It's a proven fact that if last year's Lego Star Wars didn't make you get a big, goofy grin the first time you saw it, you have no soul. Given that highly scientific conclusion, Lego Star Wars II: The Original Trilogy ought to tug at even the most jaded gamer's funny bone when it ships later this year. This new sequel, based on--take a guess--the original three Star Wars movies, could have been a no-brainer for LucasArts and developer Traveler's Tales. Take the first game, dump in some Han Solo, and you're done, right? But based on our first chance to play an early version of the new sequel, you'll also find a slew of mechanical tweaks and unique gameplay updates under the hood that should make Lego Star Wars II a better-playing game, in addition to all the wookiees and Death Stars.
Let's get the obvious out of the way first: All three movies--that is, A New Hope, The Empire Strikes Back, and Return of the Jedi--are equally represented here, with six levels and two bonus stages a piece to represent the high points of their respective films. We got to take a look at a number of levels from the first movie, starting with the Mos Eisley spaceport on Tatooine, where Luke Skywalker and Obi-Wan Kenobi hire a rickety cargo ship called the Millennium Falcon and begin their grand adventure. The first part of the level put the player in control of those two heroes, along with C-3PO and R2-D2, and as in the original game, you can switch to any character in your group at any time. We had to make our way to the famous cantina, at which point we took control of Han Solo and Chewbacca as we fought through waves of stormtroopers in an effort to reach the docking bay where the Falcon was docked.
Many of the new gameplay improvements were evident in this demo stage. In fact, we started out by driving into Mos Eisley in Luke's trusty landspeeder, showcasing one of the controllable vehicles that will be on offer in many of the game's levels. (In the first game, vehicles could only be used in specific vehicle-action stages.) In fact, later in the level we came upon a pile of spare parts and were quickly able to build the bipedal AT-ST (most memorable from Return of the Jedi's forest battle), hop in, and then gleefully mow down Imperials and bystanders alike with the walker's massive cannons. Decidedly un-Jedilike behavior, to be sure, but it was too much fun to resist. It didn't hurt that the environments are a lot more destructible now, so we cut a swath of mayhem through the Mos Eisley streets as we went.
Speaking of building, returning players will remember that only Force-enabled (that is, Jedi) characters could build structures and machines in the first game. Now, all nondroid characters will be able to build, and the non-Force users will simply run up to the pile of parts and start throwing them together into a functional gadget (with an inspired, hilariously frenzied bit of animation). The designers have also made an effort to give all of the characters distinctive moves and abilities to make them all worth playing. Each Jedi character will have his own special Force power, for instance: Obi-Wan can use the Jedi mind trick, while Darth Vader has his signature Force choke and the Emperor can use Force lightning. Non-Jedi characters will also have special moves of their own. Luke has an evade move before he becomes a Jedi, for instance, and many characters have unique melee attacks, such as Princess Leia, who slaps enemies in the face, and Chewbacca, who literally pulls stormtroopers' arms out of their sockets.
As if the 60-plus playable characters won't be enough for you to mess with, Lego Star Wars II will also have new character-customization options where you can mix and match all of the body parts in the game--heads, torsos, hands, legs, capes, the works--and create some disturbingly amusing new characters with a strange mix of special powers. There will also be a randomize function that will spit out the weirdest little Lego dudes, and with purportedly millions of possible body-part combinations, you ought to have plenty of playable characters to chew on. The game will even give your creations goofy names such as Chewvader or Stormbacca when you're done.
Later on, we got to see what will surely be the first stage in the game, set aboard Princess Leia's ship, Tantive IV, as it's overtaken by Darth Vader's Star Destroyer. This was a bonus level in the original game, played from the perspective of the Imperials, but this time you'll take control of Leia and friends as you try to fight off a bunch of stormtroopers and that nasty Sith lord long enough to give R2-D2 the all-important message and send him packing down to Tatooine. In keeping with the Lego Star Wars series' quirky humor, we saw some nods to the original movie in this level, such as catching a glimpse of Vader practicing his Force choke through a window. Next we saw a stage in which Luke, Obi-Wan, and friends invade the Death Star to rescue Leia. Luke and Han could walk among the stormtroopers in this level unmolested while they were dressed as stormtroopers themselves--and amusingly, so could Chewie, who merely had a helmet balanced lopsidedly on his head.
Finally, we got a look at the climactic vehicle-action stage that will cap A New Hope, which is naturally centered on Luke's triumphant X-Wing attack on the Death Star. Unlike the on-rails shooting levels in the first game, the vehicle stages in this sequel will let you go anywhere and shoot anything. This level used a sort of three-quarter overhead perspective and let you fly all over the Death Star's surface, blasting turrets and TIE Fighters before heading down for the final trench run. In the free play mode, you'll be able to switch to any of the vehicles you've unlocked up to that point at the touch of a button, so we saw this same level also being played with a Y-Wing, TIE Fighter, and even the Millennium Falcon.
In the first game, you could search for hidden "mini-kit" pieces that would eventually let you unlock entirely new vehicles, and the same is true in the sequel. But this time there will be a lot more gameplay involved in getting the mini-kit pieces, as they're often given as rewards for a bunch of new optional minigames. One such game in the Mos Eisley level had us jumping into a turret to shoot womprats that were streaming out of a building, and when we hit enough, we got the piece. The Death Star had a crazy crane-style minigame in which we had to use the crane to pick up stormtroopers and drop them down a bottomless shaft. Once you've unlocked a new vehicle (which there should be a lot of), you'll get access to a new bonus level to play with it in, though we didn't get to see any of these ships or levels in action.
On top of all this new stuff, the designers have made some basic gameplay tweaks that should make Lego Star Wars II more enjoyable for older gamers. For one, you've got a small degree of camera control now, since you can use the right analog to slightly move the perspective around. Moreover, the camera will now pull way out in two-player when your characters move away from each other, letting players put a lot of distance between each other during battle or exploration. Finally, let's face it: the difficulty of the first game was targeted at little kids. Luckily, the sequel will have an adaptive difficulty option that will pay attention to how well you're doing and subtly ramp up the difficulty to provide more of a challenge.
So far, Lego Star Wars II is looking like everything a fan of the first game could want in a sequel. In addition to the scads of new gameplay features, that adorable, characteristic sense of humor from the first game is well intact, with the little Lego dudes jumping around and mugging for the camera during the cutscenes we got to see. Speaking of cutscenes, we can say with confidence that Han does, in fact, shoot first here (revisionists, take that as you will), with Greedo flying apart at the seams in true Lego fashion. Lego Star Wars II is looking great so far, and we've only seen bits and pieces of the first third of the game, so we're excited to see what else is in store as the game's fall release date approaches. In the meantime, check out a whole bunch of gameplay videos and a new developer interview on the game's media page .