Lego Batman: Extras and Secrets Revisited

By now, it’s abundantly clear to me that the Traveler’s Tales Lego games are fundamentally meant not just to be won, but to be 100%ed. The secrets aren’t all that hard to find, and involve many of the games’ best tricks, things you don’t want to miss out on. But I didn’t fully appreciate this when I was writing about Lego Star Wars back in 2007. In one post, I mentioned how one of the upgrades I had not yet purchased was a 10x multiplier on lego stud intake, which seems like it would be a great way to afford the really expensive purchasable upgrades and characters, until you notice that the 10x upgrade costs more than everything else put together. Saving up for that hardly seemed worth it.

However, that’s not all there is to it. In all of the games from Lego Star Wars 2 onward, there are in fact other, cheaper score multiplier upgrades — I just happened to find the most expensive one first. See, before you can purchase upgrades, you have to physically locate the lego blocks containing them. (In Lego Indiana Jones, you also have to find or assemble a mailbox so you can send it back to Barnett College.) Before you do this, you don’t even know what upgrades are available. The customary progression seems to be a 2x multiplier in the first few levels, then 4x, 6x, 8x, and finally 10x, scattered throughout the run, interspersed with other upgrades. Furthermore, the multipliers stack — and not in the half-hearted additive way usually seen in bonus multipliers in games: if you activate the 2x, 4x, 6x, and 8x bonuses all at once, the result is not 20x, but 384x. This makes the 10x multiplier trivially affordable, along with everything else in the game. It’s still pointless, but it’s no longer pointless and difficult.

Lego Batman adds a neat twist to all this: it makes the multipliers the exclusive province of the Villain levels. In fact, instead of spacing them out over the course of the game, the upgrades in the first five levels of the Villain campaign are simply the five multipliers, followed by the “stud magnet” upgrade. It seems appropriate, associating villain play with both avarice and borderline cheating. Except I don’t really feel like using the multipliers gained this way is cheating — it would be cheating to unlock them with a cheat code, but if you solved an in-game puzzle to obtain it, that means you earned it.

What upgrades does the Hero campaign provide while this is going on? It seems to be entirely about “suit upgrades”: things that specifically affect the functions of the various Batman and Robin costumes. More batarang targets, faster grappling, immunity to bullets, that sort of thing. Somehow this feels like it goes against the hero/villain dynamic: the villain upgrades generously benefit everyone, the hero upgrades selfishly only benefit the heroes. But that’s the superhero ethic, I suppose. I remember a review of Warren Ellis’s Planetary, a comic whose main villains are plainly modeled after the Fantastic Four, that pointed out that it isn’t even a matter of “What if the Fantastic Four were evil”, but that, by hoarding potentially transformative technologies for their exclusive use, the canon Fantastic Four are already evil as judged by Planetary‘s values.

Still, that’s a bit of a stretch here, in a game where the putative heroes and villains fight side by side all the time in Free Play mode, united by their shared obsession with gratuitous property damage.

Lego Batman

Lego Batman is special to me: it’s a game whose existence I predicted, in a comment thread on this very blog. It just seemed like a natural next step after Lego Star Wars, as Batman kits were one of Lego’s bigger sellers. I actually bought and played it a bit years before my current Lego kick, but didn’t complete it then, mainly because it’s effectively twice as long as the other Lego games, consisting of two entire trilogyworths of levels. As of this writing, I’ve completed both trilogies in Story Mode, but have not yet 100%ed it. The trilogy as an organizing principle is obviously a holdover from Lego Star Wars and Lego Indiana Jones, but here, for the first time, Traveller’s Tales isn’t adapting a trilogy of movies. Instead, they’re just making up a completely new set of villain team-up stories, unencumbered by the need to pretend that a scene that was compelling on the silver screen necessarily makes for good lego play.

Mechanically, it brings two new things to the table: batarangs and special-purpose costumes. Batarangs are just a projectile weapon where you can program in a certain number of designated targets (either enemies or breakable lego objects), like in that one scene at the beginning of Batman Returns. Doing this — both selecting targets and waiting for the batarang to flit between them — is slow enough to make it not very useful in combat, except to pick off people shooting at you from unreachable ledges. It’s sometimes used as a puzzle-solving tool, to break things out of reach. but guns work just as well for that, when you have them — which you obviously don’t, when you’re playing as Batman in Story mode. Most of the villains carry guns, though, when you unlock them.

