Its now been more than four years since those intrepid LEGO characters and the Star Wars universe so brilliantly collided for LEGO Star Wars: The Original Trilogy. The game, which followed 2005's LEGO Star Wars: The Video Game, was a mammoth success for publisher LucasArts, selling more than 8m copies worldwide. With LEGO Star Wars III: The Clone Wars, developer Travellers Tales (TT Games) turn its attention away from the Star Wars movies and instead takes on The Clone Wars animated television series (along with elements from Star Wars Episode II: The Clone Wars). LEGO Star Wars III bears all the familiar hallmarks of fast-paced and accessible action combined with basic block-building, but also introduces new gameplay elements to the mix, such as real time strategy-esque ground battles and a new competitive multiplayer mode. Digital Spy joined Nick Ricks, producer at TT Games, to discuss the latest instalment in the LEGO Star Wars series and see how the game is shaping up.
As it's set in the world of the Clone Wars before the rise of the Empire, LEGO Star Wars III sees players becoming both Jedi Knights and Storm Troopers, similar to the excellent Star Wars: Battlefront games. Ricks, who was lucky enough to visit George Lucas's Skywalker Ranch to see the original Star Wars models, said that TT Games was very cautious about returning to the LEGO Star Wars franchise after a lengthy absence. However, the team decided to put its trust in the "genius" of LucasFilms to create characters, locations and storylines that are compelling for people, young and old.
"We did LEGO Star Wars: The Video Game, which really put us on the map, and then LEGO Star Wars II, but we were extremely careful about how and when we would do another sequel," said Ricks. "When we came to make LEGO Star Wars III, it was really about, 'How do we make everything better?' We wanted to make it feel like a LEGO Star Wars game, so we used all these little tricks built up from previous games. But we also took stuff out of the game to really bring it back to the essence of LEGO Star Wars. Then it was about finding a way to recreate those immense battles that occur on the TV show, featuring thousands of droids and soldiers, and distil that into a LEGO experience."
At its heart, LEGO Star Wars III stays true to all the hallmarks of the series, including up to two players becoming Star Wars characters in LEGO form to bash enemies, build blocks and progress through the levels. The main story is split into three main sections, as the player pursues the three critical villains - Count Dooku, General Grievous and Asajj Ventress, Dooku's new apprentice. The game is powered by a revamped engine, enabling crisper graphics, improved lighting, better physics and support for up to 200 characters on screen at any one time. Shown on a high-end HD TV, the game looked fantastic - much sharper and more refined than previous titles, with cleaner animations.
The combo system has also been simplified to make it easier to chain moves together by pressing one button. This gives the combat a very accessible feel, with players able to string complex-looking and satisfying moves together. However, the system does have the potential danger of becoming a bit like repetitive button-mashing for older players. The action is mixed up, though, with force powers for the Jedi, enabling them to pick up enemies and fling them across the screen. Jedi can also target a series of items or enemies for a chained light sabre throw attack. Ricks said that the team realised that everybody wants to be a Jedi and nobody wants to be a Storm Trooper, so they countered the problem by giving the soldiers massive weapons, including mini-guns and rocket launchers. This extra firepower comes in handy for the new gold LEGO, which must be shot repeatedly so that it heats up and can be rebuilt.
LEGO Star Wars III features 22 traditional action-adventure levels, including around six or seven space battles. In a nice touch, the opening credits of each level features the famous Star Wars text scrolling over the stars. Ricks showed off one massive space battle around a ship called the Malevolence, apparently around 1.5 km long. He said that the main goal with the development was always to make things "bigger and better", which led them to consider giving the player total 3D control over the jets. However, that system proved just too complicated for younger audiences and so the flying has been made deliberately simple. Players guide the vehicles around on 2D 'planes' and then use booster rockets to traverse up or down levels. Vehicles can be landed to get out on foot and kill enemies, or do challenges. For example, the player might need to locate the right weapon to reach a different area, which Ricks said gives "great depth" to the vehicle sections.
