ron, Dec-24 2007

About Lego Star Wars

Unless I'm criminally overlooking something Lego Star Wars: The Complete Saga is one of only two PS3 games that fall roughly into the third-person platforming category. It's not nearly as essential as Ratchet&Clank Future: Tools Of Destruction, but the scarcity of peers makes it somewhat more attractive, and I've briefly pimped it before, so I might as well go into a little more depth with this one.
As you might expect, each level in the game is a representation of a scene from the source material, and you at first get to play them with a fixed, appropriate choice of characters. The game fully embraces co-op play in all of its on-foot levels, which represent the vast majority of the game, which means you'll always have a team of at least two characters, and a second player, as long as they can hold a controller the correct way around, can join in anywhere. If you play alone, you can switch between which character you control by facing your desired new avatar and pressing a button. It's a simple but smart system that leads to many interesting co-oppable puzzles that still work in solo play.

After finishing a level once, you unlock it for free play, which allows you to swap in any (two) character(s) you have already unlocked. This is key to properly finishing everything that can be done in each level, because characters have slightly different movement abilities: there's jumps vs double-jumps, jump height itself of course, and some droids have thrusters that let them float forward for long distances. There are also computer terminals for certain droids to operate, small hatches that only kids can squeeze into and other barriers that only certain characters can pass. The humanoids are further differentiated by their weapon archetype, blasters vs light-sabers, plus their respective secondary skills, a grappling hook and the proverbial force.
There are traversal elements in here, but movement itself is still relatively simple. Characters can only ever hop onto ledges and objects but not climb with their hands.

The puzzles are built around three main ideas: breaking stuff, building stuff and moving stuff around with the force. As this is Lego Star Wars, everything decomposes into Lego blocks, and your characters can frequently "discover" piles of plastic raw material this way, from which they can then build objects. These are often just decoration, or can only be smashed again, to earn money, but sometimes they form ledges or bridges that open the way forward, or the result might even be an armed vehicle.
The puzzles based around the force are the most interesting, as (aspiring) Jedi characters can move objects around from afar, or just wiggle a bit of extra cash out of them. Stacking objects (in the correct order) to reach a higher ledge is one application for this, and at other times it will be another variant of the aforementioned construction-type puzzle. Then there are advanced co-op applications where two Jedi-type characters stand on two different objects and simultaneously lift each other up to a higher ledge. In any case, being able to remote-manipulate objects in the environment without having to walk up to them, or carry them around, is rather convenient and makes these puzzles feel fast and interesting.

The puzzling is a big part of the game, but Lego Star Wars is a collectathon at heart. All you ever achieve in the game besides raw progress is collecting money which you then pour into your collection of playable characters, collecting parts of collectible ship models, collecting gold bricks that let you unlock bonus levels and silly extras and a few other bits and bobs that really don't fit into this sentence anymore. If you were to ignore any and all optional collectibles on offer, the actual game at the core of all this rummaging reveals itself as very short, and it doesn't pose much of a challenge either (you have infinite retries, you just lose a little money each time you die, if you still have any). Well, some challenge there still is: for a big-license game, the combat system is almost too demanding, because you will have to swing your light-saber at the correct time to deflect shots back at enemies. If you swing too early, you will still block but the shot will be deflected somewhere, not back towards the enemy, and if you swing too late, you get hit and lose health of course. The light-saber combat against large groups of shrub enemies is entirely built around these timing-based counters, and I have to give a nod to Traveller's Tales for integrating any such skill-based challenge at all, even though it doesn't mask the observation that anyone can pretty much breeze through the game. And again, if you do breeze, it's short.

However, given the draw of the source material, there are a few things this game just has to do, check-boxy as they may seem, namely letting you play as whatever your favourite character is, letting you play through the big events in the Star Wars movies, and most of all, letting a wide range of people, err, playsucceed. The game is designed to do these things, and it does them pretty well actually, and that imposes certain limits to how it can validly be criticised.
The one cardinal sin is the way all the cash you are going to want to collect spews out from its dozens of big and small sources throughout each and every level (of which there a 36 by the way). You wiggle a flower-pot and these Lego bits go flying high and far, to disappear five seconds later, they don't home in to your character, so if you want them, you have to run right through them. This isn't difficult, but it takes a lot of time. I suspect this has been done deliberately to stretch the effective length of the game, but it's hard to accept after playing so many other games where picking up small bits and bobs is semi-automatic (e.g. bolts in Ratchet&Clank, orbs in God Of War).

The other big annoyance is that in many areas, enemies respawn infinitely. You will find yourself in these huge, open playgrounds with tons of objects to manipulate, things to build, secret bonus items to discover, but you can't play with them because literally every ten seconds a new wave of stormtroopers starts heading your way and throws you off again.
The final, almost predictable, complaint is the camera. Ala Ico, the camera is fully automatic and the right analog stick performs just minor adjustments on the angles that are chosen for you. Most of the time, the camera behaves acceptably, but it does play its part in making hidden items hidden, and it does play its part in making platforming challenges more challenging, both of which are rather sad ways to spruce up a game in my opinion, no matter the genre or style. Also, it's annoying that you often can't see attackers because the automatic camera is close to your character and faces the wrong direction. Most enemies have ranged weapons, and reacting to a shot that enters your field of view a couple of meters before it hits you, with no further warning time, is just too hard to bother with. It's fortunate that the game just lets you continue in-place if you die. Otherwise this flaw would have had the potential to break the game.

The PS3 version looks very clean and sharp, lacks anti-aliasing but runs at 60fps. Whenever it dips, and it does dip at some points, there's some screen tearing going on, which is known to annoy some people, so I'm putting that info out here, even though it doesn't bother me personally. The alternative to the tearing would be an immediate, stern drop to 30fps, and that's far more irritating to me, so I'm glad about the choice that was made. Lego Star Wars doesn't smack you over the head with bump-mapped blood crusts, but with simple shapes, cute, mute but emotive characters, and the occasional specular highlight where it's appropriate. The background formations that aren't built from Lego blocks have a slightly higher dose of realism applied, but are still rather stylized and fit in well with the character designs. The only ways the game somewhat impresses visually is with the high framerate, and occasionally by throwing literally dozens of characters onto the screen at once, while still maintaining that framerate, but the look is consistent in itself, appealing, and a great fit for the two licenses that have been combined here.

Lego Star Wars is not perfect by any stretch of the imagination, but due to the absence of any true punishments, it's easy to accept its flaws. On the top-side, its frequent puzzles feel fresh and unique, due to being built on inventive mechanics, and the combat is slightly but noticeably above trivial. In other words it's a game that despite being built on a major licensed property and all the expectations that come with it, still incorporates a number of solid design decisions. Where many other big-license games become entirely worthless if you take away the associations with the licensed material, Lego Star Wars would without a doubt be worse off, but it could still stand as a solid game with its own gameplay identity and its own merits. Or in other words, going in with Star Wars nostalgia greatly enhances the experience, but it doesn't make it.
It does take a lot of words to do it correctly, but now that I'm done here, I can safely recommend the game. The deal is further sweetened by The Complete Saga's relatively low asking price of 40~45€ in some shops. If you're feeling festive and want to do yourself (or your kids) a favour, it might very well do the trick.

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