Lego Star Wars
I sense something. A brilliance I've not felt since...
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Being a bit of youngling myself, Lego and Star Wars were both key components of my childhood. Lego-wise, I had that pirate ship and the island base thing that was supposed to provide the opposition (but was, in hindsight, a bit crap), and would happily wile away Saturday afternoons building giant X-Wings and attempted Death Stars with my plastic box full of bricks. And, thanks to a rather brilliantly timed conception (cheers Mum and Dad), I had the chance to replace the hazy Boxing Day memories of half-understood Hopes, Empires and Returns early in my teens with the sight of all three special edition Star Wars films running in THX-certified glory at the "Wycombe Six". Most of my older friends would scoff at that and tell me what it was really like to see Star Wars properly back when it really happened, but having just smiled and laughed my way through Lego Star Wars - simultaneously the most elegant franchise crossover and best children's game I've ever played - I don't regret it for a minute.
Obviously Lego Star Wars doesn't deal with what Lucas hopes we'll one day call "the second half", but thanks to the nature of the crossover it really doesn't matter. Developer Traveller's Tales has taken full advantage of its childish mandate by retelling the stories of Episodes I to III without the fumbled, cringe-worthy dialogue and clunky romance; using the Lego theme to imbue the widely criticised films (well, Episode III isn't out yet, but we'll see, eh?) with a sense of joy and discovery that Star Wars fans watching Episodes I and II only witnessed on a handful of occasions.
It's incredibly accessible and straightforward right from the word go. Characters can either jump or double-jump their way through the largely puzzle and combat-based platform levels, and most have context-sensitive attacking and defensive abilities mapped to one button (Saber-wielding and blast-parrying in the case of the Jedi, with blasters, bowcasters and the like abounds elsewhere), with a special ability bound to another. As you might imagine, a Jedi's special ability is a context-sensitive Force command, which allows Anakin, Obi-Wan and co. to operate levers, rearrange scenery, send larger projectiles back to their masters, and fling weaker enemies like droids and Geonosians against the nearest wall or pack of comrades. Other characters can use grappling hooks, operate computer terminals (guess who) and so on. The only other command to worry about is "switch character", which allows you to alternate between the folks in your party by running up to them and hitting the button.
It's also incredibly easy from the word go thanks to an infinite respawn mechanic. This has its ups and downs. Without it, many of the game's stages - split into around half a dozen chapters for each of the three films - would be hopelessly frustrating, and I'd be tearing into the computer-controlled camera for not framing enough of the action, the double-jumping for being a bit temperamental from time to time and so on. But with it the only price of death is a few lost coins, leaving you free to enjoy the game - and it's a game that's been designed to be enjoyed by Star Wars fans, arguably both young and old. Each of the three films is retold with lovingly jolly wordless cut-scenes full of emotive character animations and facial expressions, with lots of comic moments spread throughout each level. And with the pressure of worrying about death all the time out of the way, the player is left to revel in the genius little Force power ideas and logic puzzles, and delight in the way Traveller's Tales has managed to make the game both unmistakably Lego and Star Wars. It's like walking down two memory lanes at the same time.
Everything's authentic - even the screen-wipes. The characters are incredibly distinct for what ought to be such identikit designs, distinctly Lego-based, and beautifully animated throughout. Jedis move and fight in a kind of super-deformed cartoon manner but still manage to be more convincing with their Saber sweeps, parries and attacking styles - each of which is designed to reflect how that particular Jedi fights - than most other serious Star Wars games have ever managed. Combat is basic - little more than mashing the attack button at the right time to deflect incoming blasts, with most of the combos beyond three-strike attacks and double-jump downward thrusts largely superfluous - but the way it's framed is so strikingly magical that it sees you through to the end of the game regardless.
But it's the marriage of the developer's love for Lego with its love for Star Wars that reaps the finest rewards - worthy of recognition in the archives of the Jedi Order, methinks. Here Force-able objects are given a glowing outline when you approach, and Force powers are used to rearrange blocks into walkways, picking up scattered blocks or those formed into other shapes and disassembling and reassembling them in midair as you hold down the button. The first time you see this it's so ticklish you may have to put the pad down to giggle with childish delight. And whenever the blocks scatter, or a stream of those pesky little round coin blocks fly from a Forced object, it's just fun. After all, you don't have to collect them all up when you've made a mess. It looks, feels, and sounds like Lego that you're moving around as though you're Yoda in a swamp. My fingers are falling over themselves trying to articulate just how wondrous an experience this Force Lego Construction stuff really is.
