In recent years, the Star Wars and Lego names haven't necessarily brought to mind the finest video games, which makes Traveller's Tales' upcoming action title Lego Star Wars all the more improbable. As the name implies, the game brings together two universes that have already found considerable success in the toy market and makes them work impressively as a cutesy action platformer that's accessible to all ages. Even better, it's also a lot of fun.
First off, Lego Star Wars covers only the prequel trilogy, so we're not expecting to see Luke Skywalker, Han Solo, or Darth Vader anywhere (though we'd like to be proven wrong). You'll get to play a smattering of action levels from each of the three prequels--The Phantom Menace, Attack of the Clones, and the upcoming Revenge of the Sith--and the game will cast you as a number of prominent characters, both good and bad, from all three films. A huge number, in fact, as it's said there will be at least 30 playable characters available once you've explored the entire game. We saw a good number of levels on offer, from the Trade Federation ship at the beginning of Episode I to the Kamino cloning platform in Episode II, and even a brief glimpse of the Wookiee planet Kashyyyk, which will be featured in the upcoming third movie.
The action in Lego Star Wars is extremely easy to get a handle on. Each playable character has a basic attack, a jump, and a special move. The Jedi, for instance, have lightsabers that they can swing and use to deflect blaster bolts, and they can use the Force as their special power to manipulate items in the environment in a lot of interesting ways. You'll often have to use the Force to stack objects on top of each other to reach new heights, for instance, and you can use it to push enemies around, too. Other characters have their own special powers. Amidala has a grappling hook she can use to get to high places, the destroyer droid can use its force field to ward off attacks, and everyone's favorite source of comic relief, Jar Jar Binks, can jump higher than most characters.
Each level will see you fighting alongside an AI companion, and a second player can join in at any time to help out with the fighting (or to duel you, which we found amusing in itself). In situations where two people are required to cooperate to solve a puzzle, the AI knows what to do and will help you out without hesitation, but of course it's a lot more fun to play with another real person. In addition to fighting off hordes of enemies together, you'll get to compete for Lego studs (which serve as the game's currency), not to mention beat up on each other whenever you get the urge.
The first time you play through a level, you'll have to play with the characters that are relevant to that part of the story. The first level, for instance, has you playing as Qui-Gon Jinn and Obi-Wan Kenobi on the Trade Federation ship, while you'll take control of Amidala and Captain Panaka as you try to escape the palace in Theed. But you'll also pick up helpers throughout a mission that you can switch to at will to accomplish certain things. For instance, the TC-14 protocol droid will join you in the first mission, and you'll have to use it to open certain doors that only droids can access. You'll accumulate a store of playable characters as you go through the game, and you'll also be able to purchase more characters (particularly the dark-side ones) when you've amassed enough Lego studs.
So what good are all these characters? Lego Star Wars has a neat feature called the "free play" mode that lets you go back and replay any level you've already been through using all the characters you've unlocked. You can cycle through them all instantly at the press of a button, so if you want to use Darth Maul to sweep the Trade Federation levels or play as Yoda in the arena on Geonosis, you're welcome to. In fact, the levels will be chock-full of new areas to explore that only previously unavailable characters will have access to, so there ought to be a lot of incentive to go back and check things out a second time. Besides, mixing up characters across different movies holds a lot of appeal in itself.
Lego Star Wars really has a great look that's consistent with both the Star Wars movies and the Lego milieu. The characters look just like those ubiquitous little Lego people that you've no doubt seen here and there (they're impossible to avoid, since the Lego company has sold around 3 billion of them), with blocky legs and feet and amusingly blank expressions on their faces. All the level backgrounds have a clean, sparsely detailed look to them that's reminiscent of the Lego Star Wars toys that have been released (and in fact, many of the vehicles in the game are taken straight from that line). The real star of the visuals, though, is the animation, which brings the characters to life in a hilarious manner during cutscenes and actual gameplay. The game features no dialogue, so all the communication will take place through the wildly overdone character animation, goofy facial expressions, and so on. It will have plenty of music from the movies, though, not to mention authentic sound work done by the wizards at Skywalker Sound.
Frankly, we were pretty impressed by Lego Star Wars, given that it's simply a lighthearted action game at its core, with an admittedly kiddie-oriented visual style. But even if you don't worship at the altar of Binks, the game ought to have something to offer you, what with the ludicrous number of characters and the endearing style and presentation. Look for Lego Star Wars to pop up on the PS2, Xbox, and PC in April of next year (just a few weeks before the release of Revenge of the Sith), and expect more updates before then.