Costumes are a way for Story Mode to partake in some of the variability that Free Play mode gets by letting you switch characters: Batman and Robin are each effectively multiple characters, with special abilities determined by what they’re wearing, which they can change at designated costume-change pads (which you typically have to assemble from pieces). So it functions a bit like the pick-uppable tools in Lego Indiana Jones, except that they’re tools that can only be used by specific characters: Batman has Batman costumes, Robin has Robin costumes. (Batgirl doesn’t appear in Story mode. If you unlock her in Free Play, she’s treated as just a variation on Batman, and uses Batman costumes.) The specific abilities costumes grant are an odd assortment. There’s some obvious ones, like the one that lets you glide and the one that lets you plant explosives, but there’s also things like a costume with a sonic device that breaks glass (which, contrary to expectation, is the strongest frangible material in the game and can’t be broken in any other way, even by the aforementioned bombs) and, for Robin, magnet-boots that let you walk on metal walls and a vacuum device for collecting scraps and recycling them into useful objects. It all reminds me of the goofier sort of action figure accessories, the kind where a toy company just makes up vehicles with no basis in the source material.

But goofiness is the order of the day, isn’t it? This is a Traveller’s Tales Lego game, and that means making everyone a little childish, to excuse the fact that even the heroes spend most of their time smashing scenery. The Lego Movie and The Lego Batman Movie have forever defined the character of Lego Batman for us, but that was years away when this game was made. Instead, it seems to draw inspiration from a mishmash of the Tim Burton films, Batman: The Animated Series, and the Adam West TV series. (The comics that inspired all three sources don’t seem to be much of a factor directly.) You can see this most clearly in the villain roster: among others, we’ve got a Joker with a lethal joybuzzer (with enough juice to power electric motors), the monstrous B:TAS version of Clayface, and Killer Moth. The Penguin’s special ability, in addition to umbrella-gliding, is that he can release exploding penguins, like in Batman Returns, but otherwise he’s solidly Burgess Meredith-based: this is a Penguine who prances about with joie de vivre, swinging his umbrella around like a swashbuckler.

The character animation in all these games is excellent, by the way. The stylization leaves the faces with limited room for expression, so they compensate in the walk cycles and combat moves. There’s one detail I find particularly pleasing: Harley Quinn and Poison Ivy both have a double-jump ability, but they execute it completely differently, Harley going into an aerial somersault like a circus acrobat, Ivy seeming to ride the wind like an earthbound goddess.

At any rate, as usual for Batman, the villains are the highlight. Which I suppose is why they have their own trilogy.

It’s done in a narratively interesting way. After you play an episode of a trilogy as Batman, you get to play the villain version of the same episode. The gleeful destruction feels more appropriate this time around. The cutscenes go into more detail about exactly what the villain was trying to accomplish, and how. Sometimes you’ll be going through the same familiar level geometry that you did as Batman (just fighting cops instead of minions this time), sometimes your path will break away and go somewhere completely new. But you always ultimately wind up in the boss room, where Batman confronted the villain you’re playing, and you know that the level is about to end — specifically, that it’s about to end right at the edge of triumph, just before Batman bursts in and ruins everything. I’ve mentioned before the idea of a Lord of the Rings game where you play as Gollum, where the final level would end right after Gollum triumphantly wrests the ring back from Frodo at Mount Doom, before we see what happens next. It’s a bit like that.

There’s something a little uncanny about the villain episodes, too. When you play as Batman, it feels like you’re playing through a series of challenges and obstacles set up by the villain. But then you get to be the villain in the same situation. To some extent, you’re engaged in setting up the things the way Batman found them, but you’re doing it in a context where things have been set up for you to set them up — including in scenes that, in-story, were improvised, the result of the original plan going off the rails. If the Joker prepared the way for Batman, who prepared the way for the Joker?

Lego Indiana Jones

I’ve had a lot to say about puzzle books and puzzle boxes this year, but it’s been fully three months since I posted about an actual videogame. What have I been playing? Well, for one thing, during the summer sales, I bought several of the Lego games by Traveler’s Tales, some of which have been sitting on my Steam wishlist for an entire decade. These are all cast from the same mold as Lego Star Wars, but with different IP franchises. As of this writing, the only one I’ve finished (and indeed 100%ed) is the earliest application of the formula to a non-Star Wars franchise, Lego Indiana Jones.

