Lego Star Wars reinvents itself enough to avoid the usual critiques of its gameplay, only to fall short trying to stretch out its story.
We have to talk about the opening level. It's a slight spoiler - if you believe in spoilers for a Lego adaptation of a film you've already seen - so forgive me, or skip the rest of this paragraph if you must. But, here's the thing - Lego's take on The Force Awakens begins long before the film does, 30 years before, in an extended prologue which showcases every front from Return of the Jedi's Battle of Endor. It sees you stomping across Endor's moon in AT-STs, forming a band of Ewoks, fighting Darth Vader, defeating the Emperor, piloting the Millennium Falcon and blowing up the Second Death Star. Not only is it a complete surprise opening, it is an amazing first half hour.
You may be thinking it's all downhill from there then. It's not, though some later levels are admittedly not great - we'll come to those shortly. I love the prologue - it sets the scene, it gives you a chance to play as some of the saga's heroes in their heyday, it gives them an excuse to appear on the game's character roster. It also showcases how far Lego games have evolved, however slowly, since developer TT Games originally adapted these scenes ten years ago. It is the Lego games' own Special Edition moment, with all of TT's' latest tech in place. But while Force Awakens' prologue does plenty to move the series' gameplay on, it also acts as a reminder of the series' regular pacing, which Force Awakens throws out the window.
Lego's basic game formula remains largely unchanged. Smash stuff, build stuff, funny cutscene, rinse n' repeat. Two new types of gameplay help break this up, however, and a third invention adds a new twist. Levels are now interspersed with cover shooting and aerial dogfighting, both fun additions, even if shooting people in the face feels slightly odd for a Lego title. Almost every mission includes a cover-based battle, where the camera pulls in to an over-shoulder perspective and you pop out to fire on enemies. Aerial battles, meanwhile, are genuinely great, especially in areas which let you fly freely around, find collectibles, and blast enemy craft.
The new gameplay twist comes in the form of rebuilds, where piles of pieces can be combined into more than one creation, broken down and rearranged into another. The best uses for this come within puzzles, where the same selection of bricks must be assembled into different parts of a machine in sequence within a time limit. Alternatively, fully exploring the choices can reward you with a collectible, or simply lead to a visual gag. There are smaller tweaks, too: a neat Mass Effect-style Galaxy Map for choosing missions and free-roam areas, the ability to create teams of NPCs to take with you on jobs, charged-up super attacks and medals for your battle performance.
Then there are the open worlds: Jakku, the Millennium Falcon, the snowy planet pretending to be a new Death Star, the planet with the new Cantina, and the Resistance base pretending to be the Rebel base from A New Hope. Each area is stuffed full of extra characters to track down, races, scavenger missions, aerial missions and bounty hunts, so as usual you'll finish the game's story and still be far from complete. If the last time you played a Lego game was in the old Star Wars or Indiana Jones days, you'll be surprised at how much there is to do. And even if you play Lego games regularly (don't get me started on the wallet-ruining Dimensions) there's still more new elements than in any other Lego game since these open worlds were introduced with the first Lego Harry Potter.
For me, there's enough new in The Force Awakens that it can stand up to the usual Lego game criticism. This is a Lego game which can finally boast - to some degree, at least - about its gameplay. Which only makes it more disheartening when you find how little story there is to go with it. The Force Awakens faces an uphill struggle to stretch a single two-hour film into an eight-hour campaign, and it is a problem which gets worse as the game goes along. A couple of levels on Jakku are fine - the characters are introduced, the new dialogue with original voice actors is snappy (later including Harrison Ford, on fine form). Then the story campaign hits Maz Kanata's castle cantina and the pace slows to a Star Wars opening crawl. The scene with Rey finding the lightsaber, a few minutes on screen, is extended to a 20-minute platforming section. Then, after the battle, the pace slows further as you prepare for the game's final showdown with a puzzle where you stock the Millennium Falcon with Wookiee Cookies.
It's easy to guess why we're seeing a new Lego Star Wars game already - and, to be fair, it's been a long time since the last. But I'd have preferred TT Games wait until at least the end of this year to fit in scenes from Rogue One. Lego games traditionally adapt at least a trilogy of movies (see: Star Wars, Lord of the Rings and Indiana Jones), or even four (see both Harry Potters, Pirates of the Caribbean and Jurassic World). Force Awakens, even with sections from the expanded Star Wars canon, has nowhere near as much material. In several places it reminded me of watching the Hobbit film trilogy, where an enjoyable story was stretched into a far-too-long adaptation. All of this at a time when single films (the new Ghostbusters, Fantastic Beasts) are being turned into shorter, six-level story packs for Lego Dimensions rather than the 10 level quota filled here.
Lego Force Awakens' levels which do turn to the wider Star Wars canon are brief but enjoyable exceptions from this lack of story, as they adapt novels and comic books set between the classic film trilogy and Force Awakens itself. They also provide some of the best opportunities for the returning film cast to make their voices heard - with the levels featuring Ford, the much-underused Gwendoline Christie as Captain Phasma and Max von Sydow as Lor San Tekka among the best. Each of these are also showcases for the love of Star Wars' source material which has gone into the game. Expect references to the humble beebleberry from the canned Stars Wars MMO Galaxies, digs at George Lucas' film tinkering and even a likely nod to Harrison Ford getting trapped on set by a door.
It's touches like these that lift the game's slow sections, and while overall it's light on story, the package as a whole will likely remain attractive for Star Wars aficionados and younger Force fans. I just can't help but wonder what might have been, though, if the project's scope had been set out a little later, and if the rest of the game had been filled with the same pacing of the game's prologue to complement its polished gameplay. A small shame, as while Lego Star Wars: The Force Awakens solves one long-running issue with the series, its arrival forces another.