skywalker and discredit Darth Vader in the eyes of the emperor, but it comes up so briefly that it's hard to make sense of what he's trying to do.

Also, there's a weird moment where you chase down and defat Boba Fett, the bounty hunter that takes Han Solo to Jaba the Hutt. But because the canon requires that Han get to Jabba's palace, Fett somehow gets away with the aid of local Imperial forces. Oh well.


So, would I recommend this game to people? The answer is, unfortunately, an unequivocal no. Between the dated graphics, quirky controls, generally lackluster levels, and excuse of a story, Shadows of the Empire has little to offer today. If you played the game and want to revisit it, or if you want to see a glimpse into this era of Star Wars game design, it might be worth a quick playthrough. But otherwise, there are better games, both in the action/FPS genre and in Star Wars in general.

However, there's some interesting moments and ideas in the game, and I plan to make use of them in the future.

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