If there’s two things that is probably abundantly clear by now that I adore (if not, they ought to be, after 6 years of this waffling), it’s LEGO and Star Wars. Like many kids I played extensively with Denmark’s greatest gift to the world, endlessly building humongous mish-mashed creations from whatever sets I had lying around, inevitably creating some monstrous spaceship or tower from which protruded clashing bits from Star Wars, Harry Potter, and Bionicle sets as I slapped them all together. (I also of course have the quintessential feeling of guilt as an adult thinking about this and how I could have preserved these beautiful (not to mention now hideously unaffordable) things). I also spent uncountable hours of my childhood watching, reading, and generally constantly thinking about Star Wars. It should come as no surprise that when the original LEGO Star Wars game released in the mid-aughts I played the crap out of it and its sequel. And yet, despite the LEGO games continuing to delve into newer and more Star Wars content, I didn’t follow along – until, finally, now.
LEGO Star Wars III: The Clone Wars (3DS, DS, PC, PS3, PSP, Wii, Xbox 360 [reviewed])
Released Mar 2011 | Developed: Traveller’s Tales | Published: LucasArts
Genre: Platformer | HLTB: 9 hours
When I think back to seeing games like LEGO Star Wars III release, it’s easy to ask the question of why, if I was so into both these properties, didn’t I pick this game up back in 2011 and play it on release like the previous games? In truth, the answer is relatively simple – I absolutely did not care at all for The Clone Wars. While I was an avowed fan of the Star Wars movies – yes, even the prequels, although not to the same degree obviously – and I had spent much of my childhood reading countless books and graphic novels set in George Lucas’ incredible space opera universe, the sight of this blocky, ugly CGI tv series purporting to be another canon entry in my beloved series was just too much. It certainly didn’t help that the show premiered with a hideous movie that saw Skywalker and Kenobi play galactic babysitters to a tiny purple blob of a Hutt baby – a far cry indeed from the heroics and bravery of the Jedi knights.
That was back then though. Over the years I’ve mellowed towards Star Wars’ ventures into TV programming, and only fairly recently I finally finished watching the entirety of The Clone Wars. I wound up really enjoying it, in truth; the first seasons were a wee bit wonky as it found its feet, but by the end I think I could happily put it up there as featuring some of the franchise’s most exciting moments. It certainly puts the work into its characterisation; series central characters like Anakin and Obi-Wan blossom into exceptionally well-written personalities, finally getting to seem like the unstoppable friends that the movies do their best to convince us they were, but it’s the effort put into developing new, side, and minor characters that really makes The Clone Wars worth watching. The big one is Ahsoka Tano, Anakin’s young Togruta apprentice, who grows from a headstrong and slightly awkward young Padawan to one of the Star Wars Expanded Universe’s strongest characters, but she’s not the only one I can remember with brilliant clarity; the series even found the time to paint a slew of the clones, mere faceless soldiers in the films, as people with distinct personalities, needs, and fears.
With all that in mind, it’s hard not to be a little disappointed that LEGO Star Wars III largely only focuses on the first season of the show. That’s not really a fault of the game, I suppose, but it remains a shame because the later seasons are so much better. LEGO Star Wars III releasing as early as it did in the show’s life cycle might have made it a powerful and useful marketing tool back in the early 2010s, but it does make it a bittersweet prospect to play as a patient gamer and particularly as one who enjoyed the show in its entirety.
Our story here opens with the very beginning moments of the titular Clone War itself, in the arena pit on Geonosis during the events of Attack of the Clones. Eagle-eyed aficionados of the LEGO Star Wars games may well note that we have in fact already played a level based on this bit of Star Wars before, although this run at it is a little more built around set pieces and showing off how fancy and flash the then-newest console generation can make the experience. If nothing else the game can definitely render greater amounts of enemies on-screen, which is used to fairly good effect in trying to convey the sheer scale of the battles during the war.
Once you’re done with the opening salvos, the story splits off into 3 separate tracks. Each path follows one of the trio of principal villains which represent the major leaders in the Confederacy’s war machine: the rogue Jedi-turned-Sith Count Dooku, his sinister apprentice Asajj Ventress, and the merciless Jedi-killing cyborg General Grievous. The villains attached to each story track are, to be honest, largely superfluous; of the three, only Grievous shows up multiple times to act as a boss of his levels. Instead, we play through levels which follow the arcs of episodes plucked mainly from across the first season of the show. I’d like to say that there’s some underlying unifying reason behind grouping the levels together in this way but that would be a lie; mostly it feels kind of haphazardly done. There are a few stages which obviously flow into one another, such as the pair of levels that see the Republic take on the Separatist megaship Malevolence, or an entire trio of stages set on Ryloth as the clone armies attempt to recapture the Twi’lek homeworld. These are few and far between though; much like the early season of the show, there’s more of a “monster-of-the-week” style structure to proceedings as you bounce between disparate scenarios. Ultimately, despite the attempt to band levels together into some sort of narrative track, there’s typically no sense of cohesion between the stages, and because the game is based only on the first season-and-a-half of the series, there’s no resolution to come against our three big bads.