Although there are some weak levels (timed platform jumping in the Jedi Archives and the somewhat unadventurous use of Wookiee homeworld Kashyyyk spring to mind), most are joyful; beautifully framed with their own scrolling-text-on-a-star-screen intros and regular cinematics throughout, full of clever and genuinely funny little moments that play on the nature both of the films and the toys, and so stuffed with hidden gems that you'll happily revisit them later. Even without revisiting them you can get far enough off the beaten track on Kimino, for example, to Force your clone-loving hosts to assemble their own Lego disco complete with a funked up Star Wars theme tune and dance moves. And no, it doesn't mess with the suspension of disbelief, because there is no suspension of disbelief. You are playing with a Lego Star Wars toyset straight out of Woolworth's; it just happens to be that this one has production values to rival anything Georgey boy's managed to produce with Industrial Light & Magic and Death Star-sized copies of Maya and Photoshop since 1980.
In keeping with the theme of plumbing my childhood for fond memories, there's an overwhelming number of collectibles strewn around the platformy environments, most of which are slightly hidden and some of which are well hidden, and there's real purpose to collecting as many as possible. Back in Dexter's Diner - the level hub - you can invest the coins you've collected in unlockable characters to use while tackling any completed stage in "Free Play" (when they're not busy wandering around nearby getting into charming little scraps with one another), not to mention a raft of Extras that allow you to toggle things like moustaches and old-school blasters, turn on invincibility and so on (although you'll have to collect a lot of stuff to do that one). You can even afford to be slightly profligate when hoovering up all the spoils that tinkle out of each level's every pore, because there are plenty of really entertaining bonuses that can be purchased without dual-wielding Dysons all the time. And, for those whose klepto tendencies exceed most others, there are hidden ship parts and other coins to collect, with a damn fine final extra to unlock for the truly dedicated.
Not content with simply being a brilliantly imagined, animated, filmed, balanced and engineered platform slasher, Lego Star Wars also regularly varies pace and style, moving from mostly puzzling platform action and pod racing (which is simple but handled far more elegantly and enjoyably than it has been anywhere else) to dropship combat during the first stage of the Clone Wars on Geonosis and even space combat during Episode III - a battle that looks bloody amazing on the PS2, leaving you to wonder just what the hell LucasFilm's got in store for next month's cinematic release.
The boss battles, meanwhile, are regular and well handled. Obviously with simplistic combat they do have a slight tendency to boil down to finding an attack and sticking to it, but most wriggle and squirm their way clear of that with the sort of dogged determination not witnessed in a galaxy far away since Leia was chained up on Jabba's barge and the shutters descended. A particular standout is the Darth Maul encounter, which involves a running chase along platforms, dodging fire and skirmishing against that double-bladed Lightsaber, concluding with its own touching take on the death of Qui-Gon Jinn. And the depiction of his death, the Saber blade slightly tearing his Lego torso piece clear of the leg section on one side, aptly sums up what makes the game so perfect for kids and parents alike: it's toyset violence, but it's one heck of a toyset.
Unfortunately it's over all too quickly, in just a handful of hours in fact - partly thanks to that infinite lives mechanic, and partly because there's so little to turn you away that you'll march right through it - but otherwise there isn't a great deal to complain about. The camera is sometimes less than generous - and you don't actually control it, which might take a little getting used to - but really it's not much of a hindrance at all. The AI-controlled characters have decent path-finding ability (in fact, for anybody who's ever endured badly controlled AI companions, watching Padme wander off to grapple and R2 take a lift and jetpack to join you on a high platform without even the slightest hesitation is joyous in itself). And, far from sapping the atmosphere, the decision to use meaningful poses, gestures and facial expressions instead of dialogue renders key scenes more poignant than they were on the silver screen, and the only sections where I really missed it were in Episode III - where my yearning was more to do with my wanting to see Episode III than anything else anyway.
Of course, that's an issue of its own, so to answer the obvious question, yes it will spoil bits of Episode III for you to some extent, so if you don't want to know how we get from Anakin's wedding to Leia's unconvincing flight from Lord Vader then you'll have to avoid playing the third section until you've watched the film. Fortunately, Traveller's Tales clearly recognised this in advance, which is probably one reason why there's such a clear line drawn between the different films. And frankly I like it this way; I'd love to have simply played Episodes I and II and kept the rest of the magic bottled up for the night I get back from the cinema with a look of joy/disillusionment plastered all over my face. You should consider that.
So, whilst clearly aimed at younger gamers, Lego Star Wars is definitely worth checking out if you're either a Star Wars or Lego fan, and if you're in a similar boat to me, it's essential that you at least rent it. And, if you're constantly troubled by what to buy for your own younglings, look no further; this is the perfect thing for them to enjoy after school, and for you to enjoy by night. Best of all? You can plug in a second pad and join in at any time, using Force powers in tandem to complete puzzles, tackling Darth Maul as a team, and taking Dooku now! to withering effect. If you're a Star Wars fan wondering where the magic went, look no further.