In some ways Lego Star Wars: The Force Awakens [official site] is a refreshing of the extraordinarily prolific Traveller's Tales series. In other ways it's fastidiously adherent to the tried-and-tested formula. In nearly all ways it's a completely splendid game, but even I - the most enthusiastic proponent of this series - am beginning to weary. Here's wot I think:
Part of me thinks all these Lego games should be reviewed by someone who's never played any of the others before, so the best of the bunch get the awe I think they deserve. LSW:TFA deserves that awe - it's a beautifully constructed action-adventure game, perfectly designed for families to play together, absolutely enormous and ridiculously replayable, and to boot, extremely funny. Then again, it's the fifth Lego Star Wars game, and the eighteenth game in this Lego series. I've played fourteen of them, and there's no way to avoid this affecting my judgement.
Let's start with the splendid news: After Lego Marvel's Avengers finally saw the series bother to include some regular PC options (you could even run it in a window without crashing your PC!), TFA follows suit and looks absolutely stunning, running on full whack at a crisp 110FPS on my machine. At last, these are proper PC games. And even better, the interface has received a desperately needed overhaul. Gone are the blurry details in the various corners, replaced with sharp, easy-to-understand replacements, including vastly improved on-screen instructions. It's ridiculous that it's taken this long to freshen up the franchise, but it's great that they have.
Beyond that, this is extremely familiar territory for those who've been following along. A strange choice by the most recent games has been to drop a central hub between story levels, replacing them with many, many 'hubs', some only visited once, each containing their own bespoke puzzles to be completed before being able to move on. While this adds even more game to the games, it also makes heading back to previous levels a deeply confusing affair until you're able to find the buried (and never explained) menu options that let you pick (in this case from a star map, with levels scattered around different planets). For those loyal to the Star Wars editions of the run, this will likely prove a peculiar feature.
Otherwise - apart from a surprise trip to Endor and a retelling of the end of Return Of The Jedi - it's exactly as you'd expect. You play as a varying gang of characters from the film, smashing, jumping and negotiating your way through scenes from the movie in sequence, while searching for eighty-seven billion different collectibles and spotting areas you'll need to return to later in Free Play mode. Along the way cutscenes intersperse the action, poking fun at the original material while mostly telling the recognisable story.
But glory-be, these scenes are irreverent! The games, whether by lack of permission or simple tiredness, had rather stopped mocking the source, instead opting for just adding incongruous ice creams in character hands and background gags of Lego people falling over. But here, as with the wonderful original Lego Star Wars: The Video Game, the film itself is often the target of the jokes. Kylo Ren's teenage petulance is gorgeously poked at, not least with his bedroom covered in Darth Vader posters, duvet and memorabilia. Harrison Ford's hammy overplaying of Solo is exaggerated with endless winks to camera. There are jokes in here that have made me laugh out loud, which certainly couldn't be said for Jurassic World or Marvel's Avengers. And of course there are still plenty of ice creams in everyone's hands, bananas mistaken for weapons, and people falling over the in the background. Another fun detail indicative of the tone comes from the developers deciding Storm Troopers on a sand planet would see it as a beach holiday, and dressing them accordingly.
There are a couple of new features thrown in. Space combat isn't one of them, as they've done that before, but the ship battles are lots of fun and thankfully easy to control (unlike other vehicles which remain abysmal). Actually new though is cover-combat. It's not throughout, thank goodness - most of the fighting is the same old smashy stuff - but here and there your gang will duck behind a wall and you pop out to take aimed shots at the baddies. This doesn't add a whole lot, but it mixes things up a bit. The other tweak is that buildable piles of Lego bricks can now often be built into two or three different things in a scene, sometimes using all three, sometimes offering you a (confusing) choice over which way to tackle something. (Confusing because you've no real way of knowing what the result will be.)
In the end, beyond the visual upgrades, the new additions feel extraordinarily incremental, and have left me wishing for something very different. I don't suppose a Lego Star Wars game would perhaps have been the right place for such a change, since there are many who only play these entries, and they'd likely alienate a lot of that crowd, and then for the same reasons I'm very surprised this game didn't return to the far more coherent option of a single central hub. But gosh, something new has to happen before they hit twenty of these. Or at least the evolution needs to pick up some pace, not having tiny little extra details feel like the only recognisable movement.
Oh, and there are bugs. This is increasingly the case for the PC ports it seems (while the console versions report their own litanies of issues), but here I've had characters falling upward through ceilings, turning invisible, getting stuck under objects, and interactions not working, all of these moments feeling very under-tested and glitchy. Which is a real shame in an otherwise extremely solid game. And it really is - this is, for children, adults, anyone, a really lovely thing, funny, silly, and tremendous fun to play. If you've a kid who just got into Star Wars via the new movie, goodness me this can't be recommended highly enough. But at the same time, and I've been the one fighting off saying this for years longer than many others, it's getting stale. It needs to be something new, to invent a new way to create something so adorable, because at this point it's getting very hard not to recommend just picking up the older, cheaper titles. You'd barely notice the difference.
Lego Star Wars The Force Awakens is out now for Windows and Mac.