When you were a child, a parent or teacher probably told you "Stop that. It's not big and it's not clever." The latter half of this phrase sums up Lego Star Wars more concisely than any other erudite turn of phrase I could dare hope to come up with. It's not big, and it's not clever, but it's as much fun as what you were told to stop doing with that very phrase all those years ago.
Lego Star Wars takes two of the most appealing things children of all ages have ever known, and has fused them seamlessly into probably the most charming game I've had the pleasure of playing. The developers have taken the Lego theme and have run with it with imagination and humour. All the locations in the game are recognisably from the films, and they're exactly as you'd imagine them to be, had you been given a 1,000,000 piece Lego set and been asked to build them. The game has a wonderfully retro look, thanks to the blockiness of Lego pieces, but that hasn't given the developers an excuse to skimp on the graphics engine. It's a very aesthetically appealing game, and that appeal spills over into just about every aspect of the game.
For example, Jedi characters can (obviously) influence their environment with the Force. This is made obvious to the player by a coloured aura surrounding an object. When you see one of these glowing auras, pressing and holding down the B button will make you interact with it using the Force. Battle droids can be pushed backwards into walls, making them break into their individual Lego pieces, and objects such as crates, can be lifted and stacked up, allowing you to gain access to otherwise out of reach areas. There are also environmental puzzles, which can only be solved using the Force. Rubble can be manipulated to form ramps or steps, and retractable platforms can be pulled out into place. The physics involved may be simplistic at best, but the way you can manipulate these Lego blocks at the touch of a button never fails to delight. I was almost in tears of laughter at the very start of the game, when I used the Force on the chairs around the negotiating table, and they danced to the Cantina Band tune from the Mos Eisley cantina. I had to do it a second time, just to make sure my senses hadn't deceived me.
Lego Star Wars is a game that sets out to satisfy the very simple pleasures. It has been unashamedly pitched at the 5-12 year old market, but that shouldn't deter Star Wars fanatics of any age, provided that they approach the game knowing whom it was made for. Whilst I may be able to dissect the game and suggest any number of improvements that would have enhanced the gameplay, to do so would be futile. The game was designed for a far more forgiving audience than the cynical 30-year-old videogames hack.
Given the young target audience, necessity has kept the interface very simple. Movement controls aren't as fine as older players such as myself would like, but are more than efficient enough to be able to complete the game without too much frustration, provided you remember not to rush. Likewise, the 3D camera is a little finicky. Without the ability to control the camera, a few of the camera angles will frustrate more experienced gamers, but importantly, they never make the game completely unplayable, only mildly irksome. Combat is very simplistic, with only a pair of combo attacks to speak of, but again, thanks to the beautiful aesthetic presentation, it's never unsatisfying. Fighting with Jedi characters is by far the most enjoyable. Jedi have the unique ability to deflect blaster fire, and each Jedi has a very different fighting style: Qui-Gon Jinn is the most flamboyant, with fancy backstabs and flourishes; Mace Windu is devastatingly direct, with slower cuts and stronger slashes; whilst Yoda is the veritable whirling dervish, as seen at the conclusion to Attack of the Clones.
Given this obvious combat-bias, you would think that there would be no incentive to play the game using anything other than Jedi characters. Fortunately, thanks to some very canny character balancing and level design, not everything in the game can be achieved using the main Jedi characters. Blaster-based characters, such as Queen Amidala and Chewbacca, have advantages Jedi do not. Their Ascension Gun ability allows them to reach places other beers (sorry, characters) cannot reach, which allows players to collect power-ups in Free Play that would otherwise be unobtainable during Story Mode. Likewise, some doors can only be opened using droid characters such as R2-D2 and C-3PO, meaning that some parts of the game have been designed to be inaccessible on the first play through. Replayability has been factored into the game design from its initial conception, which is just as well, considering how short the game is. With only 17 levels, each taking only around 10-20 minutes each, the game can be completed in just one evening's solid play, if you really hammer through it.
It's at this point where you need to remember the game's target audience. If you're the kind of person who only plays a game through once before part exchanging it for a new title, then steer clear. Lego Star Wars is a game that has been designed with the intention of being replayed to death. With the Free Play mode, and 30 unlockable characters, you can see why. The reward system for the game revolves around the collection of Lego studs - silver studs scoring 10 points, gold studs scoring 100 points, and blue studs scoring 1,000 points. These studs can be redeemed at Dexter's Diner (a locale from Attack of the Clones, itself a reproduction of a scene from Lucas' film American Graffiti) for characters such as Jango Fett and Count Dooku, or for other unlockable items, such as outsized blasters, and even invincibility (at the prohibitive cost of 1,000,000 studs). This "gotta catch 'em all" ethos is undoubtedly there to appeal to the obsessive pre-teen player, who has been raised on the Pokèmon principle. These studs can be obtained via using the Force to pull them out of objects you can interact with, or simply by destroying objects within the game world, and there's considerable fun to be had by simply finding all the objects you can obtain studs from. Objects such as switches can also be activated via the Force, (other objects, such as targets, can be used via shooting them with blasters) unlocking objects such as Lego canisters. Ten of these canisters are hidden on each game level, constructing a vehicle, which becomes parked outside the main mission hub of Dexter's Diner.
On the face of it, these unlockable items may seem purely cosmetic, but unlocking all of these vehicles, plus completing every level with "True Jedi" status (i.e. collecting a certain number of studs within the level) will unlock a fourth campaign, rewarding the obsessive replaying the game's target audience will devote to the game. Replaying the game in Free Play mode not only allows you to collect hidden power ups unavailable in the Story Mode, but also allows you to pitch the most unlikely characters against each other. Playing the finale of Episode I with Darth Maul fighting himself is sure to raise a wry smile with even the most seasoned of gamers.
Given that the main game covers the major events of Star Wars Episodes I-III, inclusive, it should be said that the 6 game levels for Episode III contain major spoilers for the film. For those who haven't already guessed the ending of Episode III, you would do well to avoid this section of the game, until you've seen the film. For the sake of journalistic integrity, I subjected myself to the spoilers, and can say without a shadow of a doubt that if the film is half as good as the game levels, then Revenge Of The Sith represents a true return to form for the film franchise. The opening level for Episode III, where Obi-Wan and Anakin attempt to land on the Separatist command ship in Jedi Starfighters, is nothing short of spectacular, and even outweighs the grandeur of TIE-Fighter's more ambitious missions.
There is plenty of variety in the individual missions, encompassing infantry action, to pod-racing and even a Zaxxon-inspired scrolling shooter level, when you take command of a Clone Gunship towards the end of the Episode II campaign. Despite the simplicity of the gameplay, Lego Star Wars is very rewarding and a highly polished title. The game hits its mark perfectly. Star Wars fanatics from five to thirty-five will love its charm, presentation and accessibility. Whilst it might be easy for cynics to point out the game's flaws and snort that it could have been so much better than it is, you might as well criticise Halo 2 for only being able to run around shooting things. To criticise Lego Star Wars for simplistic gameplay would be to miss the point.
To end the review where we started, it's not big and it's not clever: nor was it meant to be. Lego Star Wars is about the simple things in gaming. It's not about AI, it's not about physics, and it's not about dynamic cameras. It's about having the maximum amount of fun with the minimum amount of fuss. Whilst the niggles with the camera and the controls may prevent the game from reaching the true stratospheric heights of gaming perfection, Lego Star Wars achieves everything it set out to do, with considerable panache. As videogames for the 5-12 year old age group go, this is as good as I've seen. You can call Lego Star Wars a kid's game if you like, but it has a universal appeal to children of all ages.