Version tested: PSP
There was a time when reviewing the latest Star Wars videogame was largely straightforward. As each game built upon a near-universally recognised and understood mythology but displayed a near-universally poor quality of gameplay it was mostly a case of listing the genre, the faults and then making a droll 'This is not the game you are looking for' closing remark. Then Knights of the Old Republic, Lego Star Wars and, to a lesser extent, the Battlefront and Rogue Squadron series broke the write-by-numbers template either by featuring characters and scenarios far outside the films' timeline or providing gameplay that was reasonably exciting, interesting or well-executed. Stars Wars Lethal Alliance certainly fulfils the first criteria, focusing on an unknown pair of protagonists: Rianna Saren, a Twi'lek mercenary and her security droid Zeeo.
As a billboard duo of leading names they're hardly a Luke and Leia or C3PO and R2D2 but nevertheless, they form an interesting slave-girl/robot partnership that serves the game (and budding fan-fic writers) reasonably well. Rianna is best understood as a female Han Solo - a rogue mercenary lending her battle expertise to the Rebellion cause. Her Swiss Army knife of a robot, Zeeo (or Z-58-0 to note-taking droid watchers) provides back-up in the form of computer hacking, narrow tunnel navigation or impromptu transport as the couple undertake an overarching mission to steal plans for the Empire's least-imaginatively titled weapon: the Death Star.
Set between Episodes III and IV the plot does little to flesh out the narrative black hole between the last and first films choosing instead to concentrate on the microcosm of the mission in hand. Nevertheless, Star Wars fans will be pleased to take in the neon-soaked/dusty sights of Mos Eisley, Mustafar and Tatooine as well as enjoying brief encounters with A-list characters such as Boba Fett, Princess Leia, and Darth Vader - even if the plot here is more spin-off soap opera than crowning Christmas special.
Lift the curtain of scenario and characterisation and, of course, the two-part team is simply an age old gameplay device to separate the player's tool sets: Rianna provides the weaponry and Prince of Persia style acrobatics and Zeeo, defensive and 'miscellaneous' context-sensitive support. At its heart Lethal Alliance is a straightforward shooter requiring you to duck and leap various platforms and areas shooting stormtroopers with your fizzing pixels before they shoot you with theirs. The designers are then able to use the two disparate skill sets to create a series of simple gameplay events strung together to form a videogame.
For example, hitting triangle sends Zeeo rushing forward to stun nearby enemies providing Rianna with a free opportunity to finish them off with her light-saber equivalent, the Thorn of Ryloth. Likewise, Zeeo can put up shields which reflect enemy blaster beams back providing Rianna with cover and can hack into computer data systems or act as an impromptu leg up to higher areas to provide her with progression. However, essentially this is anthropomorphism (robopomorphism?) of basic character abilities and, once seen for what it is, seems far less innovative than the game thinks it is. Even so, it's this division of skills that provides the building blocks of missions which are, near universally, cut from the most base of videogame clichés: fetch the key, open the door, gather the information, stifle a yawn, read the internet for a bit, fetch the key and so on for the REST OF OUR LIVES.
Of course, the simplicity of these scenario devices would be inconsequential if the gameplay linking them was exquisite. But the combat is awkward and unwieldy thanks, in part, to the PSP's inaccurate analogue nub and in part to some inelegant in-game targeting. Rianna can equip a wide variety of close and ranged weapons, which can be cycled through with the d-pad. When near to enemies the game presents no problems, Rianna automatically equipping her melee-type weapon and the game providing dramatic and stylised bullet time effects. However, when shooting from afar the clunky targeting system makes for unpleasant play. Rianna auto-targets an enemy and can then cycle between adversaries using the shoulder buttons.
As usual with this system, during key fights when the environment is stuffed with combatants it can be a frantic chore to pick out the enemy you're gunning for. What's more, the same targeting system is used to guide Zeeo to data ports, so Rianna targets inanimate objects as well as enemies and the whole exercise sometimes feels like imprecise grasping at directing your characters rather than finely controlled squad management. As the targeting system requires no real skill in aiming this core element of the game feels at once curiously cheap and awkward.
Imprecise grasping aptly describes the platform elements of Lethal Alliance too, which require increasing levels of careful input to keep Rianna from plummeting to a death by gravity. To place such high importance on a gameplay mechanic that the PSP can't adequately provide for apportions equal blame to the developer for what might otherwise have just been dismissed as a hardware shortfall.
It's not all negative, though. The audio and visuals showboating across the PSP's screen are wonderful and help lift the package considerably with just the right kind of ambiance. Likewise, the enemy AI seems surprisingly well-trained, ducking for cover and flanking with no small amount of apparent planning - only let down by the weakness of their blaster shots which Rianna and Zeeo withstand far longer than they reasonably should.
Elsewhere, a weak two-player Ad-Hoc deathmatch-style mode adds nothing to the package as distilling the game to its shooting core while removing the acrobatics and secondary gameplay facets weakens the gameplay severely.
As a result what's left is a pretty game set in a compulsive universe which is sneakily derivative and, at its heart, stale, repetitive, average and lacking in any meaningful creativity. With Lego Star Wars 2 so incredibly well-replicated on the PSP for those wanting an interactive Star Wars fix this Christmas and with these borrowed mechanics far better implemented in the latest Tomb Raider and Prince of Persia titles, all drollery aside, really, this probably is not the game you are looking for.
5 / 10