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LEGO Star Wars III may actually be more fun than blowing Jar Jar Binks to blocky bits

While we couldn’t get enough of the original LEGO Star Wars games, subsequent spin-offs: LEGO Batman, LEGO Indiana Jones, LEGO Harry Potter, LEGO Rock Band, LEGO Dancing with the Stars (okay, we made up that last one… we hope) have worn the concept thinner and thinner. They’re not bad games, mind you – but they’ve done little to evolve the series beyond its original, money-making formula. Thankfully, LEGO Star Wars III: The Clone Wars looks to be landing just in time to save the brick-busting series from the Dark Side.

Rather than giving the growing-tiresome template a pretty new Clone Wars paintjob, the developer is injecting the latest licensed LEGO adaptation with some refreshing game-changing tweaks--and we’re not just talking about new hairstyles for Queen Amidala. Now, before you get your Midi-chlorians in a bunch, don’t misunderstand. The core concepts – stud-collection, brick-breaking, pop-culture-skewering cinematics, and unlockables – are fully intact. However, these old stand-bys are complemented by some of the most significant changes the LEGO videogame universe has ever seen.

For starters, the series is getting a major visual bump over its predecessors. Thanks to a new engine slick enough to power the Death Star, character models are sharper, environments are drenched in tiny details, and animations are silky smooth; scattering droid limbs like empty soda cans with Force powers never looked so good. You wouldn’t think a game made entirely of clunky plastic blocks would benefit from such an upgrade, but it actually makes a big difference.

Additionally, more characters and objects (over 200, in fact) can now be rendered on-screen simultaneously, accurately supporting the source material’s large-scale battles. We witnessed a screen-stretching Clones-versus-Droids battle that looked like something out of an epic RTS rather than a kid-aimed casual game. Turns out this comparison was no coincidence either, as LSW3 is promising a heavier emphasis on strategy; we didn’t get to sample this feature during our demo, but we’re told optional base management, complete with the ability to build and command vehicles, weapons, and troopers, will factor into bigger battles. Could a full-on LEGO Star Wars RTS be far behind?

On the gameplay side, you’ll see new “SceneSwap” missions, which are story quests that give two different characters in different environments a shared goal that they must complete collaboratively. If you’re having trouble picturing it, imagine the scene in Return of the Jedi, when Han Solo and an army of Care Bears deactivate the Death Star’s shield on Endor so the Millennium Falcon can then attack it, with you playing both the characters on the ground and also the ones in the Falcon.

In co-op, SceneSwap missions are simply presented in split-screen, with each player’s success dependent on the other. In solo play, however, they’re handled with a neat cinematic trick that has the player switching between characters – and their specific objectives – via a picture-in-picture interface. Additionally, when going it alone, the brick-based avatars you’re not using defend themselves, so there’s no fear of them dying while you’re busy controlling other characters.

We tried our hands at this in a scene that saw Obi-Wan Kenobi and Ahsoka Tano breaching a Droideka-protected base. While the lithe Ahsoka had no problem dispatching smaller foes, she ran into a roadblock when the shielded droids rolled in. So, with a scene-swapping press of the “Y” button, we switched to Obi-wan – who’d been holding his own in a window positioned in the right-hand corner of the screen – and entered a distant turret to swiftly turn the Droidekas to scrap metal. The two Jedi were still separated, but with their paths cleared they soon ended up on the same screen, and the picture-in-picture display disappeared. This was a fairly straightforward example of this mechanic in action, but we look forward to utilizing it when, say, one character is kicking brick on the surface while their partner is piloting a ship high above.

Speaking of high above, LEGO Star Wars III is also pushing its space combat into hyper-drive. Coupling the enhanced engine’s ability to render massive battles with more intuitive flight controls and forgoing the more on-rails, top-down nature of the series’ previous space combat, LSW3 hosts huge 3D/2D hybrid battles. We got a taste of this during a mission that set our speck-like ship against General Grievous' screen-eclipsing craft. We were able to fly freely, attacking the ship at specified weak spots, and even landing in its belly; this feat was especially impressive, as we seamlessly transitioned from piloting our ship to walking around the immense cavity of the ship’s landing bay.

LEGO Star Wars III boasts a number of smaller enhancements as well, such as the super-satisfying ability to Force-grab battle droids and turn their turret fire on their robo-buddies. More missions, a brimming character roster, boss battles, and play-extending bonuses and unlockables also promise to make this the biggest LSW entry to date. It might just put the plastic pieces of this once-great franchise back together again.

Jan 4, 2010

A full-time freelance writer based in Lizzie Borden's hometown, Matt Cabral has covered film, television, and video games for over a decade. You can follow him on Twitter @gamegoat, friend him on Facebook, or find him in the basement of an abandoned building hoarding all the canned goods, med-kits, and shotgun shells.