A new aspect to the levels is the Scene Swap system, which is designed to add greater dynamism to the key action sequences. Ricks showed off a battle between Ahsoka Tano, Anakin Skywalker's Padawan and General Grievous. The battle, which bizarrely enabled the player to stuff a bin on the general's head, featured a picture-in-picture in the corner of the screen, and clicking on this gives access to a parallel gameplay section going on at the same time. The idea is that the player must switch between the two scenes intelligently in order to best achieve their goals. However, the biggest new feature in LEGO Star Wars III is the ground battles, bringing RTS elements to the series. Ricks, though, is reluctant to use the term RTS due to the "baggage" associated with it.
"You'll never hear me use that term," he said. "Essentially that is what the ground battles are, but there is a lot of baggage associated with [the term RTS], and we have got to ensure that we create an experience that is strategic and has that element of command, but at the same time is not complicated. It is very easy to add complexity to a game, but it's very hard to strip it out."
The game offers 32 ground battle levels, such as a recreation of the Battle of Geonosis from Attack Of The Clones. Around four or five of the battles are part of the core story, but the rest are completely optional, giving more committed players additional challenges to tackle. Ricks said that the main story can be completed deliberately simply so that "our youngest audience can feel like they have achieved something". But the ground battles are there as an additional goal towards earning 100% completion.
All ground battles are launched from the game's main hub, which is based on a giant Super Star Destroyer. Ricks said that the team has learned from the LEGO Indiana Jones and LEGO Harry Potter series that the hubs can get a bit too big, causing players to become lost. Therefore, the majority of gameplay options in LEGO Star Wars III are held on the small bridge area of the Star Destroyer to focus the player's attention. However, the entire ship is open for exploration should the player wish, opening up new things to do. There is also an entirely separate ship alongside that is unlocked later in the game. On this, all the captured villains are imprisoned and, in a neat twist, the player becomes a baddie with a mission to rescue the imprisoned foes.
From the bridge computer, the player can browse the entire galaxy, including well-known planets such as Naboo, Tatooine and Coruscant. The basic idea is that each planet is beset with a force of Separatists and it's the player's job to eliminate them from the galaxy. Players can travel to the planets and send a force of troops to conquer them for the Republic. Essentially, the goal is to take over the entire universe and become the scourge of the Separatists. After selecting a planet, the entire Star Destroyer goes into hyper-drive to instantly travel to that location. It's then a matter of selecting soldiers, companions and vehicles for the ground battle and jumping right in. Progression through the game unlocks new ships and equipment for purchase to revisit the planets and win more territory.
The battles work very similarly to the main action game, with the player able to move around as normal, smashing stuff and killing enemies. However, there is also a strategic element to the play, which ratchets up in complexity for bigger battles. If players select to bring along a Clone Commander, they can control the other platoons in a basic RTS set-up. For example, the commander can be ordered to focus a platoon's fire on a certain target, while another force flanks from the side. If a Clone Commander does not accompany the force, then the troops will just operate on computer-controller AI and the player can continue as normal. As the battlefields are large, the game spawns vehicles such as jet bikes and walkers to quickly navigate, while a mini-map at the top denotes the position of troops and enemies.
Any enemy infrastructure destroyed on the battlefield enables the player to spawn support vehicles, such as AT-AT walkers. The idea is to use vehicles strategically to clear out the heavy forces and then gain a foothold for domination. It's all very basic RTS stuff, but seems suitable for the target younger audience. All 32 ground battles can be played co-operatively with a friend, but also competitively for the first time in the series. The game supports player-versus-player contests under challenges such as 'capture the flag'. Asked whether the new strategic and competitive elements are designed to push the game in a different direction and attract an older audience, Ricks said that it is more about widening the game's scope within the familiar Star Wars universe.
"It's not about pushing the series in a different direction, it's more about broadening the appeal," he said. "It's still all about Star Wars - vehicles, fighting, overcoming adversaries. But it's about broadening the things for the player to do in an environment that is very familiar."
LEGO Star Wars III: The Clone Wars will be released on Xbox 360, PS3, Wii, DS, 3DS and PSP on March 25.