Star Wars: Galactic Battlegrounds
Galactic Battlegrounds (GB) is the junction of two successful entertainment franchises, one for the PC and one for silver screen. It's the marriage'and a happy one'of Microsoft/Ensemble Studio's Age of Empires (AoE) series of ancient war games and George Lucas's Star Wars films. You, the player, will also be happy because you're getting the stability of an established mature game engine and a lush science fiction universe that has become a part of modern folklore.
For those not familiar with the AoE series, the games are continuous action (no turns), conflict simulations where players build ancient and medieval communities into empires and control the units (both builder/peasants and warriors) of many of the big ancient cultures (Romans, Greeks, Persians, among others.) As each community improves (builds certain structures) and accumulates resources (like food and wood) the civilization "graduates" to the next of four ages where more advanced structures and units are available.
And for those who may have been encased in carbonite (a fate that befalls Han Solo) for the past 25 years, Star Wars is a little series of space swashbuckler films cooked up by one George Lucas, founder of LucasArts, the makers of this game.
Instead of Greeks, Romans or Persians, etc. you'll control one of six major "civilizations" in the Stars Wars saga'the forces of the Rebellion, the Empire, the Naboo, the Trade Federation, the Gungans, or the Wookies. Along the way are some of the incidental races, like the Jawas and the Tuskan Raiders, which inhabit the landscape and harass your forces.
In GB, instead of ages, you proceed though four technical levels: Techs I through IV. Units, equipment, structures and abilities improve as you graduate through the levels.
You can control over 300 Star Wars units and/or characters, some familiar'like the X-wing fighter and Princess Leia'and some not so familiar'like the genetically engineered weaponry of Episode I's Gungans. Star Wars initiates will notice just a few minor gaps. Where's Jabba the Hutt? Where's that ol' Death Star? But there's more than enough Star Wars unit action to satisfy the most devoted fan.
Like the parent series, this software offers numerous styles and options of play. You can choose a random game and base the map on some standard type or choose a Star wars locale terrain, such as the ice planet Hoth or the desert planet Tatooine. And there are six linked campaigns. These are groups of pre-built scenarios. You move to the later scenarios after achieving the victory conditions set forth in the previous one. The campaigns trace out narratives such as Darth Vader's search for the rebels or the subjugation of Naboo.
Gameplay, Controls, Interface
Controls and interface are exactly the same as the AoE series. Left click to select a unit. Right click to give it a destination or target. Drag a rectangle around multiple units to move a group. Doubleclick a unit to select all units on the screen of the same type. Group them into formations or give them simple tasks (e.g. guard, follow) or other unit-specific tasks with the available buttons. Click a building to bring up a list of what can be built there.
Recognition of the buildings might take some familiarization for experienced AoE players, because they're all futuristic style'although there are a few details that might indicate their purpose. For instance, the Empire's airbase has a couple of those tie fighter solar panels laying up against an outer walls as if those slacker empire factory workers just leave them laying around like spare wagon wheels. In the AoE series you could pretty much tell what represents a stable. Finding the Troop Center in GB on the other hand at first may take some study. Better to learn the hot keys, and they're mostly different too. You'll have to get used to hitting CTRL-T to get to that Troop Center instead of the CTRL-B that takes you to the AoE equivalent, the Barracks. CTRL-A will take you to the Air Base, where your fleet of X-Wings or Tie Fighters can be created. CTRL-F will take you to the food centers. Hint: Buildings for processing resources are color-coded Red for food, blue for carbon, green nova crystals and purple for ore.
The resources used for building are also changed. Instead of gathering wood from trees there's carbon in the ground (but sometimes there's trees that give carbon too.) For stone to build walls and such you gather ore. Nova crystals are like gold. Food is food and can be gathered from farms, fishing or from hunting or herding. Nerfs are one sheep-like creature available as a food source. So with this game, it is possible to experience the insult Princess Leia once hurled at Han Solo and be a true "nerf herder." Different amounts of each resource are needed to build the buildings that build the units, to advance through the tech levels and to research improvements for both units and buildings.
Multiplayer in the AoE game series is so stable and logical that there must not have been any need to change a thing between this game and its predecessors. Multiplayer worked well over our two-node home LAN. You can choose the number of open slots for human players and the number of computer controlled players. Play a random set-up game or a multiplayer scenario you've devised yourself. You can choose from a multitude of starting set-up combinations, including team play and locking teams (to prevent shifting alliances.). All of the multiplayer games that this family of Star Wars fans have played, the game has been stable and nimble. The only crash was probably the fault of one of the computers in use. Hint: Be careful; of the X at the top right. It will exit the game without warning.
For internet play, Microsoft's The Zone has an area devoted to the game and during one recent business day there were over 120 players online.
Considering their association with movie makers, I'm sure you can imagine the standards that LucasArts has for visuals. This is nice looking game. Units are crisp, colorful and easily distinguishable from one another.
The soundtrack of the game is a high quality reproduction of all the famous John Williams Stars Wars compositions from the "Imperial March" that accompanies the appearance of Darth Vader to the haunting "Duel of Fates" from Episode I. Audio cues for when a unit are built and other events (like the death rattle sound when a farm is exhausted) are much more than atmospheric. They are integral to game play.
The small handbook covers the basics and gives a good synopsis of all the units. There's also an extensive Star Wars databank with information that goes beyond the game.
Learning the game can be accomplished through tutorial campaign (a series of scenarios designed expressly for taking the beginning player step-by-step through the simplest commands up to more advanced concepts. Even experienced AoE players might consider whipping through this one time.
There's nothing that improves over the innovative AoE series here. It's basically the same game, except the units fire beam weapons instead of shooting arrows.
Worth mentioning is the absolute best scenario/campaign editor encountered in any software. You can draw a map or generate a random one, and then pit two or more forces against each other in a simple slugfest. Or create a complex narrative using the extensive built-in trigger language. Complex combinations of conditions and effects can be applied to any of the units in the game. This feature could double as a novice's introduction to object-orient programming. For a Star Wars fan, this is the ability now to paint on clean canvas with nearly the whole of the Star Wars character and unit pantheon. The ability to set them out on the face of planets in any desired manner and have them react to events you devise can't be beat.
Solid game play of Age of Empires built on the lush story line of the Stars War universe. My young kids/playtesters/co-reviewers'big Star Wars fans and AoE veterans'wholly approve and heavily influenced the game's great score.