Star Wars: Galactic Battlegrounds Saga

Star Wars: Galactic Battlegrounds Saga is a real-time strategy game derived from the blending of the Star Wars hype produced by the prequel trilogy, and the golden age of real-time strategy games.  The RTS game Age of Empires II was released in that sweet spot of game development at the turn of the millennium when creative development had caught up to and in some cases outpaced graphic design.  Games in this period were a perfect blend of simple user-interface and complex tactical mechanics that made micromanagement fun but easy to grasp.  It’s no surprise that Age of Empires II, and games like it, manage to stand the test of time and continue to benefit from a dedicated fan base.  Star Wars: Galactic Battlegrounds is a prime example of this legacy.

Star Wars: Galactic Battlegrounds, released by Ensemble Studios and Lucas Arts in 2001, and its expansion pack the Clone Campaigns, released in 2002 and followed by the Saga boxed set, takes all of its design cues from Age of Empires II and its Genie graphics engine.  Players familiar with the medieval strategy game will recognize most of Galactic Battlegrounds’ conventions and mechanics.  Worker units construct civilian and military buildings and gather the game’s four resources: food, carbon, nova crystals, and ore.  Buildings produce military units of their respective types or conduct research upgrading unit combat abilities, building defense, and resource extraction speed and efficiency.

Ground units are divided into three broad groups: infantry, mechs, and heavy weapons.  Infantry units, which consist of basic infantry and specialized units for combating buildings, aircraft, and mechs, form the workhorses for most of battles as they are cheap, easy to acquire and upgrade, and most factions get the technologies to upgrade them fully.  These are the grunts from Star Wars; the battle droids, stormtroopers, and Naboo security forces.

Mechs are the quintessential armored and/or walker units of the Star Wars universe; AT-ATs, Trade Federation droid tanks, Gungan beasts, and the like serve as the armor and cavalry of the various factions.  Mechs come in three designs capable of effectively combating infantry, other mechs, or most units respectively.  The heavy Assault Mechs can also carry infantry and in some cases have a long enough range to destroy fortifications with impunity.  Heavy Weapons fill the Age of Empires niche of siege weapons and include Assault Cannons, the battering ram-like Pummels, anti-air units, and siege cannons which can out-range any defensive structure.

Air units are also included in the form of multi-purpose fighter units which get bonuses for attacking other aircraft, and ground attack bombers with combat bonuses against buildings.  Technologies can be researched to greatly improve these aircraft including the ability to better target moving units as well as gain personal shields.  The Clone Campaigns adds the Assault Cruiser, a large shielded aircraft with a slow and powerful long range attack.  Aircraft bring their own dimension of combat as they can only be targeted by other aircraft, anti-air units, and anti-air buildings.

In Age of Empires II all factions shared the same building and unit trees, what made them unique were the technologies, buildings, and units that they missed, their faction bonuses, and the unique units constructed at the castle.  In Galactic Battlegrounds this formula is continued but given a Star Wars flare that keeps the franchise themes among the eight playable factions.  Each faction has its own bonuses and unique units and misses some technologies while specializing in others.

Yet the units and buildings of every faction feature their own uniforms, architecture, and vehicle designs.  The Rebel Alliance fighter units are X-Wings which face off against Imperial fighters in the form of TIE Fighters.  Faction bonuses even correspond with their faction’s theme; for example certain Gungan buildings can be constructed underwater and the Trade Federation’s droid armies do not require housing.

Perhaps the least unique but most telling differences among faction units are the Jedi and Sith temples.  In terms of units, technologies, and mechanics the Jedi and Sith are functionally the same.  Jedi/Sith take the place of the monks from Age of Empires II, they convert enemy units and grab holocrons to bring back to their temples for additional resource income.  Unlike the passive monks, Jedi and Sith also have melee attacks in the form of their lightsabers and are very resistant to damage.

