My top three real-time strategy games of all time are Total Annihilation, Starcraft, and Age of Empires II: The Age of Kings. Not appearing on that list, or anywhere close to that list, is Star Wars: Force Commander. LucasArts released Force Commander in 2000, and while the game had an excellent storyline, its graphics and mechanics were terrible. Well, perhaps LucasArts realized that creating real-time strategy engines wasn’t their forte, because the next time they decided to create a real-time strategy game, instead of making their own engine, they hooked up with Ensemble Studios to gain access to the Age of Kings engine. The result is Star Wars: Galactic Battlegrounds, a real-time strategy game that doesn’t break any new ground, and which has a distinct Age of Kings feel to it, but which is fun to play nonetheless.
In Galactic Battlegrounds you get to control one of six civilizations. The Rebel Alliance and the Empire are two of the civilizations, of course, and the other four are the Gungans (the amphibious creatures from Naboo), the Royal Naboo (the humans from Naboo), the Trade Federation (the “roger, roger” robots), and the Wookiees. Given that there have been four movies, that’s a fairly heavy reliance on The Phantom Menace, but I guess some of the other groups we’ve seen, like the Ewoks and the sand people, couldn’t realistically be turned into full civilizations. (And I doubt LucasArts minds giving The Phantom Menace a little extra advertising, anyway.)
The civilizations in Galactic Battlegrounds work just like they did in Age of Kings. That is, they’re basically identical. Each civilization gets the exact same mix of units and buildings, and they only differ in minor ways: they can research different things, their units and buildings might have slightly different statistics, they each get a unique unit, and they each look different. The last difference might be the most important because LucasArts really captured the look and feel of the Star Wars universe, and they did an excellent job of matching up things we’ve seen in the movies to units in the game. For example, LucasArts didn’t just give the Rebel Alliance a generic peasant unit, they let them use R2 units for that purpose, which is cool. And just about everything else from the movies -- AT-ATs, X-wings, stormtroopers, and bounty hunters, to name but a few -- is in the game as well. Galactic Battlegrounds is nothing if not complete.
But while LucasArts did a good job of making the game look like Star Wars, it still plays like Age of Kings. There are still four resources to gather, and while, for example, carbon has replaced wood, the resources still do about the same things in Galactic Battlegrounds as they did in Age of Kings. And other elements of the game are simple translations as well: spaceports have replaced marketplaces, Jedi (or Sith) have replaced priests, and “pummels” have replaced battering rams. And so Galactic Battlegrounds is a traditional real-time strategy game in much the same mold as Age of Kings: you need to gather resources so you can build an army so you can crush your foes. It’s a tried-and-true formula, but it works.
Luckily, though, LucasArts didn’t just give the Age of Kings engine a new paint job and call it a new game. They made some additions to gameplay, just because of the difference in tech levels of the games if nothing else. And so Galactic Battlegrounds has things like flying units and shielding, and you have to build power cores to keep your buildings powered. And while farms are still handled in exactly the same way (blech), LucasArts introduced the animal nursery, where you can put domestic animals (nerfs instead of sheep) and receive a stream of food for your efforts. Not only does that give you an alternative to farms, but it also adds some extra strategy: do you slaughter the animal for immediate food, or do you put it in a nursery and hope the game lasts long enough for the investment to pay off? Sure, the differences between the games aren’t huge, but there are enough wrinkles here and there that you should be entertained, even if you played Age of Kings until you got sick of it.
Galactic Battlegrounds comes with six campaigns (totaling 43 scenarios), and the campaigns do exactly what they should: they show off the capabilities of the game, and they do so in an interesting manner. One of the campaigns is a tutorial, and LucasArts did a nice job of not only having it show people how to play the game, but also in linking the scenarios together to tell a story. Similarly, the other campaigns tell stories, but none of them are as compelling as the one in Force Commander, and none of them are linked together. Instead, LucasArts relied more on making the individual scenarios interesting (call it the Westwood approach). They made good use of triggers to keep things lively, and they mixed up objectives and game types so that you’re not always just building a base and then destroying the enemy’s base. Plus, you get to revisit the battles on Hoth, Endor, and Naboo (from both sides, no less), and take a tour of other locations from the movies.
Of course, making interesting scenarios in Galactic Battlegrounds is easier than in most other real-time strategy games, because Galactic Battlegrounds inherited the campaign / scenario editor from Age of Kings, one of the best ever made. Fans created thousands of scenarios and campaigns for Age of Kings using the editor, and LucasArts, perhaps hoping for the same thing here, went out of their way to make interesting objects available to the editor. And so there is a wide variety of terrain types (including a cloud terrain for Cloud City scenarios), just about every character in the movies gets a hero unit, and there are all sorts of eyecandy elements, from flowers to abandoned temples to the main reactor exhaust from the Death Star. Even the Ewoks get some units. So while the campaigns included with the game might take you 50 hours to complete, Galactic Battlegrounds should stay on your computer far longer than that, even if you don’t like to play games in multiplayer mode.
Unfortunately, one of the sore points for the game is its graphics. Galactic Battlegrounds is based on an engine that’s over two years old now, and the graphics show its age. And this is especially true since other real-time strategy games coming onto the market recently, like Battle Realms and S.W.I.N.E., have had pretty slick 3D engines. Galactic Battlegrounds’ engine just can’t compare, and while you won’t have any trouble telling units apart or anything like that, certain things, like fires and explosions, just look bad. LucasArts makes up for this by adding lots of detail and variety, but it’s a question of quality versus quantity. So while I’m glad Darth Maul isn’t just a standard Sith unit with extra hit points (he gets his double light saber and everything), I’d just as soon the game looked better as a whole.
The sound, meanwhile, is first rate. Everything sounds just like it should, including the voice actors, who not only act their lines pretty well, but also do a commendable job of impersonating the characters from the movies. In fact, some of the lines are so good that it wouldn’t surprise me to learn they had been cut-and-paste directly from the movies. Plus, the background music is excellent, but then LucasArts cheated and just used the music from the movies.
Galactic Battlegrounds has some technical problems, which is surprising since it is using an old and (you’d think) polished game engine. But the AI is pretty bad. Military units seem far more interested in attacking things like walls and shelters than they do in fighting anything important, and enemies always attack in a straight line from their base to yours, making their sorties easy to defend. Plus, enemies don’t always notice if you attack them while they’re en route to their destination, and sometimes you can decimate large groups of units without even taking a shot. But the real -- and most surprising -- problem has to do with performance. Galactic Battlegrounds has fairly modest requirements. I mean, it only requires a graphics card with 2 MB on it. But for some reason it was stutter city on my computer, which should have been able to handle the game easily. Even using the smallest screen resolution and the lowest graphics detail I had problems, and I don’t understand why. Luckily, I haven’t heard other people having problems, but it’s still something to be aware of.
Galactic Battlegrounds is a solid but unspectacular real-time strategy game. If it had come out two years ago, it would have been something to behold, but now it feels a little dated and a little familiar. Still, it faithfully reproduces the Star Wars universe, and it faithfully captures the gameplay from Age of Empires II: The Age of Kings. Overall, I liked the game, and I think fans of Star Wars or Age of Kings will like the game -- but that probably includes everybody likely to buy a computer game, so chances are you’ll like the game, too.