Game Name:  Star Wars: Rebellion
Developer:  Coolhand Interactive
Publisher:  LucasArts
PC Release Year:  1998
Review Date:  May 8, 2016

It is a time for childish things, though I am not entirely sure what triggered this state of mind.  Perhaps it is all just coincidental, and the journals, board games, trading cards, and other relics from my past, which I have uncovered as I prepare the nursery for our family’s latest addition, have simply sparked in me a deep sense of nostalgia.  Alternately, it could be a subconscious effort to indulge in the frivolities of youth one last time before the baby’s birth completes that final leg on my journey to adulthood.  Either way, I happened across my copy of Star Wars: Rebellion and I immediately felt the need to boot it up.  Back in middle school, well before I could experiment with PC games from the comfort of home, my oldest friend and I played this title in marathon sessions from his basement.  Jumping into a new campaign today brings back all those wonderful memories of arguing over where to send our Death Star and what to name our most recently completed Star Destroyer.  Without this history, though, I would be hard-pressed to provide a recommendation.  There are definitely some great ideas on display in this 4X title, like making character agents feel as important in game as they are in the Star Wars films, but the design is a little too dated for it to stand up against modern competition.

The first mark against Rebellion is how utterly bewildering it is to new players.  Sure, the underlying goal is easy enough to grasp in that the Rebel Alliance or Galactic Empire is trying to conquer the galaxy, but how to go about that is the million dollar question.  Paradox’s grand strategy series like Crusader Kings and Europa Universalis notwithstanding, most of today’s games in this genre space find a way to ease players into their dense economic, diplomatic, and military systems with a tutorial or some type of learning campaign.  It would be unfair to say LucasArts failed to provide any direction at all, since C-3PO or his grumpy imperial doppelganger gives a characteristically whiny overview of the galaxy’s state and game interface at the start of every playthrough.  However, this is over far too quickly and the onus shifts back onto players to feel their way through the campaign with a combination of trial, error, and an unintuitive in-game encyclopedia to figure things out like which troop types excel at assaulting planets and which are better at ferreting out secret enemy missions. 

I think it is fair to say that most people expect a steep learning curve when they dive into this style of game, but Rebellion’s design choices take this to extremes with mechanics that are so unintuitive that it is hard to tease out even the basics without external research.  For example, there are three resources in the game: raw materials, refined materials, and maintenance points.  Without reading about it, how is a gamer supposed to know that they can only increase their maintenance capacity, which pays for ongoing support of troops, ships, and agents, with each constructed pairing of a mine and refinery?  Alternately, how are they supposed to know that in order to simulate some type of intergalactic supply chain, raw materials are only used in the production of refined goods, so players are supposed to keep their stockpile of these relatively low?  Yet, understanding these facts is a prerequisite for the type of success that will not come easy, especially when the developers eschewed a traditional turn-based approach to gameplay in favor of a real-time free-for-all that essentially attaches a timer to this learning curve.  Do not be surprised to finally grasp the mechanics, only to find yourself restarting a new game so as not to play with a handicap.

For those who choose to slog through this learning process, Rebellion presents players with one of the most boring and tedious game interfaces imaginable.  To understand why, imagine if the Star Wars franchise decided to have sex with an early ‘90s Windows operating system; this would have been their love child.  At first glance, it does not appear this way.  After all, there is a sweet simplicity to the galactic map that lulls players into a peaceful state of contemplation.  Then C-3PO will interrupt the quiet with worried comment that that there happens to be a message from one of your production facilities.  OK, time to open up the message summary window to begin navigating towards the manufacturing messages.  With that complete, you find out that the Sollustan soldiers being trained on Ryloth are complete.  Knowing that a lot of enemy activity has been occurring on Corellia, it would be best to send them there.  Better open up the window for the Orrus Sector, before finding the planet Ryloth and opening up its defense force screen.  Now the time has come to open up a new window from the galactic map for the Corellian Sector in order to bring up a window for the region’s namesake planet.  Now that these two windows are sitting side by side, the regiment in question can be dragged and dropped from one location to another, like moving files between folders.  I am exhausted just thinking about this obtuse process, and this was just one of the many commands that will need to be made throughout a typical campaign.

Perhaps the real shame of these problems is that they help to mask Rebellion’s strength, which is that it captures the essence of Star Wars far better than any other creation by LucasArts.  Think about those movies for a moment.  At least until Rogue One arrives in theatres, can any of them even remotely be considered a war film?  And yet, that is exactly what gets shoved down gamers’ throats when they are tasked with making an attack run on a Star Destroyer or tripping an AT-AT for the umpteenth time.  As cool as these action-packed moments are, developers who make such games miss the whole point of the franchise, which, based solely on an objective measure like screen time, is mostly about wildly imaginative characters playing their own individual roles in a larger-than-life conflict.  That is why we see Luke confront Vader in Empire Strikes Back as a way of saving his friends, or Han leading a commando team against the second Death Star’s shield generators in Return of the Jedi, and these are exactly the types of scenarios the game works to create with its mission system.  In a rather refreshing twist on the genre, fleets and armies may be a prerequisite for capturing and controlling territory, but good luck assaulting a planet without sabotaging its defenses first, or being prepared to win the people’s hearts and mind after the invasion.  If it seems complex, that is because it is, but this goes a long way towards creating character interactions that provide a more interesting roleplaying experience than what can be found in a traditional RPG.

With this type of hot and cold review, it is important to make clear that I really loved my return to Rebellion.  Sure, the reliance on agents is taken to extremes in that there were only three major space engagement in the entirety of my playthrough, and when these tactical battles did occur in the same way Total War clashes play out as an entirely separate affair from the campaign, the graphics were a dumpster fire of backwards flying Starfighters and indistinguishable capital ships with crappy 3D models.  However, it was just plain fun for me to inhabit this world again and experience all of the unconventional scenarios that occur, like watching the Empire trying to sway a planet through diplomacy or the Rebel Alliance ruthlessly crushing a guerilla uprising with military force.  There are a subset of gamers who would find just as much enjoyment in this as I did; fans of 4x titles, Star Wars, or interesting strategy game mechanics immediately spring to mind, and they would do well to pick up a copy of this game the next time GOG or Steam is doing a sale.  For the rest of the gaming population, though, Rebellion is a much harder sell.  Realistically speaking, it is a ponderous and ugly creation that asks a little too much of new players before any payoffs are realized.  In that respect, it is not worth a broader recommendation.

Verdict:  Not Recommended