We've been eagerly awaiting the arrival of Pandemic's Star Wars: The Clone Wars since it was first announced. Picking up where Episode II left off, you control a number of vehicles in ground-based combat on worlds ranging from Geonosis (as you take on the forces of Count Dooku) to Kashyyyk (the Wookiee homeworld). You even get your saber out occasionally for a bit of hand-to-hand combat.
Mission objectives are so varied we could spend all day talking about them. The first level alone has you fighting your way through Dooku's forces to save Natalie Portman and her Jedi friends, before taking out planetary cannons, securing a landing platform, defending it from aggressors, escorting a newly landed convoy through a valley, hopping into a gunship and taking out Techno Union ships, defending your assault cannons so they can take out those huge spherical capital ships and then battling three sharp-shooting 'Dark Acolytes' as Anakin gets his arm lopped off. And there are bonus objectives to consider, too.
First impressions are very good - it's hard not to be overwhelmed by the enormous visual spectacle and it's all very accessible. Controls are as simple as they come - analogue for movement, shoulders for strafing and face buttons for firing and boosting. Oh, and the D pad is given over to wingman commands, much as it was in Rogue Leader and Battle for Naboo. Geonosis, the game's opening level, is one big mess of sand dunes, plateaus, rocky mountains and canyons, with every crack in the rock occupied by stationary cannons. On the ground there's a sea of clones and droids locked in combat, with those wheeled rocket launchers, early walkers and hover tanks milling about. Then above them you have Republic gunships, scouts and a number of Dooku's aerial forces. And that's ignoring the installations, capital ships, planetary cannons and the build-up of countless other units we've forgotten about. It's hard not to feel like you're at war, especially when most of it is on-screen at any one time.
Head up close and the illusion starts to fade a little. Individual clones and droids have a handful of levels of detail, but they always look blocky, and unfortunately any in-game cut sequences involving the main characters face to face also suffer from this low-poly outlook, with bad movement animation to boot. What's more, you can't actually shoot the clone troopers or battle droids - they're merely cosmetic. Vehicles, cannons and ships are more detailed, but they all only really have one or two death animations - spinning as they disintegrate or exploding instantly. The good news is that the visual tapestry is so rich when viewed from afar (which is most of the time) that it rarely grates.
What does grate about the visuals though is, ironically, the thing we thought would make it so much better: the sheer scale. It's easy to become overwhelmed by the influx of units over hills from all directions, and in the heat of the battle, things can get very confusing. Sadly the enormous number of units on anything above Padawan skill level (which should be avoided if you want to get more than a handful of hours out of The Clone Wars) means that one of the game's most useful features is also somewhat stunted - the automatic targeting.
Auto-targeting is something Rogue Leader veterans will immediately snort at, but it's quite integral to The Clone Wars. With so many units, Pandemic have made it a case of simply pointing your craft in vaguely the right direction, at which point the HUD locks onto the unit nearest to the centre of the screen, providing a little aiming reticule complete with health readout. You can then mash the A button for all its worth or launch some missiles with B.
This approach works most of the time, but caught in a particularly vigorous encounter with a multitude of units, sometimes it gets confused or just plain skips over the enemy you want it to target. This can be a problem if, for example, you're trying to defend a convoy from wheeled rocket launchers and one of them has managed to scoot in-between the train of friendly vehicles...
However, it makes strafing enemies or dealing with a blanket force of enemies somewhat easier. Wading into battle and pasting the A button knowing full well that every shot is hitting a mark is useful.
Begun, the downturn has
Sadly, the volume of enemies engaged in conflict often confuses the issue. Much of the game is ground-based, in hover tanks, on speeders, in walkers, on Maru-back etc, etc, but you can't help but feel that the majority of the challenge is on account of the numbers, not intelligent mission design. With ammo and shield supplies scattered generously across each level, it's often a case of waiting till the munitions come into view, offloading your salvo of 20 missiles in a few split-seconds and then retooling to start again. What's more, instead of learning weaknesses and really working at boss fights (of which there are several, including a rather obvious ambush preceded by the line "something doesn't feel right"), the job is as simple as avoiding enemy fire until you're out of rockets, collecting a batch from the sidelines and repeating.
Furthermore, the game's attempts to mix in on-foot sections are disastrous. The early Windu section sees you slicing through Geonosians like butter, but the mechanics are extremely awkward - like you're controlling a tank with legs - and the poor animation and bland texturing all round merely serve to remind you that this is not Jedi Knight II.
The aerial sections do their best to make up for the rest. Zooming around in a gunship, racing over the battlefield, firing those devastating lightsaber-esque charge beams at all and sundry, is something which Pandemic clearly worked hard at. If the whole game was set in a gunship, I'd feel a lot better about it.
But it is not. Much of The Clone Wars is given over to laborious auto-target-fests - the sci-fi shoot 'em up equivalent of a hackandslash in this instance, and after a while the missions deteriorate into the process of killing wave after wave of enemies, blowing open doors, rinsing and repeating. Although some sections of the game are extremely entertaining, a lot of it feels like filler, and lacks the charm of the gunship sections. Highlights include the opening battle, a speeder-back section racing through wastelands in pursuit of droids - as fast and frenetic as anything Return of the Jedi threw at us, minus the Ewoks - and the defence of a Republic battle cruiser (which is very, very big).
Lowlights include anything and everything on Kashyyyk (so tedious we almost gave up), inconsistent visuals, often soulless mission design and combat, and some things we just plain can't abide in any game - like a lack of mid-level save points and sections of mesh wire roping you into a linear path. Want to take a shortcut over a small mound of garbage to hasten the speeder-back pursuit? Sorry old chum, let's get you stuck on the scenery! No, no, no.
It's not all bad, and anybody who loved Episode II as much as we did will want to see it through to the end - which takes about 15 hours on the normal or harder difficulty levels. The addition of multiplayer (with various levels to unlock by completing bonus objectives) is also quite handy, and the soundtrack (ripped straight from John Williams' best of) is as rousing and invigorating as ever. It's just a shame that for all the initial graphical beauty, complexity and diversity of The Clone Wars, it really boils down to a simple, flawed, over-stretched game design. One for the fans.