Star Wars The Clone Wars: Lightsaber Duels should have been the perfect Wii game. You're swinging lightsabers, elegant weapons of a more civilized age, against Separatist droids, Sith lords, and, perhaps deadliest of all, your foul-mouthed friends. But just as aspiring sports stars have often been let down by the not-quite-there-yet Wii motion controls, so too will would-be Jedi eager to wield the power of the Force in their hands. No matter how many midi-chlorians flow though your veins, you don't so much wield as you do waggle the Force.
The events of Lightsaber Duels are pulled directly from both the Clone Wars CG-animated movie and the animated series. In the Star Wars universe, this places you squarely between Episodes II and III, and Anakin has yet to be tempted by the dark side of the Force. In fact, the Jedi Order has given him his own apprentice, the brash young Padawan Ahsoka Tano, and Obi-Wan Kenobi takes endless joy in watching Anakin struggle to transition from student to teacher. Together, you attempt to foil a plot by the Separatist forces to kidnap Jabba the Hutt's son. Supposedly, this will convince the crime lord Jabba to side with the Jedi in the Clone Wars, and order and happiness will be restored to the galaxy. Of course, arthropod uberdroid General Grievous, Sith lord Count Dooku, and his supersecret apprentice Asajj Ventress stand in your way. Let the dueling begin.
Lightsaber Duels holds true to many of the standard tenets of fighting games, and it even advances a few of them. The best-two-out-of-three format has been beefed up so a short cutscene will play seamlessly between rounds, which is a big improvement over a giant "Round 2!" sign popping up in the middle of the screen. In the heat of battle, you'll often cross lightsabers with your enemy, and the camera will zoom in to show, for example, Obi-Wan taunting Dooku with quips like "If Qui-Gon could see you now..." Indeed, every character has lines of dialogue recorded specifically for every other fighter in the game. Anakin will banter with Obi-Wan as if the fight were a training exercise, whereas Ventress and Grievous will argue over who deserves to be Dooku's number two. The newsreel-style scenes that introduce each episode of the animated series (sadly with the same out-of-place, annoying narrator) also preface each duel in the game. LucasArts worked hand-in-hand with Lucasfilm Animation, and it paid off. Cinematic flair abounds in Lightsaber Duels, and few movie-based games make you feel so close to the actual source material.
If only the actual gameplay felt so authentic. Hacking away with big, broad, Darth Maul-inspired strokes is simply too imprecise to be effective. Instead, you are forced to flick the Wii Remote slightly from side to side to land the desired attack. Instead of feeling like you are brandishing a devastating laser sword, you feel as if you're waggling a plastic game controller. When you get past the limitation of the motion controls, the only thing waiting is an oversimplified fighting system. There are plenty of moves--flick left and right for horizontal attacks, up and down for vertical strikes, push toward the screen to stab--but there is only one path to victory on all but the easiest difficulty setting. Basic strikes are largely ineffective and easily blocked or parried. Instead, you must link together preset combos, the final hit of which is unblockable. This will fill up your Force meter, which unlocks unblockable Force strikes. Force-throwing rocks or crates that litter the battlefield is useless because you take a big hit to your Force meter and your enemy takes minimal damage. After trying every move in your arsenal, this process of elimination will teach you to perform a preset combo, fill up your Force meter, use a Force strike, and repeat.
Star Wars fans who have dreamed of creating their own combat combos will be disappointed that this system isn’t very dynamic. Only the preset combos (which do at least look strong enough to befit a Jedi) do any significant damage, and you're consequently forced to repeat them throughout each battle. At least there are some quick reflexes involved. Faster characters can Force-jump out of the path of an oncoming combo, and a parry system lets you quickly turn the tables on an enemy. You parry by flicking (your remote? your lightsaber?) in the opposite direction of your enemy, but doing so successfully feels more like a lucky guess than a feat of skill--again, due to the unwieldy control.
In the single-player campaign, you are limited to playing as only Anakin, Obi-Wan, and Ahsoka, and the simple fighting system negates the individual skills of each fighter. They are each rated in Force attacks, combos, Force energy, and speed, and though spry Ahsoka seems twice as fast as the plodding Kenobi, the nature of the fighting system forces you to play each character in exactly the same way. After you beat the campaign, you can unlock Dooku, Ventress, Mace Windu, Kit Fisto, Plo Koon, General Grievous, and EG-05, the Jedi-hunter droid created exclusively for Lightsaber Duels. Any character is available for a Challenge mode, but it's merely a series of goals within a battle, such as win in less than three minutes and execute two combos. You don't fully appreciate each individual character and the differences between them until you engage in multiplayer.
As expected, the more spontaneous actions of a friend remove many of the repetitious elements of single-player duels. Battles tend to be long and intense, if light on strategy; waggling as fast as possible is often effective. But characters such as Grievous and EG-05 are ridiculously overpowered. They don't have a Force meter or any Force powers, but they somehow have unlimited (and unblockable) Force strikes. If you miss with a Force strike, you leave yourself open for attack, but more often than not you blast right through your opponent's defenses and take off a good chunk of health in the process. And...repeat.
On the other hand, the arenas are excellent, and you'll do battle in Jabba's rancor pit with stormtroopers firing at you, or onboard Dooku's flagship as an epic space battle takes place in the distance. Each area has several tiers that can be reached via Force jump, and destructible items can be used to your advantage, such as thermal detonators. If you squint your eyes in the middle of a Force combo in these engaging arenas, it almost appears as if you're watching the animated series.
Although the game is technically proficient and accurate, it all comes down to how you view the animated features, which are clearly geared toward a younger set. With that in mind, Lightsaber Duels has superior production values that younger fans of the animated series will truly appreciate. Of course, there is also a set of disenfranchised older fans that have tried to erase The Phantom Menace from their memories and shudder at the thought of a Star Wars cartoon, but at this point, there may be no pleasing them.
For fans eager to finally wield a lightsaber, there will be no pleasing them, either. There is no suspension of disbelief due to the simplistic fighting mechanics and imprecise controls, and your dreams of feeling like an all-powerful Jedi remain unrealized. LucasArts gave it a great try, with faithful graphics, sound, and cinematic flair, but for legions of rabid Star Wars fans, it's do or do not. There is no try.