Star Wars – The Phantom Menace

 

Factfile
Developed by:Big Ape Productions
Released:1999
Format played:PS1

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Ruminations

Ah the Star Wars prequels.

It is difficult to comprehend now but back in 1999, us geeks were incredibly excited.

‘It’s a new Star Wars film!’ we would shriek to family members.

‘This is going to be the greatest thing ever!’ we would tell disinterested passers-by.

And then the big moment came. I can vividly remember catching an early morning screening, braving a cinema full of kids to avoid the rush of a late night viewing. Taking our seats, barely able to contain our excitement, we sat awestruck as the music hit, the opening crawl appeared on the screen and…

‘…disputed trade routes? Taxation? Am I in the right film?’

For months I would try to convince myself that this was anything but the stinker it appeared. When Attack of the Clones dropped, with its clunky ‘love’ scenes and mess of special effects, I valiantly tried to proclaim it as the greatest thing I had ever seen. But by the time Revenge of the Sith came out, I had grown to realise an important truth; the prequels sucked.

Ironically the time period of the prequel films would be put to much better use in the wider Star Wars universe with a handful of excellent novels that hint at what might have been.

Which brings us, eventually, to this. An action-adventure game published by LucasArts and released on PS1, PC and Mac, the game follows the basic plot of the film as you tangle with the Trade Federation battle droids, visit Coruscant and try in vain to silence Jar Jar Binks.

Is the Force strong with this one? Eh, not so much.

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Second Impressions

Well, it’s not pretty, let’s just get that out of the way nice and early. I came in with an expectation of a somewhat diminished visual clarity but this really is bowling shoe ugly.

Characters are only vaguely recognisable as their on-screen counter-parts, with smudges and blobs for faces. Locations follow the course of the film but are dominated by dull greys and browns. The Gungan levels are a prime example. The jungle levels can be forgiven to an extent as being the nature of the beast with this type of setting, but even the underwater levels disappoint. In the film, these are visually striking, the CGI implemented to full effect. In game, scenery is dull and repetitive.

And this is a theme that continues in other levels to almost comical effect. Whilst striding round Tatooine looking for parts for our damaged ship, I find myself continuously lost in the market place, in part because of almost Tom & Jerry like backgrounds and characters that seem to just repeat on loop so that you can never get a proper bearing on where you are.

There are some nice touches though. In between levels feature cinematic cut scenes that add a visual flourish. Some specific pieces of scenery are nicely detailed with the levels based on Naboo a particular highlight.

But all of it is undermined by a fundamental flaw; there is no camera control, meaning that the player is at the mercy of a fixed perspective, slung high over the character’s shoulder. As a result, you view is incredibly limited with no opportunity to scout ahead, meaning that you often run headlong into a platoon of droids who cut you down with surprisingly unerring accuracy. It also becomes an issue during puzzles as you have such a limited range of vision that it is often difficult to appreciate the full picture, making switches or passageways easy to miss. It is incredibly frustrating, the game crying out for a floating camera or at the very least an option to switch to first person mode to line up a jump or have a chance to see what is coming.

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Gameplay

The game is limited to an extent by the quality of the source material but it does manage to squeeze in a reasonable degree of variety.

The core of the gameplay though remains unchanged throughout. Playing as either Obi-Wan, Qui-Gon, Captain Panaka or Padme depending on the requirements of the level, you must fight droids, jump obstacles and solve simple puzzles.

As either Jedi or Padawan, you are equipped with your trusty lightsaber, allowing you to slash through enemies or deflect laser fire back from whence it came. Throughout your journey you can also collect crude blasters or grenades, which come in helpful on later levels when the lightsaber isn’t as practical. You also have the benefit of a Force push, useful for stunning enemies or throwing hard to reach switches.

Whilst the majority of the game is action based, your Jedi or non-Jedi avatar fighting off the hordes of the Droid army, levels are interspersed with other elements. Blocks must be moved in Tomb Raider-esque fashion, or switches located and activated in order to allow access to the next area. Perhaps the biggest change of pace comes with the Naboo levels. With your ship damaged, new parts must be obtained, which can only be achieved by betting on Anakin in the forthcoming podrace. But the podracer needs parts too, which instigates a fetch and carry quest as you locate the merchants that hold the goods you need and barter with them until you have all the parts.