I seem to recall that this game was critically panned on its release, although I don’t understand why. It seems to me a perfectly serviceable instance of its type. Like all of these games, it’s mainly about breaking everything in sight, turning them either into showers of lego studs that you can use to unlock power-ups, or into collectibles of various sorts, or just into piles of bricks that you can assemble into something else (although you have no control over what). Assembled objects are often bridges or mechanisms necessary for proceeding through a level, and there’s basically no way of predicting which random bits scenery have to be torn down to make the things you need, so you really do wind up smashing absolutely everything you can, just in case. There’s also combat and puzzles.

As in the other Lego games, completing a level unlocks it in “Free Play” mode, which means you can replay it with different characters and use their special abilities to access secrets and collectibles that were unavailable on the first pass. Ah, but what kind of special abilities do Indiana Jones characters have? The interesting thing is that (A) characters are mainly distinguished by tools rather than innate qualities, and (B) the same tools can sometimes be found lying around loose. So, for example, the airplane mechanic from the first act of Raiders of the Lost Ark has a wrench, which means he can repair machines, but so can any other character who picks up a wrench. The mechanic is still valuable in Free Play mode, because he has a wrench all the time, and thus can repair machines in places without environmental wrenches. There’s a repeat-the-sequence mini-game that can only be attempted by a character holding a book, and books are built into all the Academic characters: Belloc, Marcus Brody, Henry Jones Senior, Elsa Schneider, but notably not Indy himself, even when he’s dressed as a professor rather than an adventurer. But when Indy picks up a book, he’s as academic as anyone. There’s one case of this that was so contrary to sense that it left me stuck and in need of hints: in the Temple of Doom sequence, there are certain statues of Lego Kali. Approach one, and help text helpfully informs you that the Thugee know how to use these statues to reveal hidden passages. I took this at face value: to access the passage, I’d have to use a Thugee character in free play mode. But it turns out all you need is to be wearing a turban.

Weapons, too, count as tools in this sense. The unsung hero of my playthrough was a nameless German solder (who obviously switched sides in Free Play) whose power was simply a built-in rocket launcher, useful both for ending fights quickly and for demolishing lots of scenery at once — including shiny metallic objects that are only vulnerable to explosives, and which tend to have puzzles built around them that the rocket soldier bypasses.

As to the content, mainly it just strikes me that Indiana Jones is a deeply strange choice of IP for this treatment, and probably wouldn’t have been done were it not for its general proximity to Star Wars. There’s even an entire set of secrets in the game built about finding out-of-place Star Wars characters, which culminates in — what else? — unlocking Han Solo for use in Free Play. In fact, I’ll admit that all the gameplay centered around unlocking secrets fits Indiana Jones plots very well — that’s basically what everyone in the movies is trying to do, right? The Ark of the Covenant, the Sankara Stones, the Holy Grail: all are essentially powerful upgrades that grant special abilities, hidden behind puzzles and/or combat challenges. This game just expands on that, taking fairly short sequences from the films and folding them out into something more substantial.

But it also sillies them up, and that’s where the whole thing becomes strange. This is a kid-friendly E-for-Everyone game based on really disturbingly violent films that were directly responsible for changes in the film rating system. Temple of Doom in particular is a sickenly cruel flick, with a paranoid world-view, where seemingly friendly people are secretly plotting to entrap and enslave you, not even for any personal benefit but simply in the service of pointless evil. Even the well-meaning can be subverted and controlled and made into enemies, and the only way to turn them back is with pain. By hurting them until they’re your friends again. And the game just puts a thick layer of goofy slapstick over all that. The nightmarish human sacrifice scene, where the Thugee lower a caged and struggling man into the bowels of the earth, is recreated here in lego, except the victim is basically fine afterward, the fires below having merely burned is clothes off embarrassingly.

My personal experience is also made peculiar by the way that I’m a lot less familiar with the movies than I am with other games based on them. My first impressions of Temple of Doom came not from the film, but from the 1985 coin-op arcade game. I saw Last Crusade in the theaters before I played the classic LucasArts point-and-click adventure, but I spent many more hours on the adventure. So it’s largely these other games that I was reminded of while playing it. Particularly the music — there’s a ton of incidental background music that’s seared into my memory in its Soundblaster arrangements. Hearing the full film score versions provokes an odd recognition: Whoa, that’s what I was supposed to be pretending I was hearing?

