This curious blend of big-name brands tells the earlier parts of the Star Wars story in a version of films' universe that's been built from scratch with Lego parts and people. The game highlights the action of Episodes I through III (the more recent, prequel films); players take control of thoroughly Lego versions of heroes such as Qui-Gon Jinn, Obi-Wan Kenobi, Princess Amidala, Anakin Skywalker, and others, to battle through action-oriented levels based on the films' settings, but constructed entirely with Lego blocks.
Different characters has a different special skills, and this leads to some exploration and puzzle-solving gameplay along with the 3D platform-style action and combat. As they progress, heroes earn credits which can be spent to unlock new characters. The main game features unlimited lives, encouraging players to explore the secrets hidden in each area. Lego Star Wars was originally developed by Traveller's Tales, a studio previously known for its handling of licensed properties in games such as A Bug's Life, Finding Nemo, The Weakest Link, and Crash Bandicoot: The Wrath of Cortex.
It would probably not surprise you to learn that for the last two years my desk has been adorned with a tiny LEGO Darth Vader minifig, guarding my left PC speaker with silent, plastic menace. There's just something crazy about the juxtaposition: the grim masked horror of the most villainous character in modern mythology, packed into an adorable body the size of my thumb with cute itty-bitty little grabby hands. You just want to pick him up and play with him.
That same playful spirit fills LEGO Star Wars, with similar results. You just want to pick it up and play with it. The characters are irresistible, sometimes grim and determined despite their little plastic bodies, and sometimes just downright silly. The ridiculous sight of their adventures in the Star Wars universe will reel you in, but the brilliantly elegant gameplay will keep you coming back for more. LEGO Star Wars is one of those rare surprises where a game exceeds its original licenses.
Here's the way it works: you and your LEGO pals whip your way through all of the best action sequences from the most recent Star Wars trilogy (including a spoiler-filled quest through Episode III that you might want to hold off on.) Each chapter requires more than one LEGO character to work together, and they all have special abilities. R2-D2 can open certain doors, young Anakin Skywalker can crawl through tiny vents, and Jar-Jar -- for once good for more than comic relief -- can jump higher than the other characters. Other minifigs can use their blasters to shoot enemies or grappling hooks to swing across gaps or up onto platforms.
The most powerful characters are naturally the Jedi, who can fight with lightsabers or use their force powers on the environment. Enemy droids can be hurled across the room with a touch of a button, exploding into a pile of plastic LEGO parts. Force powers can also be used to flip levers or move pieces around. And most importantly, Jedi can manipulate LEGO blocks, reforming a wall into a bridge or a crate into a tower that you can climb. Discovering what all a Jedi can manipulate on each level yields all kinds of surprises and secrets, some of which are worth a laugh or two (like a hidden disco on the planet Kamino.)
In an elegant bit of game design, you can use your lightsaber to deflect incoming blaster bolts. If you hold down the attack button, you'll block everything coming your way, becoming for the most part invincible. But, if you time it out and hit the button just before the blaster bolt reaches you, you'll deflect it back toward the firer. This trick is a little riskier but can be used to clear away a bunch of enemies standing on a far away ledge.
Each chapter has a number of challenges that require you to switch between characters in order to proceed. For instance, you might need Amidala to grapple up to a ledge to shoot some LEGO blocks down with her blaster. Once they fall, Anakin can use his force powers to rearrange them into a platform, which R2-D2 can hover over to in order to access a particular computer panel. Solved! The puzzles are simple but extremely clever; gameplay moves fast and it's fun to see all the characters using their talents together.
This tag-team gameplay naturally lends itself to multiplayer, and it's here that LEGO Star Wars shines. During single-player gameplay you can switch characters just by walking up and pressing a button to swap places. In co-op mode, two players play different characters simultaneously on the same screen. This is a little awkward at times with the fixed camera angles (occasionally you might accidentally force your friend into a chasm), but with so few cooperative games available it's a welcome change of pace. It's also perfect for kids and adults to play together. There's a real sense of satisfaction that comes from solving a puzzle that requires two characters working as one -- such as in one instance where two Jedi need to levitate each other simultaneously up to an otherwise unreachable platform.
But multiplayer is also one of the places where the PC version of the game suffers a liability. You really need two gamepads to appreciate this title. It's true that both players can play at the same keyboard, but this is extremely awkward -- keyboards simply aren't designed for four hands at once. It's also possible to play with one player at the keys and another on a gamepad, but in general the keyboard controls (there's no mouselook support at all) are a far cry from the precision you get with a nice analog stick. Unless you've got a couple of gamepads handy or don't own a next-gen system, you're better off picking up one of the console versions of this title (Check out the PS2 Review).
While we're on the subject, aside from the control issues, the developers did a good job with the port. Instead of bringing over the low-resolution art from the consoles, all of the graphics are crisp and clean and take advantage of the latest 3D cards. We've had the game cranked up to 1600x1200 resolution, and load times are fast as well.
One of the real joys of LEGO Star Wars is the sheer amount of unlockable stuff. As you rampage through the levels you can collect little circular LEGO "studs," which act as the game's currency, not to mention a great incentive to explore. You can use your coinage to unlock additional game features like purple lightsabers, enormous blasters, or even ridiculous-looking mustaches for the characters (!?). Coins can also buy additional characters, anything from the little wobbly garbage-can droid to villains like Darth Maul or Jango Fett. (Jango can fly through the level with his jetpack firing blasters akimbo -- awesome!)
Also hidden throughout each level are little LEGO storage containers. Collecting all of the LEGOs from a particular level will build a special mini-vehicle that you can admire, parked in the parking lot outside the game's main hub area. Many of these kits are ones that you can buy in real life.
Unlocking all the characters is particularly fun, and not just because they roam around the hub level after you earn them. Once you complete a level in story mode, you can re-play it with any character you unlocked. You can fight your way through the imperial palace on Naboo with Darth Maul and a battle droid, for instance -- he's even got special dual-lightsaber moves. You'll need to run through each level a couple of times with the various characters to find all of the secret stuff, so there's a lot of gameplay here.
Best of all, it's lighthearted, simple gameplay. Whenever you 'die' you simply lose some of the studs you collected, most of which your teammate can quickly scoop up. It's pretty much impossible not to complete a level; this is one of the friendliest games on the market. It's a challenge to get all the stuff, but never a challenge to forge on ahead.
Adding to that playful sense of fun are the great cutscenes, where hysterically animated LEGO characters mutely grunt their way through key scenes in the movies. Yep, there's no actual spoken dialogue: that means nobody ever utters the word "metachlorians." Even if you didn't necessarily like the movies, you'll probably have a great time with the game.
That's what LEGO Star Wars is all about: a great time. Whether it's the nostalgia or the cuteness that hooks you in, the gameplay makes it worth sticking around. SO many games take themselves too seriously and forget about the fun; that's not a problem here. Heck, in a perfect world, we'd love to see this concept taken to other franchises like The Matrix, Spider-Man or Lord of the Rings. You're best sticking with the console versions of the title, but if you're packing a couple of gamepads, the PC version is almost certain to please.
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