Star Wars has been adapted into nearly every video game genre imaginable, even kart racers and dancing games. There are plenty of hidden gems out there, but no genre seems as sure a fit for the franchise as real-time strategy. It’s odd, then, that there’s only ever been a few RTS titles, and one of the best Star Wars games ever made is trapped in obscurity.
Star Wars: Galactic Battlegrounds was first released on PC in November 2001, and an expansion titled the “Clone Campaigns” followed a year later to coincide with the release of Star Wars: Episode II - Attack of the Clones. It’s not unfair to say Galactic Battlegrounds is simply Age of Empires with a Star Wars coat of paint, but that’s why it works so well. The game was co-developed by LucasArts and Ensemble Studios, the now-defunct creators of AoE.
Built on the same engine as AoE II, Galactic Battlegrounds brilliantly adapts the epic battles of Star Wars into the RTS formula. If you’ve played an RTS Galactic Battlegrounds is easy to get into, with the core gameplay loop focusing on collecting four different resources to build up your base and army.
The base game feature six different civilizations who all have the same basis, but come with their own unique units and technologies. For example, the Wookies get a fantastic melee unit called the Berserker, while the Galactic Empire gets the Dark Trooper and Probot. Each civ also has their own research bonuses that let them focus on specific strategies, like Royal Naboo collecting the essential resource Nova faster, while the Rebel Alliance gets stronger fortresses and can center around those.
It’s not quite as asymmetric as other RTS titles, like StarCraft, but there’s still nice variation between each civ. At the same time, the visual design differences between each one are absolutely fantastic, and Galactic Battlegrounds really nails the Star Wars aesthetic.
The Gungans have units outfitted with glowing purple shields and bulbous buildings, while the Empire has a lot of sharp angular designs. The expansion also added on two more even different civs, the Galactic Republic and the Confederacy. The sprite work in Galactic Battlegrounds was stunning at the time, and still holds up as charming to this day. It, somehow, straddles the line between cartoony and realistic, which ends up being a great fit for Star Wars.
As much fun as playing random matches can be, all this doesn’t even talk about the absolute best part of Galactic Battlegrounds, the campaigns. Just like with AoE, Galactic Battlegrounds has a campaign for each civ, and the mission design really shines on these by presenting unique situations that fit well within the Star Wars mythos.
For example, the Trade Federation follows a battle droid named OOM-9 who’s in charge of the initial invasion of Naboo, the Empire follows Darth Vaders campaign to crush the Rebel Alliance before The Empire Strikes Back.
The Wookie campaign is one of the most interesting of all and sees Han Solo and Chewbacca leading the charge to retake Kashyyyk from the Empire. The stories aren’t super in-depth but they provide some fun moments outside of the scope of the main series and even some alternative events in some cases.
Galactic Battlegrounds was a brilliant combination of two series, and one that really understood the property it was working with. The game is available on Steam and other platforms, but it’s also sadly the only Ensemble Studios title that hasn’t received some kind of remastered or updated edition.
Even just a fresh coat of paint could absolutely work wonders for the game, just look at the Definitive Editions of the first two Age of Empires. There hasn’t been a proper Star Wars RTS game since the 2006 release of Empire at War, and it’s high time that changes, especially with the new era of the First Order and the Resistance.