In Lego Star Wars, you could wander around the Mos Eisley cantina between missions, and all the characters you had unlocked would be there too. In Lego Indiana Jones, this role is taken by Barnett College, which makes the juxtapositions more startling: after a while, the campus is crawling with Nazis, Thugee, and Grail Knights. This is supposed to be an institution of learning, not a wretched hive of scum and villainy! It does, however, culminate in using all those characters’ special abilities in a puzzle sequence right there in the hub world. Did Lego Star Wars have anything like this? If it did, I’ve either forgotten about it or just never noticed it. Again, I think the genre helps. The idea that there are secret passages all over the place fits better here, even if the characters that make it possible don’t.

Apparently there’s a second Lego Indiana Jones game that basically just does Crystal Skull. That seems to be the trend now, doing individual movies instead of trilogies; there’s a game just for The Force Awakens as well. I’ll probably give Lego Crystal Skull a miss unless someone recommends it. I just don’t have the same connection to it. But if they ever do Lego Indiana Jones and the Fate of Atlantis, I’m definitely interested. Last Crusade has given us an example of what a classic point-and-click adventure and a Lego game based on the same source look like, and I’m fascinated by the idea of doing the same thing again but without the source.

Three Failures

Last night, I was tired, and not in the mood for anything stressful or taxing. Going back to Super Meat Boy, or even to the lesser challenge of Heroes Chronicles, was out of the question. So I turned to my largish sub-stack of things bought in recent Steam sales that I haven’t even tried yet.

The first thing I tried was Safecracker: The Ultimate Puzzle Adventure. I suppose it says something about me that a puzzle game — yea, a self-proclaimed ultimate puzzle game — is my idea of something neither stressful nor taxing. But I had every reason to believe that this would be essentially just a gallery of soup cans, where the scope of every puzzle is well-defined and there’s no possibility of negative consequences. After all, that’s what the original Safecracker was. I could be wrong; I realize that it’s not the same game. But I didn’t at first. It was many months after S:TUPA was added to Steam that a discussion in a completely different context (roughly “This is just like that puzzle in Safecracker!” “What? I’ve played Safecracker and I don’t remember any puzzle like this.”) made me aware that it was a sequel. I think understand why the makers decided to obscure this: if it were called Safecracker II, there would be potential customers who would decide not to play it because they hadn’t played the original, or who decided to play the original first and found it so off-putting that they never bought the second. But the title they chose almost kept me from buying it, and I’m their target audience. There must be some better compromise.

At any rate, I couldn’t get S:TUPA going at all on my system. Starting it just locked my machine up with no video output. Possibly it was defaulting to a resolution that my monitor doesn’t support, but even then, you’d think I’d get some background music or something. I have seen this game running on a modern system, though, so it’s probably a solvable problem. But it wasn’t the sort of puzzle I was in the mood for, so I switched games.

Next up, I tried The Ball, a first-person puzzler, which is to say, a game that owes a great deal to Portal, even though the theme here is Aztec ruins (with hints of Ancient Astronaut) rather than sterile white corridors. The main conceit is obstacles that can only be overcome by using a large, unwieldy metal ball, a unique item doesn’t necessarily easily go where it’s needed. Your main control over it is a handheld device that’s something like a ball-specific version of the gravity gun from Half-Life 2: you can use it to attract the ball when it’s in range, and also to smack it like a pinball and send it careening forward. Maybe I was doing things suboptimally, but I found that I used the attract mode to move the ball around most of the time, which means that the ball spent a lot of time right in my face, which is always awkward in a first-person game. The designers understand the problem, and compensate for it by making the ball go transparent when it blocks your view significantly, leaving only some bands solid. I felt that even this cluttered the view uncomfortably.

When I started the game, I noticed that Steam listed some “Last played” data, which struck me as strange, because I had never actually played it before. But then I remembered that I had attempted to play it back when I first bought it, only to have it crash immediately. This time, I fared better: it lasted about a half an hour before crashing, long enough for me to get not quite all the way through the first level. Since this level is pretty tutorial-like, I still don’t think I really have a good idea of what the gameplay is like or how hard the puzzles are.

With that, I gave up on puzzle games and tried out Lego Batman, something that had struck me as a good idea back in 1997 when I played Lego Star Wars. After an overlong intro sequence involving some rather forced slapstick — perhaps my tastes have changed in the last four years? — I made Lego Batman run around and hit people for a few minutes, just long enough to decide that this is a game best controlled with a gamepad rather than mouse and keboard. But my system wouldn’t recognize my trusty DualShock + USB Adapter until I rebooted, and after that, it wouldn’t start the game again. It kept throwing up Windows “illegal operation” dialogs.

