With the whole collection of six films already well and truly under their belt, we were beginning to wonder if the end was in sight for LEGO Star Wars. With Traveller's Tales seemingly having moved on to create games about a boy wizard, some pirates, a superhero and an archaeologist, the company seemed to have moved on from the game that started it all, despite the wealth of Star Wars stories that take place outside the films.
For LEGO Star Wars 3: The Clone Wars, however, Traveller's Tales have dived straight back into the Star Wars universe, taking the story from the first two series of the incredibly popular animated TV show of the subtitle as their inspiration, as they attempt to recapture the magic of the first two games.
Strangely, rather than stick rigorously to the formula that's built the LEGO franchise up to being the huge behemoth that it is now, LEGO Star Wars 3 deviates slightly from the norm. While most of the levels still have the same focus on platforming fun and puzzle solving, and the game's definitely still at its best when played with a friend (after all, it's been designed from the ground up for it), there have been a few changes here - and they're something of a mixed bag.
The biggest by far is the addition of - wait for it - a real time strategy mode. Adding a layer of depth hereto unseen in a LEGO game, the real time strategy mode sees you leading platoons of troops as you engage in an all out war with hundreds of droids, and lead skirmishes against their bases, as you try to wear them down.
Thankfully, this being a LEGO game, things are a lot simpler than they sound - this is no Command and Conquer, and is less of a LEGO game of chess, and more of a normal level, with lots more enemies to blow up, and the added ability to build your own bases. Each level takes place on a large rectangular map, with several random generator things surrounded by a circle that's coloured to show who "owns" that base. If the circle's white, the base is neutral, and you're free to delve in and start building whatever you want; if it's blue, it's yours, and if it's red, it's an enemy base, and everything in there can be happily destroyed. There is a small map on the top of the screen, but sadly, it's so hard to spot quite where you are on there that it's rendered almost useless.
At the start of each level, you'll find yourself hideously outnumbered, with legion after legion of battle droids constantly swarming towards your base, and practically every base on the map under enemy control. There's a very good reason for this, however, as everything you blow up that belongs to an enemy gives you studs. As you make your way through an enemy base, smashing their buildings to pieces, you'll be gaining studs, and when you've wiped them all out, you'll be left with enough studs to start building your own base where theirs lies in ruins.
There are a selection of buildings on offer, although, to be honest, while they can certainly help you blow things up, your choice of building usually won't affect the flow of the battle all that much. Whether you're building a giant gun to help fend off enemy attacks, a barracks to build clone troopers for you, who'll go and attack enemy battle droids, but are so hard to control otherwise that they almost serve no purpose, or putting up a shield generator, there are plenty of tactical options to keep the enemy away from your bases (even if they rarely seem to put up a fight and recapture their territory), but the one you'll find yourself building the most are vehicles.
You see, the further you push towards the enemy's back line, the tougher their buildings will get to destroy. While normal plastic brick buildings can be destroyed on foot, silver and gold buildings can only be blown up using vehicles - and even then, you have to use different ones. While a giant walking tank thing can blow up silver buildings, a tank with a built in laser seems to be one of the only things that can damage the gold ones, meaning they'll be essential to your progress. And, as is always the way, you won't be able to unlock the option to build these tanks until you've captured a certain number of bases, and you won't be able to capture bases that have metal buildings in, forcing you to pick your fights carefully.
It's a surprisingly detailed mode, made even more surprising by the fact it starts off so poorly. When you play the first few levels, and don't have the ability to build anything on the bases you capture, you'll be wondering what's going on. Thankfully, once you've progressed through the game a bit further, you'll start to be able to build your own bases, vehicles, et al, and actually manage to get somewhere, but the lack of any tutorial when you first start out doesn't help much, either - in a game aimed at children, with a mode this complex, some sort of explanation would be handy. Either way, it's an interesting prospect once you get the hang of it, and something we think has potential to be expanded upon in a full game. We'd actually really, really like to see that happen.
