Genre: 3D Platformer
Developer: Traveler's Tales
Release Date: September 12, 2006
It's less than a week to go before LEGO Star Wars II streets, and the question is not so much "will people buy it?" but "how much bigger than the first game is it going to be?". The original LEGO Star Wars was a cute, light-hearted game whose on-the-fly co-op play made it perfectly suited to playing with a child, but just as well-suited to becoming the centerpiece of a distinctly nerdy party. It treated the often overly-serious Star Wars prequel license with a refreshingly light touch, and realized the long-held childhood dream of an entire functioning world made of self-animated LEGO bricks.
LEGO Star Wars II gets to work with the original trilogy license that's nearer and dearer to most gamers' hearts, and would only have to retain the same sense of fun and co-op gameplay to make most people happy. It is to Traveler's Tales' credit that LEGO Star Wars II has aimed much higher as a game, for all that it would have a slam-dunk shot at success if it was little more than an expansion pack to the original. LSWII attempts to address some of the design flaws of the original game, while enhancing the experience with more Free Play options, more unlocks to acquire, and more hidden items to find. The result is something that works well as a kid's game, a game for older gamers to share with their young ones, or as a surprisingly hardcore 3D platformer with lots of replay value for the die-hard collector.
The first thing fans of the original will notice missing in LSWII are the vehicle levels. This is not to say that there are no vehicles in the game; actually, there are tons of them, and with far more variety than in the original LSW. You can assemble and ride in Imperial walkers, hovercrafts, and even use banthas and other large beasts. You now encounter vehicles in the core gameplay levels, though, rather than using them as part of an on-rails racing segment. These levels frustrated most fans of the first LSW, and rightly so, because they were far more poorly designed than the platforming aspect of the game. Now that vehicles are integrated with the platforming aspect of the game, they simply become another tool you can use to explore the richly detailed world around you. This results in some truly inspired moments where you get to rampage through environments shooting down TIE fighters or abusing Stormtroopers with cranes.
In terms of actual platforming, LSWII offers up more challenging and varied puzzles than the original did. The basic nature of the puzzles is decidedly old-school, with lots of switch-pulling and block-pushing, but there's some particularly inspired moments involving the use of destructible (and constructible) environments and character-specific powers. Jedi, for example, now focus their powers on moving large objects around rather than simply assembling them, and they can also perform a variant of the Jedi Mind Trick to stun opponents. So you might solve a Jedi puzzle by making moving together objects, destroying them to create bricks, and then assembling the bricks into a simple droid that can then be used to do something else. Especially engaging are puzzles that call for using a series of character-specific powers. Perhaps you need to use a Jedi to move a given ledge so a blaster-using character can grapple up to build a control panel for a door that you need a Droid to activate. Or, maybe you need to put on a Stormtrooper's helmet to convince an Imperial computer to open the door for you, while your allies with blasters lay down cover fire.
Most levels can still be played in Story Mode, where you get through with a pre-set group of characters, and then have areas that are only accessible by taking other characters into the level during Free Play mode. The sheer variety and size of the special areas is now enormous, though it never feels arbitrary. The Stormtrooper areas feel like places a Stormtroooper should be able to go, and likewise for Bounty Hunters and Jedi. New to LSWII is a create-a-character mode that lets you mix and match parts from various characters in true LEGO fashion to create a character with a combination of those skills. Some Free Play puzzles call for such a variety of skills to complete, that it seems characters like this would be your only shot at completing the level.
Co-op and how you use your allies is still of enormous importance in LSWII, though in this respect the game is very much operating in the "if not broke, do not fix" spirit. Exactly like the first game, you're always surrounded by a horde of NPCs who generally follow you around and take actions as appropriate to the situation. If you're attacked, they're competent fighters, and if you start hopping up ledges they'll use their abilities to follow you. You can take control of any character at any time by approaching that character and pressing the Y button in 1P mode, and can take control of NPCs in this way in 2P mode. The main difference is that the groups of characters that travel with you in LSWII's Story Mode are much larger now, up to six different characters.
Your allies are reasonably smart, although they can get in your way by accident during precision jumps. You can damage them with friendly fire, though you aren't penalized for killing them this way. A second player can join or leave a single-player game at any time, immediately taking control of one of the friendly NPCs. In 2P mode the camera intelligently follows both players, keeping them both on-camera at the same time, although abrupt movements by another player can force you down bottomless pits or into enemy fire. Frustratingly, you are penalized for accidents like this, and you're also penalized for damaging a player-controlled character with enough friendly fire to do killing damage. Combat in LSWII is not really a precision undertaking, and friendly fire is a dubious addition to co-op games even under the best of circumstances. This is one feature that is very likely to lead to many fistfights between siblings and roommates over who screwed up the level by getting killed.
If you like hoarding unlockables in your games, then LSWII is a dream come true. The game has hundreds of unlocks, purchased at Mos Eisley Cantina with 'studs' acquired in the course of gameplay. You earn studs much faster in LSWII than you did in the original, and actually gain gameplay bonuses by completing given levels with very high amounts of studs. This is because death in LSWII is penalized by making studs explode out of your character, usually decreasing your levels by a thousand or so. The primary thing you buy with studs is more characters, since unlocking all of the game's characters unlocks a variety of other bonuses. The major one is an extra set stages, called Bounty Hunter Mode, accessed by unlocking all ten of the game's bounty hunters. You also unlock 'Gold Bricks', used to build vehicles and other useful and amusing devices found around and inside the Cantina. Then there's Extras, basically in-engine cheats that let you mess around with the game's physics in amusing ways. Finally, you can use XBox Live to download the 50 characters available in the original LSW, so you can use their parts in making characters and play with them in Free Play mode.
Visually, LSWII is a sharp-looking but not especially impressive game on the 360. The graphics have about the same quality level as the PC version, which means that they only look a little bit better than the XBox version when it comes to things like polycount, lighting, and textures. Where the game does show off real next-gen improvement is in the sheer numbers of characters portrayed onscreen at once. As you unlock characters, they join the throngs wandering about Mos Eisley Cantina between levels. When exploring levels, you often find throngs of characters going about their business as you adventure. Jawas roam around Tattooine deactivating your droids, and Imperial ships are thick with Stormtroopers working and playing in utterly surreal fashion.
Unfortunately, the game is only properly playable when set to 4:3 mode. In 16:9 mode the camera zooms in on the middle of the screen, making camera movement in co-op play extremely awkward. Some puzzles are also extremely difficult to solve in this mode, due to problems with seeing what you're doing. It's frustrating, because the next gen version of a multi-platform should ideally take advantage of the strengths of the hardware better than this. It's pretty easy to forgive given all the wonderful little touches in the title, like the music all taken directly from the films and the enormous attention to detail in the sound effects, but it does tend to leave you thinking that there's no particular reason to be playing it on the 360 instead of the standard Xbox.
It's a shame, because LEGO Star Wars II is the sort of light-hearted, all-ages title that the XBox 360 system library could desperately use more of. It plays well both to a child's love of things exploding and your average gaming adult's unreasonable nostalgia for the original Star Wars films, and is also the rare licensed title that is simply a good game all-around. A stronger port would've made this game more of a must-buy for the 360, but it's definitely a must-buy for platformer fans no matter what hardware you choose to play it on.
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