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The Games Of Christmas '11: Day 18

Clunk, click with every trip

Ho ho ho! Ho ho ho ho ho ho ho! HO HO HO! Father Christmas's demands on the sex worker industry are frankly grotesque. He is a bad, bad man. Fortunately, you can distract yourself from his ways by finding out what is behind door number 18 of our 2011 calendar of gaming goodnessment.

It's... Lego Star Wars III: The Clone Wars!

John: With the exception of the Lego Harry Potter games, Traveler's Tales' format is extremely repetitive. Loosely recreate the source films in episodes of multi-character exploration and simple combat, have players collect 902 billion things, and then do it all over again in Free mode to collect the remaining 3,204 trillion things they missed. Oh, and do it so amazingly brilliantly that no one minds at all, and wants to keep on playing each one that comes out.

LSW3 manages it all over again, this time without even the backdrop of the (increasingly un)iconic film series, but rather a TV cartoon set between the two most hated films in the franchise. Yet even here the magic occurs. And here, along with all the familiar ingredients, comes a new idea - something that's pretty much an RTS popping up throughout.

It's really smart. You're gaining control of territory on a small map by destroying the units within it. But in order to take control, you need to have developed the correct weapons that destroy the brick type that's building the enemy buildings or firepower. But joyfully, you gain such ingredients by smashing up the environment, baddies and everything you can find, letting you build your own equipment, including stompy-stompy AT-ATs and their cousins. And coming from someone who loathes RTS, let me assure you it in no way adds a frustration or a stumbling point in the game. It's so in-keeping with the game's larger themes, and essentially very simple to win, that it becomes a really entertaining diversion betwixt the usual jumpy, breaky, buildy fun.

It's hilarious, sweet and ridiculously packed with fun, easily playable in co-op with a non-hardcore gamer or kid, and defies belief that it can remain this engaging and entertaining despite being the 289th Lego game they've made. Of course, as I mentioned in the original review, TT's flippant disregard for criticism is still enormously on display. I wrote:

"TT clearly couldn’t care less what anyone else thinks, and I sort of wish their arrogance would bite them on the bum. But the rest of the game is so gorgeous they flipping well get away with it yet again."

So every mistake that's ever annoyed you in these games before will annoy you here, from an inability to sensibly select a target, to vehicles not driving backward, to the mindlessly stupid refusal to let the player ever control the camera. I really do think their ability to get away with this is running out, and with many more games in the various series already lined up, people's patience WILL run out. Just, not quite yet.

Adam: Probably the least taxing and most sociable fun I've had in non-board gaming all year.

It’s tempting to dump all the Lego games into the same box, their component pieces mixed together, indistinguishable from one another once they’re broken down and finished with. They are undemanding invitations to play, preferably as one half of a pair. That would be particularly unfair in the case of The Clone Wars, which added a modicum of strategy with its large scale conflicts. Admittedly, they are simple affairs, with the player character dashing around the battlefield, in and out of the vehicles their collectibles purchase for them, smashing everything in sight in order to smash everything else in sight. Logic dictates that things will be smashed several times.

Here’s the thing. I don’t care about this particular bit of Star Wars, just as I don’t care all that much about Harry Potter, but I still thoroughly enjoy what Traveler's Tales do with their licenses. It’s the most Lego-y bit of the games, the irreverence and affection with which scenes, characters and objects are adapted to the format. Odd, perhaps, that in this, their seven hundredth game based around the iconic bricks, there is still very little building to be done. Piles of bricks are thrown into prescribed shapes but there’s no real construction. No crafting.

Instead, Traveler’s Tales continues to use Lego as an aesthetic rather than a construction kit and the fact that they can do that to such success says a lot about how much affection those blocks and bulb-headed bits of plastic inspire. Batman is my favourite of the licenses used so far, with all the moodiness and menace converted into smiles and giggles. The game itself didn’t work as well as I’d hoped though, with the loosely strung together scenarios much less entertaining than the adapted plots of Star Wars and Harry Potter.

The Clone Wars could have suffered similarly. A great deal of the pleasure from the best of the Lego games has previously come from the thrill of recognition but my knowledge of this era of the Star Wars universe can be summed up thusly: there were some clones and they attacked, which led to a war. Or several wars?

However, the storytelling has taken a step forward. It’s still daft, knockabout stuff and I wouldn’t want it any other way. The moment I feel as if I’m supposed to feel anything other than joy or mild frustration when a legoman falls to bits will be a strange and unpleasant one, but there’s a decent flow to events here, with jumps between situation and character used effectively.

Lego Harry Potter seemed to signal a change, with the extent and importance of its hub world, which not only provided another great playground, but also allowed for plenty of gags and meaningless but enjoyable discoveries. It’s telling that The Clone Wars has its own tweaks on the formula rather than falling into the template set at Hogwarts. Maybe there is room for experimentation.

After all, this is Lego. There’s no binary status of broken or fixed, and hopefully there are plenty of additions and alterations to come. It's not complexity they should ever strive for but improvements where they lack and more variations on what they do so well, which is the simple joy of play. Scores and studs to collect, bad guys to beat up and zap, interesting levels to traverse, and simple minigames. All backed up by a little bit of challenge but mostly the pleasure of silliness and success best shared.

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