When LEGO returns to the Star Wars universe it will bring with it a new form of picture-in-picture play and chunkier, more detailed graphics.
Last week I sat down with Matt Shell, senior marketing manager for LucasArts, to talk about and then play a bit of LEGO Star Wars III: The Clone Wars. Due out this fall, the game is in development for the DS, PC, PS3, PSP, Wii and Xbox 360.
The first thing I noticed when Shell dropped into a level controlling a LEGO Yoda, was how relatively big the graphics looked. This time around, it turns out, the camera has been pushed down and into the action a bit more, making those cleverly crafted LEGO minifigs look bigger and more detailed.
The background too looked more polished and packed with details than the last foray into the LEGO Star Wars universe. Of course a big part of that is how long it has been since those initial LEGO Star Wars games hit, launching the current LEGO video game craze.
The last of the three LEGO Star Wars games hit in 2007, but it certainly wasn't the last LEGO game that developer Traveller's Tales created. They also made to Indiana Jones LEGO games, LEGO Batman and, most recently, LEGO Harry Potter: Years 1-4. And with every iteration, the studio has focused on improving some aspect of the game's engine, look or mechanics.
All of that, or at least most of it, seems to come to bear with The Clone Wars.
The much enhanced graphics of Harry Potter was definitely evident in what I saw of the game, as was the slightly improved camera angle. And there's the dynamic split-screen, which can tear a scene a part on the fly when two players go in opposite directions during a coop play of the game.
There's also the ability to target objects, seen in both Indiana Jones and Batman. This time though I saw Yoda using it for light saber throws and use of the force. Yoda was also able to use the force to free build objects using LEGO. Something first seen in LEGO Harry Potter.
But The Clone Wars doesn't just have the potential to be the culmination of the best of past LEGO games, it also brings with it some new tricks and mechanics.
Chief among them is the game's use of a form of picture-in-picture gameplay, something Shell called "story swap."
"In addition to huge epic battles, Star Wars movies are known for multiple story arcs going on at the same time," he explained.
And the game will have both. LEGO Star Wars III: The Clone Wars will have ground battles with "literally hundreds of enemies," Shell said.
To deliver the experience of having multiple story lines in the game, Traveller's Tales created levels that have you hot-swapping between storylines. While you're playing one storyline, controlling a set of characters, you can see the other storyline preparing to unfold in a bubble-shaped window in the top right corner of your screen.
Shell showed me a level where he was fighting General Grievous while in the top corner you could see a minifig sort of hanging out in an area, waiting to be played. When Shell choose to shift to the other window, the bubble expanded to fill the screen, while the scene he was playing in shrunk into a bubble.
Shell said that during these moments, the game's AI will take over for the windowed gameplay, making sure not to die, but also not completing the task at hand. This allows players to go through both story lines simultaneously, Shell said.
Another major addition to The Clone Wars is how the game deals with space combat this time around. While there was some space and vehicle combat in the earlier LEGO Star Wars games, they didn't play as big a role in the titles as they will in this game, Shell said.
Shell let me check out a level where I was controlling a space ship flying around the four kilometer long Malevolence, General Grievous' ship. I was able to pilot my ship along the length of the larger space craft, shooting down enemy pilots and dodging fire from the Malevolence. With a push of a button my ship flew up to a higher portion of the ship. I was also able to blow up areas of the ship's hull, exposing some of the inside of the ship. The best part was that in some areas of the ship I could dock and get out of my ship, seamlessly slipping from space combat to ground combat, with the camera zooming in on my minifig.
Shell didn't say how much of the game would be about space flight, but he did say that the central hub for this game is Anakin Skywalker's star fighter the Resolute. Players will use the ship to move between the games 16 systems, each system representing a collection of levels. The game's story starts out with Episode II of the movie in the giant arena battle and spans the movies and both the first and second seasons of the animated series, he added.
Besides the meaty story-driven campaign, the game also includes player-versus-player combat where each side will build LEGO bases and defend them, Shell said.
There are of course, plenty of other additions to the game, like new characters, new weapons and a retooled Yoda who will be much faster and easier to control than the last time he appeared in a LEGO game.
It looks like LEGO Star Wars III: The Clone Wars will be a must buy for both fans of the LEGO series and the Star Wars universe.