Monday, December 11, 2006

Lego Star Wars II Post-Mortem

Lego Star Wars II for the PlayStation 2 is packed with style, innovation, and great gameplay, and yet it just isn't as good a game as its predecessor.

I've actually had this one sitting next to my laptop for a while, begging me to post-mortem it so it can go back to its home on my game rack. Somehow I've just never gotten around to putting up the post - probably because I've already had the chance to vent about some of its problems.

For those unfamiliar with the series, Lego Star Wars is a fairly simple game concept - it's Star Wars, done entirely with Lego, formatted as a platforming-action videogame. The original title, which covered the plot of the three prequel movies, was an absolutely wonderful moment in gaming. It had intuitive controls, family-friendly difficulty, a great sliding scale of objectives, and more charm and humour than you could poke a lightsaber at.

If it had one problem, it was a lack of length. From one corner of the interblog to the other, players were unanimous in criticising the game for its overall shortage of content, best exemplified by the fact you could finish everything the game had to offer within a single day. Even I took a shot at the game (amidst an otherwise glowing review), although I did refrain from using the phrase "I've found longer games growing on food I left behind the couch."

When it came to creating Lego Star Wars 2, it should not be said that Traveller's Tales was deaf to criticism.

Let me say this straight up - Lego Star Wars 2 is about three times as long as the original Lego Star Wars. That's not to say it has more content. It's roughly on a par with the first game. No, it's just going to take you three times as long to get through it.

There are a lot of fine things that have succeeded by taking roughly thirty seconds of gold and stretching them out over inanely lengthy periods. The sport of cricket is one. The entire wrestling career of Triple H is another. Robert Jordan's The Wheel of Time is a third. Lego Star Wars 2 is sadly not one of those things.

The game proceeds largely as the first one did. Upon starting the game, you'll be plonked down in a central mission hub (in this case the Mos Eisley Cantina), and tasked to make your way through the plot of the three original Star Wars films using a variety of little Lego characters. You can do these in a fairly non-linear fashion - once you complete the first level, you can jump straight to Empire Strikes Back or Return of the Jedi without having to complete A New Hope. Completing levels involves running, jumping and shooting your way around a variety of generic platforming levels, which are themed after particular segments of the movies.

Each level can be completed in both Story Mode and Free Play. Story Mode is a straight run through the level using the appropriate characters as assigned by the game. You'll play as (for example) Luke as he returns from the Jundland Wastes to the Lars Homestead. Generally you're followed around by an entourage of other characters, such as Obi-Wan, R2D2 or C3PO. You can change to any other character in your entourage on the fly. In addition, a second player can help you out by controlling a character.

In Free Play mode you have access to a much wider range of characters, chosen from a pool that you've unlocked. Various characters have different abilities, so you'll want a good selection of powers at your command. For instance, Obi-Wan and other Jedi can move Lego bricks through the power of the force, while R2D2 can open certain locks and hover horizontally for short distances. Many bonus sections of levels can't be reached in Story Mode, requiring you to return in Free Play with special characters to find all the secrets.

Each level has a set of 10 minikit canisters to find. Uncovering all ten (which usually requires playing in Free Mode) rewards you by putting a Star Wars-themed Lego vehicle on display at the Cantina, and by showering you with Lego studs (which are the game's currency). Each level also has a stud-collection target - finding that many Lego studs within a level rewards you with the status of "True Jedi". That's not all - there's also a red power brick on each level which unlocks a cheat or power-up for purchase at the cantina shop.

Each target you meet in the game will reward you with a Gold Lego Brick. These can be assembled back at the Cantina into a range of doorways which give access to bonus levels. None of these bonus levels are very interesting, with the exception of a short reasonably fun area themed after classic non-Star Wars Lego.

All that unlocking may sound like a blast, but it's really not. For example, you'll need to obtain the functionally identical True Jedi status on both Story and Free Play mode, which is every bit as tedious as it sounds. The canisters and power bricks are placed poorly, with the design philosophy apparently being to deceive and defeat the player, rather than reward them for creative exploration. You'll probably end up turning quickly to an FAQ to get them all, unlike in the first game where this goal was reasonably achievable without external aids. The fun in Lego Star Wars 2 lasts almost exactly the same length of time as it did on the franchise's first outing - it's just that this time when the fun's over the game is still going.

The level designs are mostly broken this time around too. Rather than promoting fast-paced see-what-happens gameplay in the tradition of the first game, there's an emphasis on solving finicky problems, backtracking, and getting killed a lot. As an example, you'll often need to disguise yourself as a stormtrooper to open certain door locks. This is accomplished by obtaining a stormtrooper helmet from a dispenser located somewhere on the level. Once you have the helmet, you have to get back to the lock while still wearing the helmet. The catch is, if you take any damage whatsoever, the helmet falls off, requiring you to walk back to the dispenser.

These sections are intensely aggravating. There's one bit like this on the Death Star which involves a lift which will have you wanting to apply fruit peelers to the faces of the game's developers. The result is uneven pacing, inordinately frustrating punishment for very small failures, and game segments which are less a challenge of your skill than they are of your patience.

What makes it all worse, of course, is the fact that many of the levels have unending waves of enemies, which just keep coming at you. Sometimes you can shut off these enemy attacks by closing doors or pulling switches, but more often you just can't. Strangely, the earlier levels are plagued by this problems more than the later levels, so if you perservere you may find your experience improving.

The game as a whole feels like something that's been created by many hands, rather than by a single guiding intellect. Certain levels are clearly designed by totally different minds than the ones that precede them. Courses of action that are encouraged in one area will be brutally punished in the next.

In all this game-bashing, I need to say that this is still a very good game. It's a top-shelf platformer that's a highly recommended buy if you're a fan of Star Wars, Lego, or just the genre as a whole. Each of the game's characters looks cute and highly true to the source material. Levels are punctuated by laugh-out-loud humorous cutscenes, with the little Lego characters engaging in a range of Jedi slapstick. The controls are reasonably tight, and there's a lot of fun to be had.

It's just that it's not as good a game as what came before it. What was cute, clever and fun the first time round is now mainstream, homogenised and mixed up with an extra-big helping of annoying. It's likely a lot of people who are choosing which of the games to buy will go with this one just because it's based on the better movies, but if you're a gamer of taste then play the original.


Chris said...

It's interesting... I have a similar feeling - I have no problem giving my Lego Star Wars II away to my brother this Winter Festival, because I'm happy to keep the original.

Although both were annoying in places, and I was probably less annoyed by II than by I, I just felt that the design sensibilities had wavered slightly in the sequel - that it hadn't gained much that was new.

That said, I liked the bounty hunters super-explosive abilities, and the fact that the jetpack now functions as true flight and not just limited levitation but on the whole the first one was bouyed up by its relative originality. The sequel was constrained by it.

Also, the sequel was considerably buggier than the first game - we struggled to complete the Episode VI superstory on account of multiple repeated crashes.

I think, however, that the popularity of the original trilogy - partly on account of the younger age everyone was when they saw it, and partly on account of the problems with the prequels - gives it an insurmountable advantage in audience terms.

There are so many more people who are excited by the Millenium Falcon and her crew than by anything from the prequels. (In this, I find myself strangely out of place as I find myself quite bored of the original trilogy these days - at least the prequels are less familiar to me).

Must fly!

GregT said...

You with the crashes too? I gave up on that - one crash on a one-hour section you can't save during was more than enough. I assumed that was just the age of my PlayStation, maybe.