Star Wars: Episode I Starfighter Hands-On

The Star Wars franchise is coming to the PS2, and we spent some quality time with a recenty build of the game to see how its shaping up.

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LucasArts' first PlayStation 2 project, Star Wars Starfighter, is a shooter in the vein of Tie Fighter and Rogue Squadron, and it features a completely original storyline that explains much of the back story of Star Wars: Episode I - The Phantom Menace. We recently got the chance to sit down with an early build of the game and found that, though still early in the development process, Starfighter may be the best Star Wars game yet.

Daron Stinnett, the game's producer, explained that since Episode I isn't a huge militaristic campaign in the same sense that Return of the Jedi and Empire Strikes Back are, his team felt compelled to create an entirely original storyline that parallels the events in Episode I, yet has its own story arc that meshes with the arc of Episode I. Starfighter's story centers on three characters, each with his or her own motives for wanting to see the Trade Federation abolished. Rhys, a rookie Naboo fighter-pilot recruit, is the game's main character. He teams up with Vana, a space-smart beauty who spends most of her time in deep space, and Nym, a gruff space pirate notorious for raiding Trade Federation convoys. The game starts with Reyes, who is on escort duty for the Queen's transport when the entire convoy is attacked by a band of mercenaries. The story then shifts to Vanna's point of view and explains why she decides to strike at the Trade Federation, and then it shifts to Nihm to set up his plotline. As the game progresses, the story will alternate between characters, explaining their personal storylines as they eventually merge into one.

The most impressive feature of Star Wars Starfighter is the game's graphics. To be blunt, Starfighter has some of the prettiest backgrounds we've seen in any game. The first level we were shown features Nym battling several fighters and ground troops over a red Mars-like planet. A huge reddish-brown river twists its way through the landscape and hosts battle boats and other threats. The landscape itself looks absolutely amazing, and it's easily the most impressive thing we'd seen in the game - that is, until Stinnett aimed the fighter for space and flew straight up for a half a minute. When he eased off and turned the ship around to look down at the planet, the result was astonishing - the entire planet was right there, with no fog or polygonal breakup. You could see every little detail: every dwarfed tank and ground unit, moving like ants against the massive landscape; every mountain; every crater; and the entire path of the river. Everything in Starfighter looks so clean that it's easy to forget you're looking at a video game.

Another level puts you in the shoes of Rhys, who must fly low over a river deep in a ravine and destroy several different gun turrets, and eventually a huge shield generator, so your friends can escape the ravine. As you enter the level, you fly out of a tunnel behind a huge three-kilometer-high waterfall. Turning around to examine the waterfall is something else, and it really shows you exactly how huge the levels in Starfighter are. But not all the action takes place inside the atmospheres of planets - another level has you launching an offensive against a Trade Federation space station exactly like the one Anakin blew up in Episode I. The proportions of the fighters and the station have been carefully planned, and your puny ship is simply dwarfed by the gigantic floating colony. But what came next impressed me the most. Stinnett flew the fighter inside the station, just like in the movie. The insides of the station are enormous. You fly in through the fighter bay, and as such several platforms with parked fighters are moving about, shuffling the ships into launch position. Interior cannon turrets fire away at you as you make your way toward the internal reactor, which is located at the heart of a huge room. Watching this mission unfold really clicked for me, and for the first time I really felt as if I were in the Star Wars universe, as if I was really there, destroying this huge space station.

The rest of the game is still very early in the development process, and it will see major changes before the development team is finished with the game. At this point, the game features some good voice-over work, but Stinnett admitted he wasn't completely happy with all the voices and would probably redo many of them. The backgrounds and level design are still in the early stages as well, and they're still being tweaked to ensure that Starfighter has the most compelling levels found in any shooter.

Starfighter is still young in its developmental cycle, but it shows amazing potential. If what we've seen of the game is any indication, Star Wars Starfighter may be the new yardstick for not only Star Wars games, but also space-based shooters in general.

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