AGE OF THE FORCE
THE STAR WARS UNIVERSE COMES TO REAL TIME STRATEGY, IN STAR WARS GALACTIC BATTLEGROUNDS
To my mind, the best real time strategy [RTS] computer game I ever played is Microsoft’s Age of Empires II: The Age of Kings, and its expansion The Conquerors. No other game in my experience so effectively combines the standard RTS elements of resource exploitation, force-building, and military strategy with a uniquely incisive view of technology and culture. The key is that The Age of Kings does not deal with a single age, regardless of its title, but with four different ones, building up from the dark age to the verge of the European renaissance. Progress to an age depends on amassing ever-greater quantities of resources, and construction of bigger and better buildings, and not just mere survival. The player has to master progress instead of simply outlast death.
So when the next game using the Age of Kings engine came out, I bought it. That was a no-brainer.
The new game departs from the crypto-historical perspective of the rest of the series. Published by Lucas Arts, it takes place in the science fiction galaxy of the Star Wars movies. No Persians, Mongols and Aztecs here; they are replaced by five races from the four moves so far.
Star Wars Galactic Battlegrounds is set in a galaxy far far away, but retains all that made its system the best of its kind when applied to the medieval Earth. Ultimately, though its foundation is outstanding, the game actually manages to build on it to become a fine offering in its own right.
The foundation of Star Wars Galactic Battlegrounds is in The Conquerors more than Age of Kings proper. It takes advantage of some of the enhancements to the system, primarily the expansion kit’s introduction of renewal farmland. Originally, as in the first Age of Empires, when a farm gave out the farmer would stand in the midst of his spent field, doing nothing until the player intervened. The Conquerors changed things, encouraging the player to invest wood ahead of time in a mill, effectively buying farms ahead of time. Then when the soil of one becomes exhausted, the farmer automatically renews the land and starts all over.
Gamers will find that the overlay of the new game includes having new units correspond in function to those in the earthbound titles. For example, a food processing center is another name for a mill, a castle becomes a fortress, and a trooper recruit is the same as militia, the most basic form of infantry. Due to this, much strategy remains the same, under different names. Just as in The Age of Kings the introduction of castles means that the player can build culture-specific combat units and research skills unique to his people, so a player in Star Wars Galactic Battlegrounds does the same with his fortresses. In addition, as Age of Kings players go on to build trebuchets, the most powerful non-gunpowder artillery in the game at castles, those in Star Wars Galactic Battlegrounds construct big, barely mobile cannons that have an identical role.
The interface is also familiar. The only real difference is that buttons and data were on the top of the screen previously are now to the lower right of the main map; otherwise it is identical. The player also selects and moves his units in the same manner, relying on the right mouse button to a degree that is probably unique to the Age of Empires family.
Thus in terms of form and function, look and feel, there is enough continuity to allow a player to move seamlessly to Star Wars Galactic Battlegrounds from the earlier games. He is free to absorb the nuances of the space opera setting, as there are some important differences from those set in the medieval world, and indeed he has to learn them in order to play well. However, the similarities make the transition relatively easy.
Though the most basic essentials remain the same as in the previous games in the series, Star Wars Galactic Battlegrounds makes some important departures, which prove vital to distinguishing it from its predecessors. After all, despite the quality of Age of Empires, a new game that just changes a few names and images while changing nothing else would be a waste of time and money.
To start with, there are new terrain types specific to science fiction, such as asteroids. There are also new sorts of natural resources replacing the old trinity of wood, gold and stone. Star Wars Galactic Battlegrounds now has carbon, nova crystals and ore. Only food remains relatively unchanged.
can be extracted by chopping down trees,
similar to the old wood, but also occurs in the form of natural
outcroppings, similar to exposed seams of coal.
One of the most noticeable is that there is never enough ore or nova crystals to go around. In dozens of games, I have yet to accumulate enough, or trade for enough, to build a monument (the Star Wars Galactic Battlegrounds equivalent of a wonder). Indeed, in normal conflict one runs short on either or both disconcertingly quickly. This demands that players take possession of resource-bearing areas earlier in the game, before others can do get there, and puts extra emphasis on spaceports for trade, and for converting surpluses of one resource into adequate supplies of others. This was already present in Age of Kings, but Star Wars Galactic Battlegrounds takes it further.
There are new differentiations between units. In the older games, monks were a combination of healer and psychological warfare asset, capable of converting opposing units to one’s own allegiance. Star Wars Galactic Battlegrounds replaces them with two new units, medics and Jedi/Sith knights. Medics are available from the beginning at command centers, and the Jedi/Sith units appear at temples, which replace the old monasteries.
These avatars of the Force are more than just offshoots of the monkish types. They convert enemies, or in new game terms “turn” them to the other side of the Force, and pick up relics of power for their temples. However, they are also warriors, whereas monks were among the last troops to put in the path of the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune.
Furthermore, they have a capability for upgrading that monks lack completely. The first Jedi and Sith units produced at temples are apprentices. Research upgrades them to knights, and then to the level of masters.
