You'd be forgiven for thinking that gladiatorial combat was a Roman invention. But a long time ago, in a galaxy far far away, a somewhat plump chap by the name of Jabba the Hutt had the same idea according to the back story that sets the scene for Star Wars: Demolition. After the outlawing of Pod Racing Jabba's salacious desire for deadly sport has turned to something a little more overtly brutal, chiefly placing a number of contestants and their vehicles in an arena and then watching them blow each other to bits with whatever weaponry is available to them. A rather straightforward premise, and one the perceptive gamer will no doubt recognise from ageing 32 bit titles such as Demolition Derby and Twisted Metal. Yes, its been done before. Infact developers Luxaflux have done it before themselves, on the Dreamcast even, with the warmly regarded Vigilante 8 series. It's no surprise to find then that what we have here is the same game engine bent to a Star Wars theme. A fine idea on paper, a selection of the Space Opera's finest settings sprinkled with a wide variety of vehicle based opponents all charged and raring to do combat to the death. And it fits too, I can see the pitch to Lucas Arts now. Its almost exactly the sort of thing you'd find trying to pick up the audience as attention wanes toward the end of the first half of the Phantom Menace, but then a racing game was always going to sell better, wasn't it.
It's a pity then that the end result here holds less appeal and excitement than a stuffed Jar Jar Binks doll. That at least you could glean some pleasure from accompanied by a pair of scissors. An impressive opening FMV provides false hope that you're in for a genuine Star Wars experience. Launching as the films do with yellow text rolling into the main theme, a dynamic animation takes you through the arrival of Boba Fett on Tatooine and a glimpse of the combat to come. With all the appropriate sound effects in tow this literally has the Star Wars videogame fan gagging for action. Rushing through standard animated menus the first port of call is either a single player single event, or the tournament mode that sees you fight through four consecutive battles against a growing number of opponents to be crowned the supreme champion. This is where the anti-climax arrives. The core of a game like this relies on a good and responsive control system and Demolition's is neither. Restricted entirely to left/right steering and acceleration every vehicle, whether it be an AT-ST or a Rancor Monster, acts suspiciously like a car. A car without reverse and one gear that is. You could argue that this in multiplayer mode gives everyone an equal chance, but you might just as well have several coloured Landspeeders to chose from if that's the case. There's no imagination here at all other than the Rancor's ability to pick up and throw opponents and due to some very wonky collision detection he doesn't do that too well anyway. Why can't the Snowspeeder get more than a foot off the ground? Why does the lumbering Trade Federation Battle Tank turn with the same grace as the Podracer? I suspect the answer lies in a quick translation of the Vigilante 8 engine with no ambition to better it.
There is a curiously weightless feel to the control too, suitable for the hover vehicles perhaps, but little else. Whether you're sitting atop the AT-ST with General Otto, or skimming the ground with Wade Vox in his X-34 Landspeeder there's not a whole lot of difference in the feel of the handling. Turning is imprecise and slow and hitting objects results in floaty bouncing collisions that do nothing to render an image of great hulking machines engaging in physical combat. The lack of a reverse means obviously that you can only move forward… then turn, then fire, then overshoot your opponent rather than sit directly infront of it getting hammered, turn, fire, overshoot, turn, fire, overshoot. Laborious. Even the simple addition of strafing would have livened it up and added a little more diversity. "Snowspeeders can't strafe though!" the purist may enthuse. Well no, but then I don't recall them having tractor beams and cloaking devices either but you have to bend the rules to get the idea to fit the style, and Demolition in this respect doesn't even try.
The Roar of the Crowd
The environments are a little better in terms of design, although still lack any flair. They are all by and large flat and have no real utilisation of 3D space. Ramps allow the vehicles onto raised areas in most, and lifts do shuffle you about the areas. With the primary weapons fixed to shoot directly infront of the vehicles though there's no point in trying to play stealthily from above or below, because you can't. It would have been nice perhaps to adapt the limited field of the automatic aiming to take that into account. Something more dynamic at least than the extremely two dimensional combat the game presents. The music adds little to boost the atmosphere either. After the encouraging sign of the proper main theme at the game's opening during combat it becomes some bizarre pop hybrid that varies from arena to arena but never quite fits. It does though provide a suitable beat for the enemy AI to dance to, something anyway distracts enemies for the most part in wanting to actually fight. A lot of the time they can be found either spinning aimlessly in circles or trying to walk through walls. What picks the game up though is a vague impression of life that individualises each arena. While fighting on the Death Star for example the main cannon will periodically fire, damaging any vehicle caught in its tributary beams. In Mos Eisely shuttles will land in the spaceports after flying in over the arena, powering up the scattered shield regenerators as they do. There's even a Wampa throwing chunks of ice at you from the hills surrounding the rebel base on Hoth. Also impressive is the way in which most objects in each arena can be destroyed bit by bit. Buildings crumple under laser fire not just using dirtied texturing, but with real polygonal changes exposing internal walls. Infact I had more fun exploring what a mess I could make of Mos Eisley than I did playing the game. Graphically, this is the most exciting the game gets. Nice explosions and devastation on a grand scale it can do.
There was a time when Lucas Arts was a name synonymous with quality game releases. The old X-Wing games, the adventures like Monkey Island. The widened commercialisation of the Star Wars phenomena though, revived by the Phantom Menace, has led to a slew of substandard games that perhaps a less financially hungry company more concerned with quality might have thought twice about issuing. Demolition in itself isn't fundamentally a bad idea, just poorly executed. Not dissimilar to The Phantom Menace itself really. In the Star Wars scale of greatness though this doesn't even come up to Episode One standards, it's lurking shamefully somewhere under the surface of Dagobah along with the legendary Holiday Special. Laughable and in no way to be taken seriously. Chuck it in the Sarlacc pit and save your cash.