It’s likely that all these problems, and probably other recent problems as well (like my difficulties with Arthur’s Knights), have a common root in my hardware, probably that the fan on the video card is clogged with dust again or something similarly foolish. But I didn’t feel like doing anything as stressful and taxing as troubleshooting hardware, so I spent the rest of the evening watching a movie instead. At least I can scratch two of the three games off the list of things I’ve purchased but not actually played.

Psychonauts: Collection

psychonauts-figmentsPsychonauts has a fairly complicated system of item collection, and it’s instructive to compare it to that seen in Lego Star Wars 2 (described previously in this blog). I described the latter as byzantine and difficult to understand, with its multiple goals and overlapping effects. Now, Psychonauts has more types of collectible. In the real world sections, there are:

  • Psi challenge markers: few in number and located in difficult-to-reach places
  • Psi cards: fragments that can be assembled into new psi challenge markers. More numerous and usually easy to reach, but often hard to spot
  • Scavenger hunt items: unique objects, most of which require solving an optional puzzle

And in the mental realms:

  • Figments of the imagination: all over the place, sometimes moving
  • Mental cobwebs: collectible only using a special piece of equipment, and can be turned into psi cards back in the real world
  • Memories: located in ambulatory safes that flee your approach; when collected, offer glimpses into character backstory
  • Emotional baggage: a two-step collectible that involves finding a tag to match with each bag; matching all five in a mind unlocks some production art

However, I find the collection in Psychonauts easier to follow, and I think it’s mainly because the effects are simpler. With the exception of the effects mentioned above of the memories and the emotional baggage (which don’t seem to affect gameplay, and can be classed as “extras”), the end result of collection is always the same: increasing your “rank”. Attaining certain ranks grants permission to buy new equipment, or allows you to learn new powers, or enhances the powers you have. By funneling everything through the “rank” concept, the game simplifies the way you can think about gaining access to stuff. I suppose that this is something that RPGs have been doing all along with character levels, but it’s unusual to see a level system that isn’t at all based on gaining experience through combat.

Now, getting all the collectibles in everyone’s mental worlds typically involves going through them more than once. Indeed, it’s completely impossible to collect mental cobwebs from the first couple of minds on your first visit, as you don’t yet have access to the necessary equipment. It’s not uncommon in these games for collection to involve repeat visits to completed levels, but it’s usually handled non-diegetically: to use Lego Star Wars as an example again, if you replay the Battle of Hoth level, there’s no sense that you’re creating a story in which the Battle of Hoth was fought more than once. In Psychonauts, however, every visit is taken to be part of the same ongoing story, even if this requires convoluted excuses. So, the first time train with Sasha Nein, his mental defenses spin out of control and he urgently needs your help to restore order, but when you go back, Sasha offers to put you through the same “training course”, explaining that the emergency was a ruse to motivate you.

A more extreme example: In the mental landscape of the monster lungfish, it’s Raz who’s the monster, a Godzilla-like building-crumbling behemoth attacking Lungfishopolis. When you complete the level, by destroying a certain broadcast tower (the lungfish’s mental representation of the crainial implants that the bad guys are using to control it), the lungfish of the city are freed from their brainwashing and come to regard you as a hero. On a return visit, you’re cordially greeted by a lungfish who warns you that there are still some crazy guys out there who “don’t realize that the war is over”, and invites you to destroy as many buildings as you want: now that they’re free, they realize that lungfish were meant to live in mucus-lined bubbles at the bottom of lakes, not in tower blocks.

These scenes make a virtue of a constraint: they treat an unlikely situation resulting from gameplay decisions as an opportunity for humor. Or possibly the other way around: they use the fact that this is a humorous game as an excuse to integrate gameplay decisions with the story in ways that would be implausible if taken seriously. Whichever way it goes, it’s something that Schafer has been doing since his Lucasarts days.

Lego Star Wars as a whole

It’s notable that the lego aspect of the Lego Star Wars games isn’t very strong compared to the Star Wars aspect. At no point does the player actually participate in assembling things out of legos. Oh, sure, there are loose piles of legos here and there to be assembled — created, in some cases, when the player blasts an existing lego structure apart — but the player’s involvement in the process is just plunking a character into the middle of the pile, holding down the “action” button, and watching the legos fly to their predetermined spots. Beyond that, lego is basically window dressing on a Star Wars substrate. Like all stylistic aberrations, you get used to it after a while, and basically stop noticing anything strange about it. (With some exceptions, of course. Seeing Lego Slave Leia for the first time was a bit of a shock.)

