Back in 2005, if you would have told someone that six years down the road, LEGO Star Wars would still be one of the most bankable and consistently enjoyable franchises in gaming, you would have been laughed at. Many called the idea a shallow cash grab, yet here we are in 2011 with another instalment in the hugely popular series.
Before the Wii fully tapped into the casual gaming crowd, the idea of making any game (other than maybe Mario Party) primarily for a family audience was still not widely considered to be a wise or potentially profitable business plan.
But LEGO Star Wars wasn't a lazy cash-in. It was an incredibly fun and whimsical action-platformer whose unique sense of humor and charm captivated everyone from LEGO-loving kids to old-school Star Wars fans who had grown disillusioned with the recent, melodramatic prequels.
Things are a little different now.
Not much has changed in the ol' LEGO formula since the first game came out, and if you've enjoyed previous entries in the series, there's little reason to suspect you wouldn't enjoy LEGO Star Wars III: The Clone Wars as well. Sadly, some surprising omissions, a few gameplay issues and technical problems make it the closest the series has come to that first feared lazy cash grab.
Of course the tricky thing right off the bat is that of all sagas in the Star Wars universe, the Clone Wars is by far the least familiar, mostly because it's so new and primarily relegated to an animated television series. As a result, the nostalgia/familiarity factor is lost almost immediately for the Average Joe. This isn't a problem while playing the levels themselves, but the cutscenes and story sequences, all of which are silently acted, are more confusing than they ought to be.
It's a testament to the gameplay, then, that the title remains mostly enjoyable despite this. As in the other LEGO Star Wars games, you'll be gallivanting across various planets and galaxies while using a mixture of platforming, exploration and character-based puzzle-solving to pass each story level. Unlike some of the other entries in the series, The Clone Wars wisely focuses on these gameplay staples for the most part, rather than repetitious combat; in fact there are several clever instances where the combat is a puzzle in and of itself. It's also worth noting that although you'll still be using multiple characters to complete each level, the character-swapping mechanics have been significantly streamlined. Instead of having your entire party following you around at all times, there's now only ever one player on the screen, meaning you simply switch characters with the R and L triggers. The developers put this to fairly good use as well, as certain enemies require the participation of multiple party members in quick succession to be destroyed.
Your party members aren't just aesthetically different, however — as series vets know, every character has their own special ability that can be used to complete specific puzzles or grant them certain advantages in combat. Yoda, for example, as a short little guy can fit in small nooks and crannies that a larger character might not be able to access. The levels, which are some of the best the series has seen, have a certain amount of depth to them as well: you might see a ledge with a special object on it that you can't reach with your current party, for example, meaning you'll have to come back later with a different character or two to reach it. You see, for the uninitiated, LEGO Star Wars is quite reminiscent of the platformers of the N64/PS1 era in that it's very much about collecting things. Completionists are definitely going to get the most mileage out of this one, as all the collectables, combined with the branching level designs, give the player plenty of reasons to go back and visit the story missions multiple times.
If there's one thing that has really made the series popular, though, it's the great co-operative multiplayer, which is why it's such a shame that this game doesn't have any.
It's a pretty baffling omission, quite frankly. Even some of the DS iterations of the LEGO games, such as LEGO Indiana Jones, had a full fledged co-op mode. Given the 3DS's significantly greater horsepower, its omission is both strange and hugely disappointing. It doesn't do the minigames any favours either: these unlockable extras feel like little more than pointless distractions without a friend to play them with. The StreetPass feature doesn't make up for the loss at all, as all it does is grant you a few extra studs (the game's currency), though considering the number of these you need to unlock all the characters, every little helps.
Of course as you probably expected, most of the 3DS' extra power is used on the visuals, which are undeniably mesmerising. Whether you have the 3D turned on or off, LEGO Star Wars III is one great looking game, with incredible texture work, sharp lighting effects and beautiful environments. The 3D is, as expected, a double-edged sword — the frame rate takes a hit if you have it turned on, but it also adds a surprising amount of depth to the environments, and makes the otherwise jagged character models appear much smoother. It's not the best showcase of the system's graphical prowess on the launch lineup, but it's a visual treat nonetheless.
The one area that not even the 3D visuals can save, however, is the dogfight missions, which are just short of unbearable. They don't control well (even with the usually-excellent Circle Pad), they're a bummer to look at, and to top it off they're simply not fun. Mercifully, these missions are infrequent, and are usually backed up by a strong traditional mission-type or two.
During our play through the game froze on at least five occasions, and it doesn't appear to be at all related to the most recent 3DS update (which has been causing similar problems) as no error message occurs during freezing. There were also some instances during cutscenes where characters would just completely fail to animate. These issues don't seem to be affecting everyone's copy of the game, but having to replay a level three times simply because it keeps freezing on you is an inexcusable issue in any game, and a particularly shocking one from this typically well-polished series.
LEGO Star Wars III: The Clone Wars is a tough one to pin down. Its single player mode is just as fun as previous entries in the series, if not more so; its puzzles and level designs are wonderfully clever, if not particularly challenging, and new abilities like wall-jumping add even more variety to the already solid experience. Fans of exploration will have an even better time with the game, as there are numerous, tough-to-find collectables in each level. On the other hand, you're going to have to put up with some seriously mediocre flight missions, potentially game-ending bugs, and there's no multiplayer to speak of.
In a word: disappointing. What we have here is a fun game that, with a bit of polish and a few extra features could have been something truly special.