In the interests of full disclosure, here's what I knew about Star Wars: The Clone Wars before playing this game: it's a cartoon; it's set after the film where Christopher Lee fights Yoda, but before that scene where Anakin Skywalker goes bad and murders a room full of children; and there's a female Jedi who looks a bit like somebody out of Thundercats, so if you Google her name with SafeSearch off you get some very nasty results.
This is worth noting because I used to believe it was vital to understand their respective source materials to enjoy the LEGO series, but it turns out my complete ignorance of Clone Wars did little to hamper the enjoyment received from the game's many humorous cutscenes.
Yes, it's still peppered with that nice mix of slapstick and whimsy which has proved so effective in former games. While I might be about fifteen years above the target audience - since Woolworths went bust I don't know where you're supposed to even buy LEGO - I still found myself chuckling at plenty of the game's visual gags. I wasn't much into Attack of the Clones, for instance, but having an ice cream van peddle lollies during the Geonosian arena sequence (which functions as the game's introductory level) is more than amusing enough for it not to matter.
Gameplay is pretty much what you've come to expect from the series. You take an assortment of character classes - with Jedi, Clones, and Droids forming your main arsenal - and whisk them around a mix of rudimentary action sequences and simple puzzles. The game splits itself into three paths of six levels, pitting you against franchise villains Count Dooku, Asajj Ventress and General Grievous in concurrent plotlines.
Upgraded visuals make the levels bloom, with vastly improved lighting allowing galaxies to be lit up with streams of lasers going off like firework displays, mammoth numbers of enemy droids to pour through doors due to a significant bump in on-screen detail, and beefed up animations ensuring Obi-Wan Kenobi's creeping animation gets me every time. The game is still expectedly gargantuan, too: upon finishing the hefty campaign and epilogue level I was only at 45.6% completion, with a scant 34 of the game's 130 gold bricks, half of the 18 red bricks, and a measly 44 of the game's 114 characters. I also cleared the campaign without locating all the parts to any of the hidden minikits, so the less said about those the better. Curious children, or adult completionists, will find themselves invested for upwards of twenty hours.
Level design in LEGO Star Wars III also succeeds over its predecessors by allowing for a greater wealth of variety mid-mission. Large scale space battles can segue into typical smash-and-grab corridor walking, progressing into a boss battle and then back out into the galaxy. Compare this to the charming but basic design of the original LEGO Star Wars and it is clear to see just how much TT Games has developed the enduring formula over the last few years.
Jedi themselves have also been given more flair since their last LEGO outing, with greater options to twizzle their lightsabers around in the air and slam them into the ground after a jump. With slow speed and limited combat abilities, Droid usage is reserved for opening doors, whereas Clones can use their grappling hooks alongside blasters, chainguns, and missile launchers, and one type can also command others into attacking specified targets.
Commanding units takes on a new significance in the game's Ground Assault modes, which mixes the series' love of vehicles with a basic strategy game. A mini-map at the top of the screen shows a series of colour-coded circles across a large-scale environment, with blue signalling friendly and red denoting enemy encampments. Wiping out all buildings on an enemy patch turns the circle blue, thus allowing you to call in various structures to summon troops, vehicles and long-range cannons, with most of the creative thinking devoted to sussing out how to strategically dismember the enemy bases in the right order.
Ground Assault is mixed in with the game's campaign levels, though an entire mode is eventually unlocked which pits you against rival enemy commanders. The strategic options at your command are fairly limited, however, and before long you realise the enemy team will never attack your structures nor will your allies push the offensive without direct intervention. While the mode is more an illusion of the genre rather than actual RTS, it's an interesting addition that feels thematically at home considering the game's focus on the Clone army.
Also, if we feed the kids a bit of lightweight strategy early on then maybe the genre will continue to exist into the next decade.
We're back in hub zone territory, however, which is a shame when compared to the last game's rolling freedom of Hogwarts. Still, Anakin Skywalker's starship Resolute is mammoth and peppered with hidden corridors and unlockable secrets, and the initially confusing layout quickly unfolds into a homely environment.
While much has been expanded and improved over earlier iterations, a few persistent niggles remain. Switching between characters is still a fiddly and cumbersome task, for instance, and the solutions to some puzzles are surprisingly obtuse. I ended up at one particular head scratcher without having gone through the tutorial sequence (located in another level) and was therefore left fumbling around for about half an hour before figuring out that you can force droids into using their rapid-fire blasters to overheat golden bricks.
Other things are just left unexplained in their entirety. While you're able to hop on a ship and fly over to villainous battlecruiser The Invisible Hand, for instance, the game never makes this explicit and ensures its discovery remains an interesting fluke. Too often my attempts at progression hit a brick wall: I spent about an hour searching for Robonino, for instance, who is essential for accessing many of the game's locked doors, before finding him deep down within some Bounty Hunter mode that I didn't know existed. Unlike in previous games, attaining 100% seems to be impossible without resorting to internet guides.
It's also worth noting that the series' unsavoury reputation of glitching is still present, with the PS3 copy tested rendering progression impossible in two separate occasions and routinely forgetting to unlock Trophies. Anyone who thinks that's trivial clearly hasn't had the ordeal of explaining to a distraught child why they aren't getting their achievements without sacrificing their save game and restarting afresh.
There's plenty of things to like in LEGO Star Wars III, though some of them might be buried a little too deep for younger players. In a manner oddly befitting the game's LEGO heritage, its success comes from the sum of its component parts rather than any individual features. There's some well-realised ambition on display here, however, and the general experience is just as endearing as any of the previous titles in the series. At the current rate we're burning through the franchise, however, TT Games is only a couple of years away from being forced to make humorous recreations of dodgy Star Wars fanfiction.