So where does that leave the Star Wars aspect of the games? If I’m not mistaken, Lego Star Wars and Lego Star Wars II taken together form the only complete game adaptation of the entire 6-episode saga in a single consistent idiom of graphical presentation and gameplay. The closest I’ve seen is a coin-op rail shooter from 1998 that only covered the original trilogy, not the prequels (which hadn’t been released yet). Absurd as it sounds, this makes the Lego games something like the definitive game adaptation of the series.

As such, they provide a good perspective into Star Wars and its relationship with games. It’s hardly news that the prequel trilogy was more videogame-inspired than the original trilogy — the race in Episode 1 and the platformer-like droid factory in Episode 2 in particular have aroused suspicion that they were added to the movies specifically in order to provide fodder for videogame adaptations. “Racing games are popular,” one imagines Lucas saying. “We need a canonical basis for a racing game. Can we use the Endor speeder bikes? Nah, let’s do something more completely like Daytona.” Even if that’s not how it happened, it’s hard to imagine that these scenes could have been produced without anyone involved in the production consciously imitating videogames. The original trilogy, on the other hand, went the other way: instead of videogame-inspired, it was videogame-inspiring. The movies were showing things that couldn’t be effectively done in games yet, but it all looked so cool, and had such obvious promise for the fledgling game medium, that people tried anyway. And they kept trying until the technology caught up and they really could do something that looked as cool as the movies, or cooler. And then they did it again with legos.

As much as I’d like to say that the innovative original trilogy yields better game material than the imitative prequels, it’s just not so. Apart from specific set-pieces, there’s one thing that really separates any game adaptations of the two trilogies: the bosses. The prequel trilogy had a whole bunch of characters that were basically level bosses, such as Darth Maul, Count Dooku, General Grievous — even Sebulba, as the only opponent with a distinct name and personality, is effectively a boss for the Super Anakin Kart sequence. Darth Maul was a disappointment as a character in the movie, especially after all the hype, because all he did was attack the heroes every once in a while. But in a game, that’s not disappointing at all; it’s exactly what we expect. So the prequel trilogy gets a gold star for its colorful array of baddies. In the original trilogy, it’s basically Vader, Vader, Vader. Oh, and briefly Boba Fett, but mainly Vader over and over again, on the Death Star and Bespin and Dagobah (even if that’s just a mystical vision, it’s still a boss fight), until the end, when you fight the Emperor, who isn’t very interesting as a fighter — he basically just zaps one of the two player characters with Force Lightning until you switch to the other character and hit him. They had to turn that scene into a series of platformer puzzles in order to make it viable.

[added June 9 2007] Vader basically has the opposite of Darth Maul’s problem. Unlike Maul, he does a great deal more than just attack the heroes: he captures the princess, interrogates her by extreme means including making her watch him destroy an entire planet, orders underlings around and force-chokes them to death when they fail him, exposes Obi-Wan’s lies, and ultimately switches sides and betrays the Emperor. But only the last of these points translates into gameplay; the rest are shown in cut-scenes, if at all. So he’s less interesting as a videogame character than as a movie character.

Lego Star Wars II: Extras and Secrets

Getting through the Return of the Jedi section of Lego Star Wars II didn’t take long. Cleverly, they used Vader’s redemption at the end of the movie as an excuse to turn him into a player character. This was something of a relief, because it means there’s one Dark Force wielder who doesn’t have to be purchased with lego studs. Once you’ve been given control of him once, you can have him in Free Play mode whenever you like.

About those lego studs. Lego studs fill the same role as “bolts” in Ratchet and Clank: little money items that you acquire mainly by breaking stuff. Some of the various secrets and extras can be purchased with lego studs, but, in most cases, you also have to unlock them by completing some other task, such as completing a level or finding a special “power brick”. There are also gold bricks which accumulate to open up bonus areas, and which are mainly earned by accumulating a certain threshhold of lego studs within a single play-through of a level. It’s all rather byzantine, but it’s done with juicy feedback, both when you attain a goal and again as a summary of your accomplishments on finishing a level. Even if you don’t know what you’re doing, you know when you’ve done it, and even if you don’t know what it means, you know it was a good thing.

