Shadows of the Empire, which released on the PC and N64 in 1996, is the result of a clever idea from Lucasfilm ltd. Someone at Lucasfilm had the idea to create a story between The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi, and to realize this story in every way possible except an actual film. Media that sprung from this campaign included a soundtrack, novels, comic books, and of course the video game this review tackles. I have history with Shadows of the Empire, as I owned it for the N64 as a kid and enjoyed immensely. Playing it now on the PC allowed me to rediscover what I loved about the game, but also see its faults and rough edges.
Shadows of the Empire opens with the Hoth Battle that Star Wars fans know and love from The Empire Strikes Back. Here, players pilot a snowspeeder and try to defend Echo Base from AT-AT’s, Probe droids and AT-ST’s in an impressive-for-the-time recreation of the film scene. It’s a great start to the game and it highlights the fact that “Shadows” is not just a third person shooter. There is a lot of variety to the gameplay, which is a point in its favor.
As Han Solo has yet to be rescued from Jabba’s Palace, you play as a Han Solo-esque character named Dash Rendar. He’s another rogue smuggler whose ship, the Outrider, even bears resemblance to the Millennium Falcon. The story involves him searching for Boba Fett, and eventually facing off against the villain of the game, Prince Xizor. Unlike the N64 version, which relied on text and static images to tell it’s story, the PC version has CG cutscenes between missions. They show their age, but they do look much better than the in-game graphics by a pretty large margin. The story itself is okay, but its main problem is that virtually every cutscene is either an exposition-laden recount or set-up detailing the objectives in each level. In script writing, there’s a concept of “show, don’t tell” which means a story should be communicated with non-verbal methods as much as possible. The problem that many games have in this area is that anything worth showing is better suited to gameplay leaving cutscenes relegated to the boring stuff. Additionally, the voice acting only approaches being decent, though Dash’s robot sidekick features some solid audio design with a voice that fits that low-tech sci fi that Star Wars is known for.
On the gameplay front, Shadows of the Empire is a mixed bag. On one hand it’s a relatively competent shooter with a solid amount of variety and on the other it suffers from stiff controls that have aged poorly. Most levels are fairly linear third person shooters where players fight their way to the end, activating objectives along the way. These can also be played in first person mode, but due to the game’s abundance of platforming sections, I wouldn’t recommend playing this way. Shooting is pretty underwhelming for today’s standards due to a lack of crosshair, instead relying on a forgiving auto-aim system to take care of foes. What also hampers the experience is the poor controls that I mentioned. In the first boss battle against an AT-ST, reaching seeker ammo (enemy seeking missiles) requires jumping on destructible crates to reach elevated platforms in the room. The problem is that the jumping is floaty and turning is stiff resulting in the AT-ST often destroying the crates before you can reach the platforms, at least on medium difficulty. The quickness that enemies will drain your health led me to lower the difficulty to easy which made the game a cakewalk. It has a balance issue when it comes to difficulty, as even medium difficulty can be frustrating due to its unresponsive controls, while easy mode was a little too easy. Despite this, the levels are still enjoyable due to their solid design and Star Wars imagery. In addition to the third person shooter segments, levels have players take control of Dash’s ship and destroy enemy ships in space turret sections. These segments aren’t fun enough to be the main feature of a video game, but they help prevent things from becoming monotonous. The mos eisly-set speeder bike level where you must take out assassins by ramming them into buildings suffers from poor controls, though it’s still a fun diversion. The last problem with the game is that it is on the short side. It shouldn’t take most players more than 4-5 hours to beat the game, though there is replay incentive with the “true ending” being achieved when finishing the game on harder difficulties.
On the sound front, the game shines when it comes to music. Many of the songs, fans will recognize from the films, but several levels also feature original music composed by Joel McNeely. Joel does a good job emulating what made John Williams’ scores so good. One song in particular titled “Xizor’s Theme” sounds like what you’d get if you combined music from Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom with Star Wars themes. Where the game drops the ball in the audio department is the sound effects. The main blaster players will use throughout the game screams generic sci fi more than it does Star Wars. Even exploding ships lack a satisfying punch and sound more like static than an explosion.
Finally on the graphics end, the game shows its age of course, but it’s visuals are helped by an abundance of Star Wars imagery. A level on an imperial space ship makes the best use of Star Wars iconography as its interior resembles the Death Star in many ways. The PC version’s visuals are superior to the N64 version of the game. It sports increased resolutions, sharper textures and most notably an improved draw distance. N64 games often suffered from excessive fog due to its limitations and Shadows of the Empire was no exception. Here much more of the levels are seen and there’s even an option to turn off fog completely, though apparently, there are graphical issues when doing so.
Shadows of the Empire is a nostalgic favorite for many gamers. It has plenty of atmosphere, gameplay variety and Star Wars imagery to appeal to fans of the films, but it is somewhat let down by controls that haven’t aged gracefully. In addition, it’s short length is something to consider in an age where 8-10 hour games are usually the minimum. If you can get past some of its roughness you’ll still find a pretty enjoyable experience.
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