Being originally released on the N64, does the PC port of third-person/first-person ground/space shooter mix Star Wars: Shadows of the Empire suffer the same fate as Rogue Squadron 3D and disappear in the annals of forgettable licensed games or is it a timeless classic?
Shadows of the Empire (PC)
(USA 1996, developer: LucasArts (defunct), publishers: LucasArts (defunct)/Disney)/Nintendo, platforms: PC, N64)
Mercenary Dash Rendar and his droid co-pilot Leebo help the Alliance to fight against the Empire on the ice planet Hoth, then go in pursuit of bounty hunter Boba Fett to save Han Solo, prevent an attempt on Luke Skywalker’s life, and finally rescue Princess Leia from the clutches of evil crime lord Xizor.
In a cross-media galaxy far away
Shadows of the Empire was a multimedia project that included comic books, a soundtrack, toys, and other media, with this game adding to the newly created universe. As is so often the case with crossovers, especially in comics, it’s difficult to understand certain relationships or events that happened in another book or medium. Taking the plot and characters on their own merits, there isn’t a lot to get excited about, as despite knowing that it takes place between Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back and Episode VI: Return of the Jedi and features well-known hero figures like Luke Skywalker, Princess Leia Organa or Han Solo, and adversaries like bounty hunter Boba Fett, the story ends up as convoluted fan fiction. While the cut-scenes try to give a bit of background info, the individual chapters aren’t that exciting and Dash Rendar remains as uninteresting after completing the game as when one first meets him, although there are a few amusing scenes between his droid co-pilot and him.
Mixed levels and feelings
Gameplay-wise, there’s some variety in levels that usually take place in distinctive settings, although quality isn’t persistently good throughout. Starting with a nice flight section with a snowspeeder against drones and Imperial walkers, complete with bringing down a four-footed metal colossus with cables around it, the game soon turns into a run-of-the-mill third-person (or first-person, depending on one’s preferred point-of-view) on-foot action game that becomes a bit more interesting later when using a jetpack or jumping from one moving train to the next. Chasing enemies with a fast speeder bike on desert planet Tatooine almost feels like a racing game with shooting elements, adding even more variety to the level design, as ramming enemies against buildings or cutting them off by taking a narrow passage is a satisfying feeling and a welcome distraction from the more tedious on-foot segments.
Of course a Star Wars game wouldn’t be complete without space combat, so of course one can shoot TIE-Fighters, TIE Bombers, and other enemy craft, in an asteroid field or during another battle. It’s all reminiscent of the on-rails shooters Rebel Assault and Rebel Assault II: The Hidden Empire. While there’s certainly more player freedom in Shadows of the Empire due to more open levels instead of linear paths to follow in the on-foot sections that involve backtracking and switch puzzles, these segments aren’t particularly original. A checkpoint system that prevents creating savegames and rather unfair enemies-out-of-nowhere instances also add to frustration.
Moving, seeing, and believing differently
Even more aggravating are the terribly sensitive controls. No matter if one uses a mouse, keyboard or gamepad, it happens far too often that Dash literally dashes into his death, e.g. into a canyon or off moving trains. While the latter is actually a pretty cool level idea with the player jumping from one to the next and blasting enemies off the platforms or destroying incoming threats from the air, one has to be very careful to avoid too abrupt movements. Boss fights are even more difficult when one has to stop moving and manually aim at specific body parts. While these boss encounters should actually be different with the enemy designs, the tight spaces they take place in and a camera that constantly spins out of control prevent strategic combat and usually end up in frantic running and shooting around, which is especially prominent in a droid battle where one stumbles over heaps of trash and simply can’t keep a steady arm without falling down. Battling Boba Fett with a jetpack is a bit different, but it’s again difficult to hit him because of the controls.
Dying and collecting
At least one can choose between three difficulties, although the way lives are carried over from mission to mission won’t be to everyone’s liking, considering that quite a few are lost due to the broken control system and unfair enemy placements. One can collect additional lives, though, and it’s even possible to gain more by finding rebel medals that are sometimes in clear sight, but often require brave jumps or alternative level routes, which can obviously lead to more ways to die. It’s a nice risk and reward system, but replaying levels just to have more lives in even more difficult missions isn’t the best solution. However, if one loses too many lives at the end of a level, one receives a minimum number of 3 at the start of the next one. In the final space battle one can gain more lives by shooting down as many enemies as possible, which is a bit strange, but understandable, because with so many targets hitting the player’s ship, it’s easy to die in quick succession.
Nostalgia in presentation
Being an old PC port of an even older console title, the game doesn’t look particularly appealing, with some ugly character models and background textures, although explosions are quite nice, and it runs smoothly. The additional CGI cut-scenes might be a step up from the stills found in the N64 version, but it’s only when the detailed ships and some parts of the planets are shown. It’s certainly no eye-opener, even if these movie scenes are nicely edited, giving the game a much-needed cinematic feel. Fortunately, the sound design fares much better, with pretty good voice acting, a great score, and the iconic blaster sound effects creating the inimitable Star Wars atmosphere.
Many different galaxies, many different ideas, not a classic game
Star Wars: Shadows of the Empire was a highly anticipated title during the N64 era, but it also became a disappointment. It’s clear that the cross-media concept was an interesting part of a big marketing plan. This can all be seen in the PC version. A story that doesn’t make a lot of sense, except for delivering fan service, and level design that suffers from nice ideas and bad implementation, which is strange, because the variety in setting and also the changes in gameplay styles make this one of the braver attempts in game design.
Unfortunately, there are far better Star Wars games that only focus on one aspect and succeed, like Dark Forces or X-Wing Collector’s Edition. Granted, these were PC games which only worked best on the mouse/keyboard setup, but they were simply perfect with controls and camera movement as well as polished level design, something than can’t be said about Shadows of the Empire. It’s not a bad game, just a very mediocre one that tries too hard to be different.
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