Clone Wars Adventures knows what its audience wants. As soon as you've signed up on the game's website, you're greeted by Yoda, Obi Wan and the other Jedi and given your own lightsaber. After a pep talk in which they emphasise just how important you are to the ongoing war against the Separatists, you're let loose in the Jedi Temple to begin life as a defender of the Old Republic.
Well, sort of. You're not a Jedi yet. You're a padawan, but the path to becoming a Jedi is certainly less strenuous than the hikes and handstands that Luke Skywalker had to perform on Dagobah: you pay for the privilege. This, then, is Sony Online Entertainment's kid-friendly MMORPG. It's free to play, technically speaking, but like all MMO games, all roads lead to micro-payments.
The game client installs from the website, and runs in your browser. You're given a randomly generated name while the game's moderators check your chosen title, presumably to ensure nobody is playing as Minge Titblaster, but five days after signing up with a nice and innocent Star Warsy name I was still stuck with a rubbish temporary title that I didn't want. Not a great start for a game based around creating your own character in the Clone Wars universe.
So what do you get if you're not ready to part with any real money? You can wander around the Temple in PSone-era polygon 3D, meeting other players. The character creation options are limited at the start because, inevitably, the more you want to change your character, the more you'll need to pay. It's actually less of an RPG and more like a social network driven by mini-games. There are no quests or raids, and the meat of the Clone Wars experience is built around single-player mini-games.
Mini-games are accessed from an icon on your HUD, and are played to earn Republic Credits, one of the game's two currencies. The other is Station Cash, which must be purchased in chunks using credit card, PayPal or SMS.
The games are good though, and varied to boot. Most fall into predictable proven templates, but SOE has made sure that they've been well designed and balanced for the long term, revealing extra layers and tactical wrinkles the more you play. There are gem- and colour-matching games, based around the idea of droid maintenance, and games of chance that offer bonus Republic Credits.
Saber Strike is an enjoyable blend of Peggle and Breakout, as you bounce your lightsaber around an oblong arena, trying to hit a set number of battledroids. For something more sedate, you can use the Force to play Spot the Difference, take a trivia or personality quiz or defeat incoming droid ships with the power of typing. There's even a Yeti Sports riff starring Jar Jar bloody Binks as "Stunt Gungan".
For those looking for a more fully-formed gaming experience, there are some 3D action games. Starfighter is an into-the-screen shooter with power-ups and score multipliers. Republic Defender is a solid little tower defence game with a generous spread of levels. Lightsaber Duel is a button-matching fighting game that can be played solo, in a branching tournament against Star Wars characters, or online against other members. There are blaster shooting galleries and speeder bike races. Controls are simple, often entirely mouse-based, and while the basic 3D engine can't always cope with what's being asked of it, everything is fairly slick and intuitive.
All the games offer leaderboards, both global and friends-only, and also feature trophies. Just like their console counterparts, these are awarded for fulfilling set challenges and are then displayed in your personal living space within the gameworld. It's a wise inclusion. Kids are natural completists, and a wall of blank spaces waiting to be filled tweaks their OCD nature something fierce.
So how much of this is actually free? Of the nineteen mini-games available at present, only six are completely off-limits to padawan players. The rest are unlocked, but only up to a point. You'll find that only Easy levels are available, or that in the action games everything after about level four is sealed away behind a Republic icon for Jedi players only.
That's still a decent amount of gameplay, certainly as much as you'd expect from the Flash games section on a normal Star Wars website, but it's unlikely that young fans will be content to paddle in the shallow end for long. The carrot is right there at the start: who wants to be a padawan when you could be a Jedi, if only Dad would cough up his card details?
£3.99 buys you full access for a month, and there are incremental packages all the way up to £44.99 for lifetime access for as long as the game is active. It's a sensible pricing structure, predictably nudging you towards the top tier but making it good enough value that parents accustomed to paying for full disc-based games won't be horrified.
When you take the plunge and upgrade, the game treats it with the sort of celebration you'd expect for completing most games. Fanfares soar as your favourite characters appear, beaming with pride. You've just made an online payment, but the game throws open its arms and welcomes you to the fold as if you just battled your way across the wastes of Tatooine to reach the sanctuary of full membership.
Once you're snuggled in the brown hessian bosom of the Jedi Order, you could carry on playing the full mini-games and earning Republic Credits, but on the galactic exchange rate, that's like getting paid in lira. Republic Credits are good for buying a couple of things, but if you really want to start personalising your Clone Wars adventure, you'll need to start topping up your Station Cash. After all, why does anyone become a Jedi, if not to buy chairs and hats?
It's here that the payments start to add up. 500 SC costs £4.00 in real money, while £74 is enough to make you the Alan Sugar of the Old Republic with 10,000 SC. Not that such riches will last long if you want to customise things.
New rooms for your living quarters, such as a disco, hangar or droid destruction chamber, are 500 SC a pop. New costume items range from 50 SC to 200 SC, but are cunningly compiled into matching sets. How many kids will just want to wear a bounty hunter's trousers?
You can even buy droids who will follow you around the lobby areas. A miniature pet AT-AT sets you back 300 SC, but R2-D2 can be purchased using 4000 Republic Credits, one of the few truly desirable items that can be bought using points earned through gameplay. Droids can also be customised with add-ons, although it's here that the limitations of the game's marketplace start to show. It's 150 SC to add "spinners" to your AT-AT. What are spinners? You won't know. The game tells you nothing about what you're buying, and clicking on the item without the required credits just takes you to the top-up screen. Are you ready to gamble a couple of real-world pounds on a "bipedal datacard", sight unseen?
Perhaps most annoying is what happens if you choose to pay for your membership using Station Cash rather than a direct credit card payment. It's £3.99 for one month, remember, but that same month costs 599 Station Cash. That's £4.79, according to my rudimentary sums, but as SC can only be purchased in block of 500, you have to buy 1000 SC for £8 in order to pay over the odds to play the game for one month. This sort of penny-pinching is the sort of thing that will make parents wary, especially as the requests for more virtual money start rolling in.
It all adds up very quickly, and with no real benefit. It certainly doesn't help that this social game doesn't seem to be very social. The lobby is full of characters, but most are standing still as their players are off in some mini-game or other. HUD icons give you access to pretty much everything, so there's never any reason to actually traverse the game world and meet other players, hence no reason to explore or chat. After ten minutes of fruitlessly introducing myself to eerie player statues, I finally got a greeting from one other player, but the communal World Chat channel is a sparse and lonely place.
It's a shame, since the game includes some nifty social features. A Facebook-style news feed updates friends as to what you're playing and how well you're doing, while personality quizzes add info to your profile about what colour lightsaber suits you best, or what sort of star cruiser you'd want to pilot.
Hopefully the community will build and become more sociable over time, but until that happens Clone Wars Adventures is a nice website full of decent mini-games with a less than rewarding membership scheme.
6 / 10