Star Wars games on consoles have historically required gamers to stretch their imaginations a bit. The crude collection of pixels against a white backdrop on the Atari 2600 didn't exactly make for a photo-realistic re-creation of the battle of Hoth, but it got the job done with the help of a liberal dose of imagination. As console hardware has gotten more powerful, there's been a lot less pressure on players to "fill in the blanks." The latest example of this pleasing trend in games is LucasArts' upcoming Star Wars: The Clone Wars for the GameCube and PlayStation 2. Developed by Pandemic studios, of Dark Reign II and Battlezone II fame, the game attempts to capture the feel of the near-mythic conflict referenced in the movie franchise. We've spent some time with a previewable build of the GameCube version and have come away pleased with how it's shaping up.
For those unfamiliar with the story behind the Clone Wars (all two of you), the conflict is one of the key events in the Star Wars mythos and marks the beginning of the end for the Jedi knights. The war centers on the battle between the freshly minted clone army of the Republic seen in Episode II and the combined forces of the Trade Federation and a group of systems hoping to secede from the Republic. The whole mess is kicked off by the battle at Geonosis seen at the end of Episode II, which serves as Clone Wars' first level. The game then heads off into an original story focusing on Count Dooku's search for an ancient Sith weapon and the Jedi's efforts to stop him while dealing with the growing conflicts associated with the war.
The gameplay in Clone Wars is of the linear, story-driven variety, and it sends you to six worlds as the game's plot unfolds. You'll play as one of three Jedi--Mace Windu, Obi Wan Kenobi, or Anakin Skywalker--and each level will be broken up into smaller mission-based segments that will offer quite a bit to do. Each segment will have at least one main objective, in addition to bonus objectives that will unlock extras in the game if you complete them. The objectives include search-and-destroy missions, escorting convoys or craft, straight combat with enemy forces, outracing an explosion, and boss battles. Audio cues during a mission will keep you up to speed on what to do and let you know if you're in danger of losing mission-critical craft. You'll get the chance to fight on foot and pilot vehicles such as a Republic gunship, an assault walker, a speeder bike, a fighter tank, a STAP, and an AAT over the course of a single level. Each craft will have its own handling quirks, and you'll either adapt quickly or go up in a blaze of glory on the battlefield. For a change of pace, you'll be able to ride a creature called maru, which is a cross between a tauntaun and a horse.
Graphically, the game is coming along. The various craft and environments feature an impressive amount of detail thanks to the game's high polygon count. Most of the environments you'll be making your way through in the game offer quite a few wide-open spaces that provide a good sense of scale. Little touches such as the way your assault tank is buffeted by a shock wave after a large craft is brought down complement the game's presentation nicely. In other areas, the crush of troops, craft, and the ensuing weapons fire does an excellent job of capturing the sheer insanity of the battlefield. The frame rate gets a bit erratic during the crazier moments but stays pretty stable otherwise. The presentation is clean, with the bulk of the plot being advanced by real-time cutscenes that keep you in the game, although you will find some CG sequences thrown in for good measure.
The game's sound matches the quality of its graphics. Thanks to Skywalker Sound, every blaster shot and ricochet in the game will come straight from the same sound libraries used for the films. The game's support of Dolby Pro Logic II will make sure gamers with home theaters will get quite a bit of love. The game's score draws on many of the familiar themes, most notably the infamous "Imperial March." In terms of voice acting, the cast does a fair job of matching various actors' inflections.
Star Wars: The Clone Wars continues to come together on the GameCube. The game's graphical and auditory components are coming together well and should please fans of the franchise. The gameplay is also coming along and remains engaging. We'd like to see the difficulty tweaked a bit, as some of the levels we went through were pretty brutal, and we'd also like to see the frame rate locked down before the game ships this fall, but other than that, Star Wars: The Clone Wars for the GameCube should be one to watch for.