Video games often fall into the trap of taking themselves too seriously. The Lego franchise avoided this pitfall by lampooning properties with the plucky energy of an aspiring class clown. Charismatic, though entirely mute characters, acted out famous scenes in Star Wars, Batman, and Harry Potter, and the tongue-in-cheek guffaws made it possible to see these beloved properties in a new light. But the good-natured tomfoolery that formed the foundation of the Lego games has fallen into a predictable malaise that defeats the whole reason for their existence in the first place. Lego Star Wars III: The Clone Wars is the latest attempt to turn George Lucas' enduring property on its head, but it struggles to differentiate itself from its now-staid predecessors. Insubstantial combat interlaced with puzzles that never quite puzzle make up the bulk of this adventure, and the odd stabs at humor do little to rope you in. There is still an underlying current of entertainment that comes from rushing through the fantastical scenes in The Clone Wars, but this familiar entry never captures the spark that made the other Lego adventures such a welcome breath of fresh air.
With the six cinematic episodes of Star Wars already given the Lego makeover, it's time for the franchise to turn its sights to television. The first two seasons of The Clone Wars are the punching bag this time around, and you're expected to have a basic understanding of the story before you begin playing. You don't need to know your Lok Durd from your Thi Sen to have fun, but you should have some grasp of the source material. The cutscenes before stages and gags that happen during the action require a familiarity with the characters and events, so a lot of the jokes don't make much sense if you're new to this chapter of the universe. One thing is always funny, though: Jar Jar Binks. He's a dim-witted man-rabbit that nobody likes and has a comedic bull's-eye painted on his back. He falls, gets left behind, and is otherwise treated like the buffoon that he is, so even Clone Wars neophytes have something to laugh at.
The action is spread across 13 worlds of three acts apiece. You always have a small group of characters to switch among, and you spend most of the time on foot solving puzzles, whacking enemies, and collecting as many studs as you can. There is plenty of variety in The Clone Wars, though none of the activities are strong enough to hold your attention for long. Combat crops up around every corner, where battle droids and mischievous Sith are intent on cutting your adventure short. You can slice through a small platoon with a few quick strikes from your glowing sword or zaps from your blaster, and the ease with which you achieve victory turns these frequent scuffles into repetitive slogs. If you should happen to die, you immediately reappear in the same spot you were last standing, with a tiny portion of your pool of studs stripped away for your clumsiness. The boss fights fall into the same rut. General Grievous wielding four blades does little to stand up to your frenetic onslaught, and his various minions and cohorts topple just as quickly.
Things don't fare much better when you have to use your noggin. Puzzles abound in The Clone Wars, and your party of skilled individuals might lead you to believe careful planning is needed to make it through unscathed. But that is sadly not the case. Whenever you approach a potential stumper, the game beeps, R2D2 pops his head onto the screen, and the appropriate party member begins to flash. This removes any thought from the proceedings. You may come to a bottomless pit and wonder how you could ever cross such a wide chasm. But before you can say, "Excuse me, Princess," Kit Fisto starts to blink, and the answer is revealed. More troubling is the fact that there are only a few different types of puzzles. Most of them involve smashing a nearby object and using the bits and pieces to form a platform. Once erected, you can perform a Jedi leap or latch a rope with your clone trooper, and go on your way. There are a couple of block-pushing situations, a brief minigame for the droids, and the occasional switch to pull, but not much else. The puzzles serve little purpose other than to give you busy work to distract you from the mundane action.
During a few stages, you take to the air in hectic dogfights. The lumbering pace of the on-foot levels is replaced by fast-moving bombing runs, and there are moments of genuine fun while you dodge attacking ships and unleash a retaliatory missile barrage. As in the rest of the game, the action is streamlined to a fault, so don't expect much challenge or diversity. It's still a refreshing change of pace from the core action, though, and it's freeing to be able to fly unrestrained in such large sections. Not only are the space battles the most exciting sections of this otherwise drab game, but they're also the best looking. Spinning satellites, persistent cruisers, and plodding frigates drift around you, and it's a dizzying rush to twirl away from an attacker with a last-second barrel roll. The 3D effects are at their best when you're flying above ground. The depth-of-field effect makes it seem like you're hurtling toward your target, with stray bits of shrapnel rushing right toward your eyes. The ground missions aren't nearly as impressive in this regard. The backgrounds often look flat and lifeless, and the onscreen cursor that you use to aim your gun often just hovers in the foreground.
Lego Star Wars III: The Clone Wars never lives up to the lofty heights set by its predecessors. It's so utterly predictable that anyone who has played the first two Lego Star Wars games won't find any surprises to suck them in, and that sense of sameness casts a cloud over the whole adventure. The sleepy rhythm of solving puzzles and dispatching foes rarely manages to excite, and even the bosses do little to impede your progress. Odd moments of excitement do occur in the flying missions, though these are the only intense parts of a tired experience. The Clone Wars provides a charming slant on the Star Wars saga, but its steadfast refusal to evolve makes it too familiar for its own good.