The five good-aligned factions construct the Jedi Temple and train Jedi Padawan, Knights, and Masters while the three evil-aligned factions train Sith Apprentices, Knights, and Masters from a Sith Temple.  Thematic flavor abounds: Jedi use blue lightsaber blades and the Sith use red; the Sith Master shoots lightning from his fingers as his attack.  Most Jedi factions also can be considered the most proficient in this aspect of the game, with only the Galactic Empire faction possessing reasonable competence in Sith technologies and units.

The translation of a well-known medieval strategy game into a sci-fi strategy game is actually quite smooth mechanically as well as thematically.  Understandably most combat is done at range instead of melee but distinctions of infantry, cavalry, and siege weapons remain in their strategic forms.  Mechs for example are superior to infantry in every way, but many have a minimum weapon range and are vulnerable to specialized units.  Walls and defensive towers still abound and are resistant to most attacks but vulnerable to the siege attacks of the cumbersome Heavy Weapons.  Shields are also introduced in the form of Shield Generator buildings and the Gungan unique mobile shield generator.  Shields basically act as secondary hit points for all buildings and units in their radius, healing over time and absorbing damage until depleted by enemy fire or deprived of a nearby power source.

The Galactic Battlegrounds Saga includes one tutorial campaign and seven primary campaigns.  Each faction except the Naboo get a campaign of six to eight missions inspired by the movies or the expanded universe.  Each campaign features at least one bonus mission relating to great battles from the Star Wars prequel or primary trilogies such as the Battle of Hoth or the Battle of Endor.  The Trade Federation and Galactic Empire bonus missions feature what-if scenarios from the Battle of Naboo and Battle of Endor where the Dark Side has the chance to prevail.

Skirmish battles against the AI and multiplayer random maps are also included.  The game takes its cues directly from Age of Empires II in this format, featuring standard map (including some parodies that AoE fans will recognize like Fortress and Highlands), Death Match, King of the Hill, and Nomad options.  Up to eight players can join one game and the population cap, starting resources, and starting age of technology can all be preset.

Hero units are also included, usually in the form of infantry or Jedi but occasionally as vehicles like the Millennium Falcon, and appear in most campaign missions.  Each hero has their own vocal script and features the special abilities of their unit type.  They are also available in the scenario editor, an in-game tool players can use to make their own maps and scenarios using every unit, tile, and trigger built into the game.

The original Star Wars saga has its share of epic battles and grand scenes but it is an adventure at its heart.  It’s no surprise that few strategy games have been produced around the Star Wars universe.  As such it might seem that saying Galactic Battlegrounds is one of the greatest Star Wars RTS games is superfluous.  Yet it truly is one of the best strategy experiences that gamers can find for the Star Wars universe.  It features the perfect blend of flavor and accessible mechanics that make it appealing to Star Wars fans, casual gamers, and hardcore strategy gamers.

The fact that it was developed on the foundation of one of the most endearing RTS games of all time only adds to its appeal and staying power.  If there was a flaw in this formula, it would only be that Galactic Battlegrounds strays too close to Age of Empires II’s general style while failing to equal or surpass it.  Yet obviously that was never what Galactic Battlegrounds was meant to accomplish.

While Star Wars: Galactic Battlegrounds Saga is without a doubt a Star Wars game and deserves its place in the universe it is important to remember that this game is first and foremost a terrestrial RTS.  Cloud and space tiles, which can only be crossed by flying units, can create the impression of space battles but the great Imperial Star Destroyers do not make an appearance; missions and scenarios take place planetside.  Jedi are powerful and unique but cannot deflect blaster bolts or force choke enemies (except in cutscenes).  Anyone looking to enjoy some classic RTS action Star Wars style will love Galactic Battlegrounds.  Age of Empires fans will have to unlearn a few habits but otherwise should feel right at home.  Those looking for the grand experience of the Star Wars space epic might find the Galactic Battlegrounds Saga’s generic RTS mechanics restrictive and should engage the game mindful of the older RTS legacy it is based off of.

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