So, Who Talks First. Do You Talk First?
This is not a series about games you haven’t heard of. This is a series about games EVERYONE has heard of. Games that everyone has an opinion on, regardless of whether they’ve played them or not. Games whose actual qualities have been buried in a narrative, whether good or bad. Games that everyone always makes the exact same comments about. Games that are in desperate need of…a Second Opinion.
Hi, everybody. Doctor I Coleman here, PhD in extra sauce. Now, I know what you’re thinking. You just got done listening to me tell you that this is a series about games “everyone has heard of”, but the title of this feature indicates it’s about the relatively obscure Star Wars: Galactic Battlegrounds. Well, I won’t lie to you, I wasn’t sure about doing this one myself until I saw a feature that is at time of writing still on the front page of Rock Paper Shotgun calling it “a rather dull Age of Empires reskin.” And that just won’t do. Galactic Battlegrounds has been brushed aside as a forgettable seven out of ten game for far too long, and it’s time to set the record straight with a Second Opinion.
Besides, lord knows we could use some positive Star Wars news this week. I’m [writing] recording this the day before it goes up, so I can only assume two or three more beloved celebrities have died by the time you’re reading this.
So. Assuming you’re one of the many who aren’t that familiar, Star Wars: Galactic Battlegrounds was released in 2001, with an expansion pack, Clone Campaigns, released to tie in with the 2002 release of Episode II: Boy It’s Gonna Be Really Hard To Like Anything Star Wars After This Garbage, Huh. It was built on the Age of Empires II engine and as a result it often gets written off both at the time and in the modern day as an Age of Empires clone. And, well, sure, that’s not entirely unfair. Like Age of Empires II, Galactic Battlegrounds is a 2D real-time strategy game that focuses on advancing through four ages, featuring civilizations that have basically the same units except for a unique unit built from a fortress, and pretty much the same maps and game modes. And if you don’t like Age of Empires, you’re probably not gonna much care for this game. But as a lifelong fan, I can tell you that Galactic Battlegrounds is the absolute best of the series, and in my personal opinion, the best RTS of all time. If you are a hardcore fan of AoE2, and I know a few of you follow me, get ready to dunk your copy into the trash so that you can download this superior version.
First of all, I want to address the argument that being a quote-unquote “clone” is a bad thing. Sure, if it had been literally the same game with a Star Wars coat of paint, I would have…well, I’m a bad benchmark, because I love both of those things so much I probably still would have gotten it, but that wouldn’t have made it a good thing. But this industry – and some of the best things to come out of it – are built on so-called clones. Let’s not forget that for a long time, the accepted term for the genre we’d later call “First Person Shooters” was “Doom clone”, and yet nobody has a problem with games like Heretic, or the excellent and under-appreciated Strife, even though they used the same engine and basic mechanics of their better-known predecessor. League of Legends may be a DoTA clone, but that doesn’t stop it from being the most-played online game in the world. Even when the comparison isn’t as direct, every game you like – heck, every piece of art you enjoy – is probably ripping something else off, whether directly or indirectly. Because great ideas don’t happen in a vacuum, and there’s nothing wrong with using something else as a jumping off point, so long as you do indeed jump off.
And Galactic Battlegrounds does expand on its predecessor in a lot of ways. First of all, it actually works to make every civilization unique. Yeah, every civilization has the same buildings and variations on the same pool of units, but unlike Age of Empires II, which disregarding the new HD version only has four different kinds of buildings, every civilization has unique architecture, pulled straight from the movies. And every unit has a secondary name below its generic name saying what it’s actually called in the Star Wars universe. This helps every civilization have personality and character while keeping the game mechanics that made Age of Empires so great intact. And it’s a small touch, sure, but it shows this was a project with a lot of love, effort, and time put into it, not just some rushed movie tie-in. And the different artwork for each civ nicely demonstrates its strengths and weaknesses too – you can tell the Wookies have the best troopers in the game because their soldiers tower over everyone else. Conversely, the Empire has the best mech units, and you can tell because they’re AT-freaking-ATs.
But Galactic Battlegrounds’ civilizations aren’t just prettier than Age of Empires II’s. They’re also balanced. Now, listen, guys, I love AoE2, I do, I even have an AoE2 series on [our YouTube channel] this very channel (plug, plug, plug), but we need to be honest with ourselves – they weren’t even trying when it came to balance. That’s why every competitive tournament is Huns on Arabia, Aztecs on Arena, and Vikings on the one reluctantly-added water map. Other than maybe Mongols for flavor or the Spanish if you want to get really crazy, why would you bother playing anything else at a competitive level? And some of the civilizations, like the Franks, are just complete garbage.
Conversely, every civilization in Galactic Battlegrounds is competitively viable. Part of that is because there’s not as many civilizations, so you can have The One That’s Good At Mechs, The One That’s Good At Jedi, etc., rather than The Seven Or Eight That Have Cavalry Bonuses, Some Of Which Pretty Much Have To Be Objectively Better Than Others. And part of that is because, well, LucasArts actually gave a crap. Not only do all of the civilizations have useful strengths, but none of them are only good at one thing. It’s not like the Wookies are only good at troopers – they also have strong air and decent enough mech and Jedi lines that there’s nothing they’re not going to be able to counter at least to some extent. As a result, even if the enemy effectively counters your troopers, you have other options, you’re not locked into one thing.
The only civilization that really is the worst in most situations is the Gungans. They’re really good at the water and they have a cool unique unit, but all of their other stuff is way too expensive for the value you get from them. But let’s be honest – do you want the Gungans to be good? Or do you want to kill them, over and over again, making them pay for every second of Phantom Menace’s feels-like-eight-years runtime. I mean, what are you gonna do, play as the Gungans? You wanna spend the whole time you’re playing listening to hundreds of clones of Jar Jar Binks?
