Star Wars Galactic Battlegrounds will send Star Wars purists into a tizzy. Tauntauns on Tatooine? Dewbacks in outer space? Naboo Fighters tussling with X-Wings that haven't been invented yet? TIE Fighters with shields? And since when do Wookiees have tanks? The Star Wars universe already requires a willing suspension of disbelief, but most fans at least expect some internal consistency.
Galactic Battlegrounds uses the Age of Kings engine suitably well.
These are hardly grounds to dismiss LucasArts' latest real-time strategy stab at the most lucrative license of them all. But they are grounds to wonder whether this is just a cheap tug at the pocketbooks of the fans or whether any thought went into this Star Wars adaptation of Ensemble's Age of Empires II engine. Although at times it seems LucasArts was being lazy, this isn't just a slapdash skin job. Rest assured that Galactic Battlegrounds has a relatively deep design with enough twists to distinguish it from Age of Empires II: The Age of Kings.
The fundamentals of the Age of Empires II engine are so intact in Star Wars: Galactic Battlegrounds that veterans of that game can jump right in with barely a glance at the manual. So many elements are almost identical--the interface, the resource management, the upgradeable units, and the unit balance, for starters. The four tech levels are analogous to Age of Kings' four ages. The six sides in Galactic Battlegrounds are the equivalent of the civilizations in Age of Kings, each with minor differences. For instance, in the Age of Kings, the Turks collect gold a little faster, and in Galactic Battlegrounds, the Royal Naboo collect nova crystals a little faster. In the expansion to Age of Empires II, the Huns don't have to build houses, and in Galactic Battlegrounds, the Trade Federation doesn't have to build prefab shelters. As in Age of Kings, in Battlegrounds, each side can build a unique unit. For instance, in Age of Kings, the Teutons get Teutonic knights, and in Galactic Battlegrounds, the Galactic Empire gets dark troopers. Although each side in Battlegrounds has unique graphics for its units and structures, they're all functionally the same. In Age of Kings, each side's infantry, cavalry, archers, and siege engines have the same basic stats, and in Galactic Battlegrounds, each side's troopers, mechs, heavy weapons, and aircraft have the same basic stats. All the units can be upgraded. In Age of Kings, a militia upgrades to a man-at-arms, then to a long swordsman, then to a two-handed swordsman, and finally to a champion. In Galactic Battlegrounds, a trooper recruit upgrades to a trooper, then to a heavy trooper, and finally to a repeater trooper. There are minor exceptions. In Age of Kings, the Persians don't get champions, and in Galactic Battlegrounds, the Trade Federation doesn't get repeater troopers. And so on.
At this point, you might think Galactic Battlegrounds is just a Star Wars front end for Age of Kings. But there are some significant differences. Since Battlegrounds deals with science fiction, ranged combat is no longer just the supporting element of an army, as it was in Age of Kings. In Battlegrounds, almost all units have some sort of ranged attack, with the occasional melee fighters serving as supporting elements. One benefit of this is that unit balance is clearly visible by the color of shots. Red laser bolts are good against infantry, blue bolts are good against vehicles, and green bolts are good against buildings. In Age of Kings, it's not immediately clear that pikemen are good against cavalry, but not archers. With ranged combat, Galactic Battlegrounds has a built-in mechanism to show unit balance.
Another important difference is the addition of aircraft (oddly enough, the game uses this term for spacecraft like Naboo Fighters, TIE Fighters, and X-Wings). This sort of maneuverability was never part of Age of Kings, where infantry was slow, cavalry was vulnerable, and walls could be used to shut out invaders long enough to marshal your defenses. But once aircraft are developed in Galactic Battlegrounds, there are no such guarantees. Antiair units come into play one tech level earlier than air units, so there's plenty of time to anticipate an aerial threat. But this adds a whole new layer to the basic mechanics of Age of Kings.
You may not have seen Wookiee armies in the movies, but you will here.
Another new layer that doesn't come into play as often is stealth. There are a few units, such as advanced Jedi masters and some Gungan submersible boats, that can't normally be detected. Later in the game, the tide can be turned by sending a stealthy Jedi master into a base to convert a key structure, like the power core that powers a shield generator. It should have made for some very intense moments in the manner of Obi-Wan deactivating the tractor beam on the Death Star in the original Star Wars film. However, stealth is easily countered. Turrets can see Jedi, and many boats can see Gungan subs. This makes stealth a feature that looks good on paper but doesn't have much impact on the game.
However, shield generators and Jedi are additions with significant impact. The former are clever additions to the Age of Kings gameplay that add a regenerating layer of hit points onto any unit or building within a certain radius. You need a power core near your shield generators in order for them to operate, though. The Gungans actually have a portable shield generator on their unique unit. Some units have built-in shield generators, and other units can research them later in the game. Meanwhile, Jedi aren't just Age of Empires' monks. Although they can convert enemy units to their side like Age of Kings' monks, they're not as frail--with their lightsabers, they're powerful melee fighters that can easily take on superior numbers. The game counters them with bounty hunters, whose ranged attacks are especially powerful against Jedi. Each of Galactic Battlegrounds' six sides gets Jedi and bounty hunters.