For the majority of the game, though, you'll be playing through a game that plays pretty similarly to the earlier LEGO games. There's the same emphasis on exploring your levels, and seeking out the hidden collectibles, with ten minikit pieces hidden in each level, although there are far less collectibles than on LEGO Harry Potter (boo!). The game's been designed from the ground up for co-op play, with different characters having different abilities, meaning you'll have to work together with your friend (or AI partner) to make it though the level. The different abilities of each character( only Jedis can use the force, blast characters can use grappling hooks, Bounty Hunters can use bombs and special panels, etc), also adds a huge amount of replay value to the game, as it's impossible to see everything there is to see in a level on the first time through. As each level's crammed with things for the different types of characters to do, there'll undoubtedly be at least one type of character you simply don't have on your first run through the level - giving you a great excuse to come back to it at a later date, and find the things you missed out on. With two people taking control of their own characters, working together to solve puzzles, access higher platforms, and generally progress through the levels, there's nothing really wrong with LEGO Star Wars 3's basic formula - it's the execution it ends up tripping up on.
For example, playing LEGO Star Wars 3, we've found ourselves getting stumped with a frustrating regularity. It's not a game breaker, and it's not as if we've never been stuck on a LEGO game before, but there are some silly mistakes in here that make this game a lot harder. A case in point is the fact the bosses in the game now have their health contained in a tiny circle that floats around next to them, rather than in a nice, large, readable size at the top of the screen. It's also often far too cryptic as to how you actually manage to damage the bosses. In an early boss fight with General Grievous, you have to chuck small boxes at the iconic baddie, but there's nothing to prompt you, and it's only after several minutes of slicing him with your lightsaber and repeatedly being killed that you'll realise you might have to do something else. The split screen, too, is still as chaotic as ever, possibly even more so in this game, as the split through the screen ends up making it harder to play, as you can't target things that are slightly off your part of screen, and end up covered by the split. This was never a problem in the days before the dynamic split-screen started, and while we can see the advantage of it (the screen only splits when you go too far away from your co-op partner, and rotates to show you the direction you need to run to get back to them), we wish there was an option to simply disable it.
A case in point is on the new flying levels - which, in themselves, are confusing enough. It was bad enough on the old games with one of you flying around, but with two of you, flying through space, the dynamic split-screen often just decides it's had enough, and simply sits rotating in the middle of the screen, completely confusing you as to which part of the screen you're meant to be watching is yours. At times, health and score bars actually end up being superimposed over the top of your spaceship, leaving you with a good few seconds where you've got no idea what's happening to your spaceship. It's a surprisingly amateur performance from a company we've come to expect so much for.
The spaceship levels, too, are something of a disappointment in themselves, due to some very simple design decisions. Again, the concept's great - jumping into your spaceship, you can fly around, and shoot down some enemies, before landing, and running around inside the spaceship you've just landed on. It sounds incredibly cool - until you actually come to do it. On the one level, you'll have to land at six separate points on a spaceship, each indicated by a big blue arrow. Disembark from your ship, and you'll be able to do something, but when you take off again, the game still has a big blue arrow pointing at where you just were. When you take into account the fact there are multiple levels, which you can only access by docking with awkward boosters that fire you up or down a level, what you end up with is, when you've done 4 or 5 of the landings you need to do, it becomes a real challenge to even find where you've got to land. Following the pointer on the screen simply takes you to the nearest landing pad - which you've already landed on - and they all appear as new. It's disappointing, to say the least, as the concept's fine - again, it's just the execution that's lacking.
Thankfully, though, the flying levels are few and far between, so while they may leave a sour taste in your mouth, they don't otherwise ruin the experience. While it's not as good as we've come to expect from the LEGO games, and certainly not even fit to lace the boots of LEGO Harry Potter, LEGO Star Wars 3 is still a good game. Perhaps it's testament to the usual quality of these games that "good" somehow doesn't feel enough. It's not as good as it should be, but there's still a lot of fun to be had here.