I didn’t think so.
But it’s not just that the civilizations are better balanced. The actual mechanics of the game have been changed to a major degree and, in my opinion, all for the better. It’s no longer just a game of rock-paper-scissors where infantry beats cavalry beats archers beats infantry. Now every military line has counters for other things – regular troopers are pretty good against everything in large enough numbers but can easily be picked off by air ships, which is why you have anti-air troopers, which in turn are very vulnerable to strike mechs, which is when you pull out the mounted troopers. The result of this is that strategy in Battlegrounds is less about memorizing the counters and more about knowing how to use your units, where to allocate resources, and when to do so.
Plus, it means that everything just feels more powerful. In terms of game feel, I can’t think of any RTS experience more satisfying than watching hordes of super battle droids overwhelm the enemy’s town, or watching your AT-ATs stomp unimpeded across the map, or converting everything your opponent owns with dozens of Jedi masters. Compare that to building lots of weak counters in Age of Empires, or just trying to execute the perfect meta in StarCraft. Both games I love, mind you, but not nearly as satisfying or just plain fun as Galactic Battlegrounds. And this may be a controversial opinion, but having fun is the reason I play videogames.
And all this is without talking about how the Jedi is so much better and more interesting than Age of Empires II’s slow-moving highly-situational monk unit, or how the addition of spaceships adds a whole new dimension to play, quite literally, forcing you to think about threats that can come from anywhere at any time, or the addition of the power core and all the changes to strategy that entails, or animal shelters versus dumb sheep herding micro, or the awesomely ridiculous and stupid unit that is the Air Cruiser. If you think that Galactic Battlegrounds is a straight clone of Age of Empires II, you obviously haven’t played the game in a long time.
And then there’s perhaps the game’s greatest achievement, and probably the biggest reason to keep playing today. You see, Galactic Battlegrounds managed something no other Age of Empires game has: a fun campaign. (Okay, fine, Age of Mythology was good too, but none of the mainline games.) See, campaigns are a tricky thing in Age of Empires. The engine’s not really built for it. Most good RTS campaigns – and I’m just gonna use StarCraft II as an example here since I mentioned it earlier– provide a different experience than the base game. In StarCraft II you get to use more power ful units, fight different enemies with interesting constraints, or – in one particularly well-known level – defend yourself from zombies at night while burning their nests by day. It gives you a reason to play the campaign over a typical skirmish game (since, at least in StarCraft II’s case, you certainly aren’t there for the story.)
But Age of Empires doesn’t really do that. The only gimmicks it has are gameplay constraints, so half the scenarios are just forcing you to play with 75 population or limit you to a specific age or take away your best unit. Which isn’t fun. And the other half are just regular games of Age of Empires, begging the question of why you’d play the campaign at all. There’s also no room for an original story, and if you’re really interested in historical battles, you’re not going to learn about them from some overwrought videogame narration.
That, already, is something Galactic Battlegrounds has going for it. Even if it weren’t a well-made scenario, getting to actually control the AT-ATs in the Battle of Hoth is something truly special. And the game actually has not just one, but several well-written stories that go behind the battles you already know. Like the Imperial campaign, which tells the story of how the massive walker tanks were created, or the multiple campaigns telling the story of Echuu Shen-Jon, a powerful Jedi master voiced by one of my favorite VAs of all time, Roger “Mojo-Jojo” Jackson. Galactic Battlegrounds is what got me into the Star Wars extended universe, and it’s honestly a really well-written entry that both expands on and shows deep respect for that most sacred legacy.
But beyond that, the vast majority of the scenarios are actually exciting and fun. Oh, there’s some missteps, like the legendarily painful bonus episode of the Trade Federation campaign, but then there’s things like the attack on Theed, where the units you start with are all you’re going to get to take down an entire city. Or the beginning of the Republic’s campaign, a huge, Jedi-filled reenactment of that one kinda good scene from Episode II: This Is A Judgement. Galactic Battlegrounds’ campaign makes you think in different ways, but without feeling like the game’s cheating you by withholding the things you need to succeed.
So to conclude: Star Wars: Galactic Battlegrounds is better balanced than Age of Empires II, its mechanics and game feel are much more fun than Age of Empires II’s, its campaigns are actually fun, unlike Age of Empires II’s, and yet the latter is remembered as one of the finest RTSes of all time while the former languishes in relative obscurity. Okay, so maybe Battlegrounds isn’t really the best RTS ever, but only because I think that’s a matter of personal taste. If what you really like is perfectly-tuned, Chess-like strategy, sure, stick with StarCraft. But if you want something that’s just plain fun, something that truly feels like Star Wars and has captured the feel of those films in a way only a few games have ever managed, something that’s well-balanced and interesting but also makes you feel like the most powerful general in the galaxy – well, my friend, come home to Star Wars: Galactic Battlegrounds. It’s an older game, sir, but it checks out.
I’d like to end this feature by speaking directly to Electronic Arts. Hey, guys. How’s it going. Can’t help but notice that you, uh, own exclusive rights to make and publish Star Wars games. Now I know you’re busy ruining Battlefront and milking that crippled franchise for everything it’s got left, but listen: make a dang HD edition of this game. It sold well enough on GOG and Steam to show there’s an interest in it and it would take, like, two seconds. Get the Forgotten Empires guys to do it – they’ve shown they know their way around an Age of Empires. Just, come on. For me. For me? It won’t make me forget the fact that you made a $120 game that took a year to actually be completed, but it might make me stop bringing it up every time I do a feature about Star Wars games. And that’s my professional opinion.