A Star Wars game built on the game engine of Age of Empires II. It made for one hell of a sales pitch back in 2002, and I would thoroughly enjoy a remake of Star Wars: Galactic Battlegrounds even today. Ensemble Studios’ stab at the iconic sci-fi franchise is often brushed aside as a mere reskin, but there’s more to it. Age of Empires players found themselves at home across Galactic Battlegrounds’ planet-hopping thanks to its economy and counter systems being lifted off the RTS that launched a thousand trebuchets. But underneath the similarities lies a genuine attempt to capture the magic of Star Wars’s pivotal moments.
Galactic Battlegrounds featured six races whose buildings and units varied greatly in terms of appearance and design. Right from the Command Centers to the Spaceports and Fortresses, each structure echoed the culture of its inhabitants and anchored me to their ambitions. It would be incredible if Respawn’s upcoming strategy game packed a roster with the sheer range that Galactic Battlegrounds possesses. Canon accuracy was not one of the game’s strong suits though. X-wings didn’t exist at some points with respect to the in-game timeline, and Wookiees certainly weren’t rolling about in tanks.
Galactic Battlegrounds’ campaigns focused on the triumphs and setbacks across multiple Star Wars films. Picture the Imperial assault at the battle of Hoth or Chewbacca’s tussle against the Trade Federation for Alaris Prime. While I’m glad LucasArts focused on fun over a more realistic depiction of the films’ stories, this decision had its fair share of critics.
Despite its imperfect assembly of Star Wars’s beloved history, the game nails what any fan would expect from an RTS bearing the Star Wars moniker. And with six campaigns covering the exploits of the franchise’s significant factions, Galactic Battlegrounds covers a lot of ground. Lightsaber duels? Check. AT-AT walkers paving through snowy paths? Check. Darth Vader himself? You bet.
The game’s economy, while similar to that of Age of Empires II, presents its own race-specific tricks. Just don’t ask me why worker droids cost food. Carbon, nova crystals, and ore take over from Age of Empires’ wood, gold, and stone. And while hunting Dewbacks and Orrays for food has its own charm, it’s hard to ignore Galactic Battlegrounds’ traditional approach to resource gathering. Fortunately, its military units spice things up.
While Age of Empires’ historic battles featured both melee and ranged units, Star Wars’ futuristic bent makes blasters the norm. Some units also have access to shields that regenerate. Each of Galactic Battlegrounds’ sides had the same unit composition, ranging from variants of basic troopers to mounted ones or those rocking anti-air or anti-infantry gear. Mechs and aircraft came in multiple flavors too. Turns out that Age of Empires’ counter-based combat was just as effective with blaster fire and monitor artillery rounds. Unique upgrades and bonuses fleshed out these differences, rewarding specific play styles while keeping most strategies feasible.
Each civilization had access to unique units like the Wookiee Berserker and the Galactic Empire’s Dark Trooper. The Naboo’s Royal Crusader was a personal favorite, an elegant mounted unit that was great against mechs and troopers. Traits like the Gungans’ faster food gathering and the Trade Federation foregoing the need to build prefab shelters for raising the population cap further divided these asymmetric factions. These decisions didn’t go on to define the genre. And yet, all these differences came together for some spectacular battles.
Galactic Battlegrounds featured iconic scenarios that didn’t necessarily follow the Star Wars playbook. Yes, it has Vader and stormtroopers hunting Rebels on Yavin and Skywalker decimating enemy lines. But I fondly remember its nameless heroes, skirmishes where a handful of powerful units would mow through lines of enemy troopers without any reinforcements. As a kid, I’ll never forget optimizing my build order to crank out a bizarre mix of soldiers based on how they looked, counters be damned.
Spamming units of a single type usually sent me back to a previous save file. I resorted to padding my troopers with mechs on the ground and aircraft across the skies. The game also featured stealth segments with Jedi. It’s a task that’s nearly impossible to pull off outside the campaign because of how easy it is to detect hidden units.
Reliving memorable battles and meeting recognizable heroes from Star Wars lore is always enough of a reason to pick up a Star Wars game. But Galactic Battlegrounds leans on its solid foundation to go beyond those expectations. Backed by a solid economy system and counter-based combat, its gameplay makes for countless enticing engagements. The game’s campaigns take complete advantage of this by juggling smaller-scale missions and all-out warfare with ease.
As a longtime Age of Empires player, I was pleasantly surprised by the changes that Galactic Battlegrounds made to stand alongside its history-focused sibling. It’s a template ripe for inspiration, and I hope Respawn’s crack at the genre adopts some of the magic that makes Galactic Battlegrounds relevant even today.