To use my earlier nomenclature, finding power bricks is a Challenge, and accumulating lego studs is an Activity. So getting all of the extra powers requires both. One of the powers is particularly worth noting: it multiplies stud yield by 10. So this would be the perfect thing to aim for in order to minimize your time spent stud-farming, except for the fact that it costs more than all the other purchasable items put together. Seriously, there are only two reasons to go for that one. One is that you just enjoy making your games display very large numbers — not something that appeals to me, but this is for the people who keep on trying to beat their own high scores at games they’ve already won. The other is the completist’s urge to catch ’em all, to not have any gaps in their collectibles. Well, Lego Star Wars II is officially off the stack now, but I definitely want to keep hunting secrets at least until I finish all the mini-kits. (Each level has one, in ten scattered and hidden pieces. I don’t know much about the toy line, but I assume that they’re all replicas of actual purchasable lego kits.) Whether I go for the 30-million-stud exercise in uselessness depends on how close I am to it after that.

Lego Star Wars II

When I first became aware of the original Lego Star Wars game, my first thought was of an enormous lego Death Star that I had seen in a store window. The whole idea of taking that huge sphere of grey bricks and blowing it up, sending a firework-like shower of lego flying through space in all directions, was tremendously appealing to me. So you can imagine my disappointment when I learned that the game only covered the prequel trilogy, and my delight at the sequel covering episodes 4-6. That’s two Death Star explosions, one in 4 and one in 6.

Well, I can report on the first of those explosions now. It wasn’t all it could have been. The game keeps the scale too consistent to make the moon-sized Death Star noticably lego-like from a distance. Still, that’s the only disappointing thing in this game so far. (It’s so similar in style and gameplay to the first Lego Star Wars, it usually meets expectations exactly.)

The Lego Star Wars videogame franchise is, needless to say, peculiar. Game adaptations of things that are adaptations themselves actually aren’t all that unusual, but usually it goes book — movie — game (like the various Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter movie tie-in games) or comic — movie — game (like the mandatory tie-in game for every superhero movie since 1990), not movie — licensed toy line — game. 1 The only other pattern I can remember seeing offhand is book — comic — game without any movie involved at all. This was done by an adventure game based on Druillet’s comic adaptation of Flaubert’s Salammbo. This, incedentally, is one of three games I own that I discovered only after purchase to be based on French comic books. One effect of mediating the adaptation of the movies through lego is that it becomes pointless to take it all too seriously. We’re presented with a world, yea, a galactic civilization populated entirely by lego people. The designers run with that, throwing in lots of slapstick and silly hats — the silly hats have no effect on gameplay; a silly hat is its own reward — and allowing comic dismemberment. We’ve heard about Wookiees pulling people’s arms out of their sockets, but now we get to see it happen. It happens quite neatly: Chewie pulls on an arm, the arm pops off.

For all its flippancy, it’s actually a better-designed game than most of the other official adaptations of the saga. Well, okay: there have been Star Wars-based videogames for nearly 30 years at this point. The Death Star trench run and the Battle of Hoth have been made and remade in so many games, it would be surprising if they weren’t getting pretty good at them by now. Indeed, the designers of Lego Star Wars II seem to want to avoid repeating other games here: the trench run is surprisingly short, and Hoth has various innovations added to spice it up. (Basically, the tow cable has uses other than tripping up AT-AT’s.)

Right now, I’m all the way through A New Hope and The Empire Strikes Back, which is to say, I’ve gotten 2/3 of the way to the end. It took the better part of a day. Like the original Lego Star Wars, this is a pretty short game. Or rather, it’s a game for completists, and their close kin, perfectionists. Reaching the end of Episode VI shouldn’t take long, but getting all the stuff — the golden bricks and the hidden multi-part lego models — will take slightly longer. Reaching the end of the game is in a sense only the beginning, just a way to unlock all the characters you’ll need when you go back to hunt secrets. Some optional areas are accessible by using the dark side of the Force. There are only two characters in the movies who can do that, and I suspect that they’ll be the last ones to become available for play.

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1. The only other pattern I can remember seeing offhand is book — comic — game without any movie involved at all. This was done by an adventure game based on Druillet’s comic adaptation of Flaubert’s Salammbo. This, incedentally, is one of three games I own that I discovered only after purchase to be based on French comic books.