Combat units take on capabilities that reflect the cultures that wield them. Just as the nomadic Huns in The Conquerors do not need houses, so the robotic hordes of the Trade Federation are without need of the prefab shelters that biological lifeforms require. Nor do they produce medics. However, ironically, they still need food.
The Gungans, a race that I hold in some esteem for expelling Jar Jar Binks, have a forte for operating in the water, and so their warships are submarines.
The most critical new unit types constitute an entire family, airpower. There are now the fighters that have figured greatly in all the movies, plus bombers that have not gotten nearly the glamour; then again, there is a saying among some pilots that fighters make movies, and bombers make history.
Though space is a theatre of war in Star Wars Galactic Battlegrounds, one will not find purely space-based systems. There are no starships or Death Stars, and no Millennium Falcon. The publisher bills this a game on land, sea and air in the Star Wars galaxy, and that is exactly what is inside the box.
are certainly fewer cultures to play than in Age of Kings. That
game begins with thirteen civilizations, including Western, Middle
Eastern and Oriental ones, and The Conquerors adds five more,
including two from
This does cut down the potential combinations for conflict. In addition, the stark differences between them regarding good and evil, expressed as the light and dark sides of The Force, make many combinations unlikely or unworkable in the minds of players devoted to the movies. And after all, as a film tie-in, Star Wars Galactic Battlegrounds functions even more in the context of the Star Wars series than Age of Kings does in history.
On the side of good are the Rebels, Wookiees, Naboo and Gungans; even if the latter two do not exactly start The Phantom Menace as the best of friends, a major theme of the film is that two historical rivals can be brought together by shared self-interest in fighting a common, evil enemy. The other side, the Galactic Empire is the locus of the Dark Side, and the Trade Federation the greedy, grasping agents of it.
As a result, an alliance of the Rebel Alliance with the Galactic Empire for example is impossible in the context of the movies, and therefore not exactly appealing to many gamers, and seeing Wookiees gang up on the Naboo not much better.
On the other hand, I would pay good money to see Chewbacca kick Jar Jar Binks right in the nuts.
Assigning the attributes of good and evil to the historical, real-life cultures of Age of Kings and The Conquerors is far less clear, and therefore no combination is really excluded from a moral point of view. Only the Huns come close to being truly evil, as even the Mongols had some good points.
Ambiguity can make life, and games, more interesting. In reality, for instance, the Aztecs were a bloodthirsty race, given to mass human sacrifice and cannibalism, yet their cities were places of wonder, and their warriors were capable of writing exquisitely sensitive poetry. Just as Neil Young could write “Cortes the Killer” as a lament to their destruction, so an Age of Kings player can play or ally them with any other civilization on the hard drive, and mourn when his own personal Tenochtitlan burns to the ground.
In addition, Star Wars Galactic Battlegrounds has far less room for expansion than Age of Kings ever did; even after The Conquerors, there remain plenty of historical peoples suitable for inclusion. The Star Wars movies so far have very few cultures left that might work in Star Wars Galactic Battlegrounds. Perhaps the only one is the Ewoks, an intriguing cross between the Teddy Bears’ picnic and the Viet Cong.
Working with what it has, Star Wars Galactic Battlegrounds deftly continues its predecessors’ practice of differentiating between cultures through unique units, structures and skills. All are derived from a common foundation, a base class in the language of object-oriented programming. Using the same terminology, the game overrides some functions and adds new variables as it derives new classes, that is the cultures, from it. One can see the divergences as the game progresses. In the beginning, all are embryonic and pretty much alike, the Trade Federation’s freedom from housing not withstanding. Then as time marches on and the civilizations increasingly discover their own capabilities, the differences progressively emerge.
The aesthetics of the game reflect the differences too, actually better than in Age of Kings. In that game and The Conquerors, some cultures shared so many building and unit images that it was hard to tell them apart at first glance. The Chinese, Japanese and Koreans all looked alike, and it might be hard to tell the Arabic Saracens from the Persians.
Not so in Star Wars Galactic Battlegrounds. All look different. My personal favorite for appearance are the Wookiees, whose buildings, even the most advanced, look like treehouses cobbled together from scrap lumber and sheet metal. The Gungans too have a very distinctive look, one of bioengineered structures, and organic seacraft that resemble nothing so much as sperm cells. The Royal Naboo have a baroque elegance to them, with the intricate decorations familiar from their architecture in The Phantom Menace.
Age of Kings, to my mind, really sets the goalposts for real time strategy games. Others are good, and some are equally addictive, but I have yet to find another series that is as sophisticated and yet intuitive.
Star Wars Galactic Battlegrounds uses the same engine, and takes many of the same approaches as its illustrious predecessor, even as it dispenses with all overtly historical pretensions. However, it demonstrates that what works for a game with at least the most general outlines of history, also works in the quintessential science fiction context.
For the Star Wars aficionado, or just the casual fan, interested in strategy gaming, I highly recommend Star Wars Galactic Battlegrounds. For those who like the Age of Empires and Age of Kings games or the RTS genre in general, it promises the same enjoyable experiences, in an entirely new setting.