The final two missions meanwhile are the most cinematic in feel. After the political machinations on Coruscant, our heroes head back to Naboo to reclaim the palace from the Trade Federation, the action jumping between the Jedi and non-Jedi characters, varying the pace and requirements within the level. It is a clever and pleasing juxtaposition that helps to capture some of the spirit of the film and the excitement of divergent story strands coming together as the game reaches its climax.

There are occasional side missions too, usually complimentary to the main action but offering a benefit on completion such as info on how to complete a level or a quest item.

But do not be confused. The side quests and other variations to gameplay are mere deviations, this is an action game and it is on this basis it should be judged.

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Fundamentally it is competent if underwhelming. Camera issues aside, at times the game is just annoying and yet for all that, it just about held my attention through to completion. Your character is generally responsive however it lacks that innate feel of controlling a powerful Jedi. Lightsaber strokes are mapped to a single button with variations to pressing, combined with a shove of the direction stick, dictating the pattern of death unleashed.

Part of the un-Jedi aspect is that the game has moments of extreme difficulty spikes. Right from the first level you are thrown in at the deep end as a squadron of droids and destroyers come bounding down the corridor at you. Rushing into the action with your lightsaber twirling is likely to just result in a grisly demise, the best tactic usually being to stand further back and deflect laser fire, each droid taking a couple of hits before it crumples to the floor, but the sheer number of enemies means that a few shots will undoubtedly get through, depleting your limited health.

The Naboo swamps are a particular example of this as you are repeatedly confronted by roving gangs of droids that will often overwhelm you. Later levels see you tackle dirty great armoured tanks as well as boss characters and mounted gun turrets, whilst Tatooine brings angry Tusken Raiders and surprisingly aggressive (and deadly) packs of Jawa’s.

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When the action switches to non-Jedi character, things become even more deadly. Neither Captain Panaka or Padme are blessed with bountiful health or weaponry, Padme in particular starting out with some weird electrocution device rather than a traditional blaster. Strangely though in the level where you control the Queen, it is Captain Panaka who proves the more delicate, requiring you to constantly wade into the action to ensure your NPC bodyguard doesn’t end up as dog meat on the tiles of the palace grounds.

It would perhaps have made more sense to restrict the necessity for health packs to the non-Jedi characters, allowing Jedi characters to self health with the Force. As it is, for a Jedi you will find yourself dying a lot, somewhat at odds with a Force-sensitive being.

There are no checkpoints either. If you die then it is back to the start of the level, the majority of which are fairly large. Thank goodness then that you can save at any point, which helps alleviate the frustration immensely.

Perhaps the biggest criticism of the game though is what is missing compared to other Star Wars games, most notably Lego Star Wars. It is an unfortunate comparison in some ways but unavoidable, especially on the first level aboard the Trade Federation ship where the two games open almost identically. Your instinct is to barge into the action, destroying everything in your path, or to smash up scenery to find hidden bonuses. But they never emerge, smashed boxes or droids simply leading to debris. There is some scope for exploration, which will often reward you with health or weapon pick-up, but be careful on levels where you are tasked with guarding another character as wandering off too far can see them killed off-screen.

As a Jedi, you just expect to be able to do more. The Force push is underwhelming, there is no ability to throw your lightsaber as a projectile of death, your jump is limited. Simply put, if it wasn’t for the licence, this could be any generic action game.

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Sound

As you might expect with a licenced Star Wars game, the sound is in some ways the highlight. All the usual effects are present and correct; the thrum of your lightsaber, the satisfying snap of a blaster and of course the theme music, including the fabulous Duel of the Fates that plays when Darth Maul appears on the scene (the full music video is viewable as an extra on the main menu.

There is a full voice cast too but again it is underwhelming. Obi Wan is fine and specific characters are serviceable but some of the voice acting is lamentable. Roaming round the markets of Tatooine you repeatedly bump into the same motley crew of inhabitants, who repeat the same stock phrases as-nauseum. One NPC in particular, a big beefy guard, is presumably supposed to be intimidating, but when the weedy voice chimes, ‘ROAR, get out of my way,’ he sounds more like Snarf from Thundercats.

But most bizarre of all is Qui-Gon, who for some reason sounds perpetually angry, as if he could succumb to the dark side at a moment’s notice.

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Bottom Line

THUD! That is the sound of this game landing squarely in the average box.

There is nothing fundamentally wrong with it and the difficulty will ensure this takes a while to complete. But, much like the source material it is based on, some very good moments are dragged down by a general dullness.

As with all things prequel related, set your expectations realistically and you can have some fun with this. But those looking to feel the Force may end up coming away feeling a little more Jawa than Jedi.

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