The lack of narrative cohesion isn’t helped by the fact that this is still in that early stage of LEGO games where they eschewed voice acting. I know this is a feature and not a bug of this first wave of LEGO titles, and I also know that it’s unreasonable to judge the game based on the experience I’ve had with later releases that use proper voice acting and are honestly improved by it. That having been said, I really feel like the lack of actual voice acting here genuinely harms the game experience. I promise it’s not because I’m some maniacal LEGO purist or something, but once again it’s a decision made that falls short against the strength of The Clone Wars’ writing. Easily one of the best aspects of the show is its commitment to character development, but the LEGO games gloss over it. Take Ahsoka, for example. She’s by far one of the best characters in the show but here she barely features; naturally she’s in a few levels but without her dialogue she can’t carry any of her development. The same is true for Rex, Cody, and any of the principal Jedi.
Still, I suppose it’s just as far as anything to suggest that not everyone who plays this game cares about the writing. The LEGO games after all pride themselves on fun gameplay, with a touch of goofy humour mixed into fairly faithful recreations of their source material. LEGO Star Wars III is at least no exception to that rule, with plenty of slapstick comedy thrown into its cutscenes to lighten the mood of total galactic war. The majority of the levels follow the usual LEGO mould: you (or another local co-op player) take control of a set of diminutive plastic Star Wars characters and get plonked down in a stage. There you have to manage your squad’s various abilities in order to overcome the bevy of obstacles placed in your way; for example, your Force-users can manipulate objects using the franchise’s signature space magic, those armed with explosive weapons can detonate shimmering silver bricks, and characters armed with rapid-fire guns can overheat and destroy gold pieces. As per usual, not every hidden collectible can be gathered on the first run through a stage and completionists will need to replay the majority of them in Free Play, which allows you to take a collection of characters into a level in order to cover all possible needs and find everything.
The occasional level takes place in space rather than on the ground, and as such you leap into the cockpit of one of Star Wars’ many spaceships and starfighters instead. Ships move on a horizontal plane only, so what might seem like a chance to fly around the wide expanse of space is actually a facade. New to The Clone Wars is the inclusion of hyperspace rings which allow your ships to ascend or descend between these planes, so the majority of space levels are actually bigger than you think. You can also land your ship in many of them, allowing you to leap out and explore part of whatever capital ship you’ve found yourself on. It’s not much but it does at least contribute to a grander sense of scale than any vehicle levels of LEGO Star Wars games past.
The other way the game seeks to capture the scale of the war is by the inclusion of real-time strategy style elements, although I ought to be clear when I say that these are very, very light approximations of RTS gameplay rather than anything more in-depth or complicated (as strategy games are often wont to be). The way these parts of the game work is simple. Big circles denote controllable areas; if they’re blue, they’re yours and you can build emplacements and defenses there, but if they’re red then they’re controlled by the enemy and you’ll need to destroy all of their buildings and ordinance in each one before you can capture them. The things you can build in your zones are fairly standard, such as buildings which can dispense troops, beacons that spawn vehicles, or automated turrets which ping away at nearby droids. In a move that utterly perplexes me, the way this is balanced is by making you spend studs, the game’s currency, on units you want to build. The problem with this becomes evident quite quickly, as studs are also the only way for players to buy characters and enhancements for the rest of the game back in the main hub, but these RTS-lite stages absolutely drain your funds at an astronomical rate.
Beating these bits of the game is horrifically tedious. Invariably you’ll be expected to clear out a set number of the enemy zones, and doing so is formulaic and boring. Each one requires your characters to traipse across to them, have a gander at what kind of specific weapon destroys each emplacement and then hightail all the way back to your zone where you can hopefully pay up to build the correct and useful troop or vehicle dispenser. Of course, once you have a squad of the necessary troopers, you’ll still need to command them en masse before taking them across the map back to the one thing you need them around to destroy. You’ll have to try and take care of them while you’re en route though because lose enough of them to stray fire and your squad won’t be together any more. It’s a spectacularly badly judged inclusion into the LEGO Star Wars repertoire; not a single instance of these bits of the game were fun in the slightest. Most if not all of them were trudging and inane, and all of them took far, far too long to complete.
I might well be a fan of both LEGO and Star Wars, but this time around the match doesn’t work. That’s a real shame, and it felt more so than I expected; partly that’s down to how long it took me to get around to LEGO Star Wars III, so I guess I’d long assumed it would match the standard set by the previous two entries in the series, and it’s also partly down to how much I enjoyed the tv show, which left me with pretty high hopes for a game based off it. I’d dearly love to see the team at Traveller’s Tales take another crack at The Clone Wars; I want to see a game that covers the entire breadth of the show, that revels in its writing, and that accurately captures the emotional ebbs and flows of its drama and action. This game however very much isn’t it. The uninspired levels, the tiresome space sections, the awful RTS-lite stuff, and above all the utterly dreadful lack of any kind of cohesive narrative make it a drab and avoidable entry.
2/7 – POOR.
A disappointment. Best not to bother with this unless you’re desperate for a naff time.