Fans of Battlezone, Vigilante 8, and Rogue Leader will find plenty of enjoyment from The Clone Wars. It’s also a must for anyone obsessed with the Star Wars storyline.
The most important thing to know about Star Wars: The Clone Wars is that the game lives up to its title. You are literally playing through the Clone Wars so often alluded to in the Star Wars movies, and the game does a very good job of making the battles feel epic and important. Intermittent cut-scenes and the plentiful in-game narration spell out just exactly what happens between Episodes II and III, although the game’s storyline seems to stop about halfway through the war. (In other words, expect a sequel.)
As we’ve seen from the most recent movie, the war features mostly ground-based combat with a variety of assault vehicles and huge armies of clone and droid soldiers. The on-foot battles are mostly ignored in this game; all of the action worth experiencing takes place in a vehicle of some sort. LucasArts was clever to choose Pandemic Studios as developer. Pandemic’s Battlezone for the PC practically wrote the book on strategic vehicular combat, and they’ve had some experience on consoles with the genre’s more action-oriented side. The Clone Wars skews towards the latter type, for better or worse. It’s a bit like Vigilante 8 or Twisted Metal, except that you’re battling hordes of weaker enemies instead of a few equally matched opponents.
Most missions take place in either the Jedi Fighter Tank or the Republic Gunship. There are a few other vehicles, but these are rarely used and generally not executed as well. The tank is extremely fast and agile, able to strafe quickly and easily around targets. Its control is easy to pick up, and the tank can take a pretty good beating before giving out. Tank missions are usually about destroying enemy units (not installations) and/or escorting groups of friendly units. Escort missions aren’t as frustrating as in most games, since the tank is quick enough to cover all sides reasonably well. You have other squadmates under your control, but they’re pretty useless. No surprise there.
The Republic Gunship is the plane from the movie that carries troops and is equipped with those awesome green lasers of death. It is the game’s only flying vehicle, and its stages play pretty much like Rogue Leader’s planet-based missions. Since the Gunship is fairly slow and well-armed, there is little dogfighting and lots of air-to-ground destruction. For the most part, these missions are interesting and a blast to play. The ship is so well armed (and armored) that you basically just fly around and wreak as much havoc as possible. The “composite lasers” are depicted and implemented extremely well; they drain an energy bar that automatically regenerates over time, and they automatically latch onto the nearest targets. And they look absurdly cool. The biggest problem with Gunship levels is how environment boundaries are handled. The actual levels tend to be quite large, but the mission will usually limit you to flying in the area of your next primary objective. Not a bad idea, except for what happens when you hit the totally invisible boundaries: the Gunship goes into auto-pilot and takes a wide, slow turn back towards the acceptable flying region. If there are any structures near the boundary, and there usually are, there’s a good chance that the auto-pilot will send your ship right through solid metal, rock, or whatever else is in the way. You can’t imagine the frustration of flying a mission perfectly and then being killed senselessly by your own auto-pilot. There is simply no excuse for this kind of oversight in the level design. The least the game could do is indicate where the boundaries are, so you can stay far, far away from them.
Other vehicles aren’t used much and aren’t as well polished as the tank and ship. The AT-XT Walker is loaded with missiles and has powerful lasers and tough armor, but it’s cumbersome to control and extremely slow. Collision detection problems make the Walker more frustrating than fun after a few minutes with it. The Kashyyyk moon’s “Maru” creatures are fast but poorly defended, and their collision detection is even worse. The speeder bike is implemented fairly well, but since it all but requires its own special stages, it has limited use or appeal. Finally, on-foot missions are provided to break up the primarily vehicular gameplay. To some extent they do just that. Unfortunately, most of the fun to be had out of these sequences is in laughing at the horrible execution. Even on foot, the Jedi control just like vehicles, which works terribly with their smaller and more cramped environments. The character animations in these mini-missions are hilariously poor, and the framerate drops to shameful levels. There are a couple of neat touches, like how the Jedi automatically deflect most oncoming blaster fire, and how you can throw the lightsaber like a boomerang, but it’s not enough to keep the on-foot sequences from being a complete joke. Luckily, they never last very long, and they’re not particularly difficult to get through.
There are sixteen lengthy missions to complete, a very respectable amount of content for an action game’s single-player mode. The normal level of difficulty presents plenty of challenge, but no problems you shouldn’t be able to overcome with a bit of trial-and-error. Each mission has multiple checkpoints, which is a very welcome touch, considering the length and complexity of most. Several bosses impede your progress, and while they sport interesting designs, their difficulty is entirely unbalanced. You can’t realistically defeat any of the game’s bosses without power-ups. There is still strategy in finding the power-ups (they are sometimes hidden) and choosing the best time to get them, but a truly well-designed boss should be conquerable with no outside help. This game’s longer boss battles actually have regenerating health and missile pickups, and obtaining them at regular intervals is literally the only way to victory.
Being a Star Wars game, and one set during a rather mysterious period in the overall storyline, plot is an integral part of The Clone Wars. Most of the story is portrayed through narration within the missions. The writing is adequate and the voice-actors do surprisingly excellent imitations of the characters’ real actors. Pre-rendered FMV cut-scenes are interspersed with the missions, and while the voice-acting maintains its high quality, the scenes themselves are blandly produced. The direction and graphical quality of the FMV are mediocre at best. Just close your eyes and enjoy the spoken dialogue. The story itself will be quite interesting for any Star Wars buff, although it stops well short of filling the entire gap between movies.
Multiplayer is not to be overlooked in The Clone Wars. Pandemic has implemented several modes, all of them worth trying out with friends. Deathmatch and Control Zone are self-explanatory and use the same mechanics of the single-player missions; the twist is that you can use both Republic and Separatist vehicles, and each one is significantly different from the others. The vehicle lineup is nicely balanced, and your choice will greatly depend on your playing style. Conquest is a watered-down version of Pandemic’s popular Battlezone gameplay, in which real-time strategy elements are infused with the vehicular combat. The RTS elements here are quite bare-bones, with little resource management and automated unit-building, but the choice of vehicles and interesting levels still provide lots of strategy. With four players, two per team, this mode could be a blast. If there’s a sequel to The Clone Wars, the Conquest mode is obviously ripe for expansion and improvement. The final multiplayer option is Jedi Academy, which amounts to a cooperative survival mode for up to two players. It gets boring pretty quickly but could be a useful tool for improving your skills in the single-player missions.
At its core, Star Wars: The Clone Wars is a fun and frantic action game that lacks polish. If you’re a Star Wars fan and/or enjoy blowing stuff up, it’s well worth your attention. The multiplayer offerings are also meaty and complementary to the single-player missions, though I don’t recommend The Clone Wars for its multiplayer alone. Those looking for more depth or demanding the best graphics and level design should stick to Rogue Leader and its kin.