Original Release: 2001, Platform: PC, Developer: Ensemble Studios, Publisher: LucasArts, Image Source: GOG
Star Wars is the kind of franchise associated with plucky rogues and dashing displays of bravery. It’s a universe where a humble moisture farmer can become a hero mere days after being handed their first lightsaber. The thing is, the whole thing is still technically about a war requiring strategy, forethought and armies. For every Luke Skywalker guided by the force, there are hundreds of Rebel troops that rely on tactics and orders to achieve their hard-won victory.
For some reason, that grand-scale strategy experience isn’t seen too often in Star Wars video games. One of the most memorable examples, however, was Star Wars: Galactic Battlegrounds; one of the first attempts to bring Star Wars into an RTS format. Built using the Genie engine that produced Age of Empires, Galactic Battlegrounds benefitted greatly from working with a traditional strategy game model and is still immensely satisfying even more than a decade after its original release.
A big part of Galactic Battleground‘s appeal is its attention to detail. LucasArts must have spent an impressive amount of time translating countless elements of Star Wars lore into its design. The original game includes six full factions – Empire, Rebels, Royal Naboo, Trade Federation, Wookies and Gungans – while the Clone Campaigns expansion (bundled with the GOG.com re-release) tosses in the Galactic Republic and Confederacy armies. That’s eight factions drawn from five movies, each carrying unique unit and building designs. Alone, that makes the scope of each battle varied and impressive. Want to try and prove that Stormtroopers are better than clone soldiers at their height? Well, now you can!
Unfortunately, working with the same engine means that Galactic Battlegrounds is working within Age of Empire‘s limitations as well. One of the major criticisms Battlegrounds received at the time of its release was that it was just Age of Empires with a Star Wars paint job. That’s not a bad thing, but sometimes it does sometimes feels like it’s Star Wars jumping through hoops to fit with AoE‘s mechanics. While the armies themselves look varied, the actual unit types are essentially the same. Every faction has the same array of worker, trooper, and mech types as their opponents, with the only real variation being their visuals. It’s an easy way to keep the game balanced, but raises some weird implications that simply don’t work in the context of Star Wars.
For example, why does the Trade Federation’s droid army produce food? They don’t need to eat. They need batteries, not farms. Yet you still require biological food sources (both fruit and meat) to develop new units, and can build farms and nurseries to do so more efficiently. They at least don’t require you to build shelters to increase your population or suggest that Trade Federation droids need sleep. Even so, it remains a clear sign that Galactic Battlegrounds was less concerned with Star Wars internal logic in mind than it was was with quickly crafting a balanced RTS.
Is that a problem in the grand scheme though? Not really. Galactic Battlegrounds is still a satisfying RTS game, and itsquirks are easily overlooked in the greater context of the finished product. Sticking with the Age of Empires formula allowed LucasArts to focus on producing content, instead of tinkering with new mechanics. Besides, that only really comes into play when you’re in the Standard Game mode – focusing on the story campaign is where Galactic Battlegrounds has more of a large-scale Star Wars battle feel.
Sorry, did I say story campaign? I meant story campaigns. Galactic Battlegrounds has a total of eight story arcs, each exploring events alongside the original trilogy, The Phantom Menace, and Attack of the Clones. (Revenge of the Sith hadn’t been released yet, although an Episode III campaign wouldn’t have added new factions anyway.) Each campaign tells a standalone story from the perspective of a particular faction, and challenges players with taking them through their various tribulations.
Most RTS games would prefer to focus on two primary factions, and let players choose which side they’ll guide to victory. But Galctic Battlegrounds‘ model lets you follow factions that don’t fit a particular model, allowing for more varied stories overall. Sure, everybody likes taking control of Darth Vader or Princess Leia and pitting them against each other. But what about helping a young Chewbacca settle a colony world? Or uniting warring Gungan tribes long before The Phantom Menace even began? Or bringing Chewbacca back to Kashyyyk after Return of the Jedi to free his home planet from slavers? These are the kind of plot lines that, today, would require expansions, DLC, or fan-made scenarios to explore. In Galactic Battlegrounds however, they’re simply packaged within the core game, and can be completed in any order you like. It’s a wonderful approach that would be nice to see more of in modern licensed games.
And as a special treat, if you manage to push to the end of a campaign, you’re given access to bonus missions from the films, some of which have non-canon endings. It’s well and good to play out your head canon in skirmish mode, but this is almost official. Think the Empire should have crushed the Ewoks in Return of the Jedi? Beat the Empire campaign and see if you’re right. Want to experience that spectacular Droid/Gungan battle from Episode I? Conquer either campaign and you can. While not adding anything to either story, it’s a nicetouch that should appeal to any Star Wars fan.
But what if you love Star Wars, but aren’t an RTS player? Is there still enough to make it worthwhile? Speaking personally – as a gamer who rarely plays RTS games – Galactic Battlegrounds was still enjoyable and does well at easing in beginners. One of the campaigns is purposely introduced as a “Basic Training” arc, giving you lots of opportunities to practice game mechanics before capping the story with a full-blown war. That’s not to say the mechanics can’t sometimes be too complex – even within the tutorial there are a few points where it feels like too much information is being processed at once. But by and large, it goes a long way toward making you comfortable with the rules before throwing you into one of the more advanced campaigns.
One thing that did disappoint me, was that Star Wars: Galactic Battlegrounds doesn’t really have space battles to speak of. There’s a mission on an asteroid, but most levels put you in control of ground units. While you can unlock various spaceships, they’re not actually going to space – just supporting your ground troop campaign. Granted, this probably stemmed from its Age of Empire origins. The Romans never went to space that I’m aware of. It’s still something though, that keeps Galactic Battlegrounds from feeling like a “true” Star Wars strategy game.
Regardless, that’s far from a deal breaker. Star Wars: Galactic Battlegrounds is a well-designed RTS that embraces Star Wars‘ varied universe as well as classic strategy gameplay. The benefits of the experience far outweigh the faults, and its well worth picking up at GOG.
Come back next week for Marla Desat’s review of Star Wars: Rogue Squadron followed by Stew Shearer’s take on Dark Forces II: Jedi Knight!